How to Prepare the Most Effective Conference Presentations: A Futures Initiative Discussion

Conference table with microphones
Anxious to prepare for an upcoming presentation? Want to make sure your presentation is well-prepared and engaging? We at the Futures Initiative struggle with this too, so recently we held a brainstorming session and discussion on techniques for preparing the most effective conference presentations. We hope these help others prepare as well!

We’ve all as graduate students and academic professionals struggled through the rituals and anxiety of preparing for conference presentations. While the traditional conference panel format of panelists reading their paper is slowly being revolutionized for more interactive and engaging formats, it can often time be difficult to navigate how to prepare for a conference presentation when the format may be in the traditional conference presentation style of panelists reading through their papers. Last week, the Futures Initiative Fellows had a live discussion to discuss and share tips and techniques that have worked for each of us in preparing for our own presentations. As conference season is now in full swing and will continue, we hope that the tips included in this post will also serve to help others who are planning their own presentations for the coming weeks and months. This post first goes through some general tips we brainstormed in our discussion, then answers some of the common questions that might come up when preparing for a presentation. Some additional sources of information are provided at the end to see even more strategies for preparing for your most effective conference presentation.

General points and tips from our discussion:

  • Remember that the audience is made up of human beings that have interests, time constraints, and other places to go. Engaging in a discussion that uses visuals and supplements is much easier than read a paper for your presentation.
  • Say less instead of more, you can always answer questions after or in one-on-one interactions after your presentation.
  • Find the three main points of your talk and focus your energies on crafting your presentation around those. If you have a longer timeslot for your presentation, you may be able to focus on five main points, but that is already a little long.
  • The introduction is very important! Make sure to focus energies on engaging the audience in an impactful introduction.
  • Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; and then, tell them what you told them. This can be done in a sophisticated way for more conservative audiences of traditional panels.
  • Utilize the power of scripted asides.
  • Exaggerate your performativity to help audience tune in.
  • Include at some form of interactivity to engage the audience. (This can be done for science presentations as well. Kaysi Holman, our colleague from Duke, shared with us how one project that was discussing pollution in different cities had meringue samples that tasted like pollution from different parts of different cities. It was a powerful way of bringing the topic down from the theoretical and academic to the real, every day implications of the topic.)
    • Think-pair-share or rearranging the room are also simple ways of facilitating discussion and interaction.
  • Utilize the power of the pause. Give the audience time to breathe, think, and digest the material you have presented. Use the drink of water as an opportunity for less smooth transitions in your talk.
  • Also, slow your presentation down in addition to pausing.
  • Write bullet points in your own handwriting in the margins of your paper. Your eyes may be more likely to be drawn to your own handwriting for key points than to the printed text on the page.
  • Don’t discount the power of rituals like sleeping on your paper.
  • Visit the place or location here you are going to be speaking. See the structure of the room. Stand behind the podium so you can think of how you are going to feel standing there.
  • Try power poses—poses where you take up space in a dominant way to reduce hormones like cortisol that cause stress and increase other chemicals like testosterone in your body. It physically works to reduce your stress levels. One easy pose to try is the victory pose where you stand with your arms up in a Y.
  • Convince yourself! Say over and over to yourself “I’m excited.” It works to convince you that you are ready and excited. Talk about being excited to share information at the beginning of the presentation to reinforce this for yourself.
  • Do you suffer from adrenaline crash after your presentation? Green tea plus ginseng may be an effective way to help prevent the crash.

We Also Discussed Some Common Questions:

How much back story? How best to discuss research questions, expectations of outcome and methodology? Should this be in-depth or quickly go over and then focus the bulk of the time on results? Should methodology be left for questions with individuals after the talk?

  • (Kaysi) Say enough about the methodology that people can understand what you did, but only at a basic level. If you have experts in the audience, they’ll be able to understand by just referencing the names of the methods. They can also ask more detailed questions later. The people who aren’t experts won’t really care about the fine details.
  • (Kalle) Hand out/one-pager or create a website with detail about your research project/methodology, etc. These materials can be handed out to the audience for follow-up.

How do you balance nerves about speaking in public? I get uncomfortable speaking in public. What do others do for strategies to overcome nervousness if this happens to you?

  • (Katina) I script everything, but I try to do it with oral delivery in mind (and I practice a lot, and adjust wording accordingly). This has negative side effects—it doesn’t sound as fresh as extemporaneous speech does—but it really helps with nerves. Like Danica says, script your asides.
  • (Kaysi) Is it anxiety or adrenaline? If it’s anxiety–you feel the constriction in your chest and feel like you want to go hide somewhere–then, take really deep breathes before-hand, and take pauses as Kalle suggests to take deep breathes.
    • Worrying stone or penny for fidgeting. Clenching fist before you begin speaking
    • Tap toes inside shoes–no one knows you are doing that
  • Practice in front of other people who will give you honest feedback. You know exactly how it is going to go
    • Record yourself–very useful but can be painful
  • (Allison) Drink a calming tea before you present–other homeopathic treatments–rescue remedy
  • Check out the place ahead of time
  • Power poses (Amy Cuddy)
  • Say “I’m excited!” to convince yourself that you really are

Should you move around? Stand in one place? Sit?

  • (Kaysi) Do whatever feels most natural to you. Especially if you are uncomfortable speaking in public; do whatever feels most comfortable.

What about visuals? What types of presentation software do you use? What strategies for visual creation? How do you use these in your talk?

  • Memes on slides like at HASTAC conference last year at MSU – using humor as a way to capture audience attention. But you have to maintain that as well
  • Oblique connection to talk
    • Something that complements what you are saying rather than replicating it. Compelling image rather than bullet points
    • Can use these occasionally to change energy. Have slides with data and visualizations but then also evocative images
  • Powerpoint makes you stupid:
    • Don’t use bullet points–boring (potentially)
    • But also option for accessibility
    • The Society for Disability Studies have accessibility guidelines for presentations
      • Consider also posting talk or notes as well as slides on a website with an easy bitly – that way people can access your language even if you don’t put it all on the screen
    • Use evocative images representing the communities you are talking about with the data
    • Images in digital public library of America–may have great archival photos to use without worrying about permissions
    • Don’t forget to add your name and contact info on your slides (at least the opening and closing slides but potentially all of them)

How to engage with the audience if everyone else on your panel read their paper? Has anyone had the experience where they have been on a panel where other panelists basically read their paper? Or have you seen this happen? How can you recover from that without making it uncomfortable for other people?

  • Recognize the change in energy and approach it as a positive thing. Don’t take the perspective that you’re doing something people aren’t used to and won’t like—instead assume that they will be relieved to have a change of pace. People really like having their attention engaged in different ways.

What about potential failures in technology? Your laptop crashes or the AV in the room fails? Should you have backup plans for visuals? Handouts?

  • (Kaysi) Have your slides on DropBox and on a USB disk handy. You don’t need to print handouts. The A/V should work in the room.

Should you keep a timer or watch handy to be aware of your time limit?

  • Yes, and practice beforehand so you know how long your talk is (allow some time for cushion because there are always digressions).

The first three people on your panel talked over the time limit and you have 10 minutes left. How do you decide on the fly what to focus on and rework for your available time?

  • Prepare for being the last person with time.
  • Extemporaneously speak and add more as you go–put in asides when you have time to elaborate on points. Plan for half of the time allotted and then elaborate if you have more time.

What about tips for being a panel moderator?

  • The panel moderator role is also very important. As a moderator you have a lot of control and potential to change everyone’s expectations.
  • Possible to reach out to the moderator beforehand. Share drafts of papers beforehand or post drafts online.
  • Find ways to find more of a dialogue than single presentations.
  • Keeping people on time is crucial. Keeping comments/questions to a minimum and focusing on commonalities.
  • Humor for time keeping – quacking duck on phone to signal that time is up.
  • Q&A is as equal in importance to the panel as the individual presentations are. This is an important emphasis point for moderators.

Additional resources that may also be helpful in preparing for your own presentation:

Participants in our discussion: Frances Tran, Kaysi Holman, Fiona Barnett, Katina Rogers, Allison Guess, Danica Savonick, Kalle Westerling, Lisa Tagliaferri, Michael Rifino, Cathy Davidson, Lauren Melendez, and Michael Dorsch.

A special thanks to all of the participants for this great discussion! It certainly helped me to feel more confident about my next conference presentation, and I hope our resources will help others struggling to prepare.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
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