The academics’ guide to good conference presentations

Presentation
PresentationRSA Blog

This
article is a summary by 
Paul Benneworth of the Top Tips on Presenting Skills Workshop
held as part of the RSA European Conference 2013, Tampere, 6
th
May 2013. The editors of Regional Insights are grateful to the
presenters at that workshop for their contributions and insights.

A
highlight of academic life is attending conferences. No just an
opportunity to hear leading speakers set out future research agendas
and to discuss your own research in detail with your peers,
conferences also involve travel, discovery, relaxation and catching
up with friends. They are places where people’s voices are heard.
At the heart of that lies giving a paper, which sets out your work,
and allows others to debate, contribute, criticise and sharpen it
before publication. But few delegates have either the time or the
inclination to actually read your paper, especially if you are a new,
almost unknown researcher. Giving a good presentation may be your
best bet to create interest.

Constructing
a good presentation can be a difficult and daunting process, but it
is a vital skill to learn to get the most out of a conference
attendance. The Regional
Insights
team organised a Skills
Workshop at the recent RSA
European Conference
in Tampere. A good
cross-section of RSA members were invited to reflect and discuss what
made a really good conference paper. And in no particular order,
they gave eight things they are looking for the next time they see
you present!

1.
You are the centre of a good presentation – give yourself the best
chance to shine.

Presentations
are a chance to market your research and persuade the unconvinced to
spend their precious time reading your work. They
become your peers, provide serious feedback, referee journal
submissions and shape how your research makes an impact. Preparation
is absolutely critical to persuading people of its value, so come up
with ‘ideas you can believe in’: good ideas that are
interesting for your audience!

2.
Any presentation is competing for an audience’s attention.

It is bad
enough with ten parallel sessions, but laptops, tablets and free WiFi
mean boring speakers are quickly blanked out. To grab attention you
need to offer a clear contribution – give the audience a
takeaway message
. Having clear steps is a great way to hold
audiences’ attention. They follow your progress with you, feel
satisfied with that progress, and are pleased to hear the final
messages.

3.
There are many kinds of audiences, all with different expectations
regarding rigour, detail and societal implications.

Defending
your PhD is different to speaking at an informal workshop or pitching
to policy-makers. You MUST strike the right balance. There are also
different cultures to conferences – the RSA conference is friendly
and inclusive, but others can be more hostile. Know your
audience, and know what a positive reaction sounds like!

4.
Freshness is paramount: if you over-prepare, your ideas can seem
stale.

You need
to remember what the audience needs to hear – good starting points
are the contemporary debates you are addressing. Remember to give
the audience enough information to understand your idea, without
bombarding them with everything that interested you. Everybody likes
to see a few holiday snaps, but dreads going through a friend’s 300
photos after a vacation: conferences are no different. Be
succinct, but keep it interesting.

5.
Conference presentations are in competition, but there are “rules
of the game”.

The
cardinal rule is don’t speak for too long, as this steals time from
other presenters or the audience. Realistically, you cannot get
through more than one slide per minute, but you may go slower than
that, particularly if you are distracted by minutiae. If you are
running out of time, be prepared to prune: get to the punchline,
give the takeaway message, and stop on time!
And to ensure the
session starts promptly, it doesn’t hurt to arrive early, get your
slides ready and discuss the format with the chair.

6.
Any presentation is part of a scientific conversation, so give the
audience cues to engage with you.

This
starts with your demeanour; eye contact and natural speech are
essential. Preparing keywords and memorising a few sentences is far
better than reading a presentation. Be willing to talk freely –
you are the expert and people want to hear what you have to say.
But people want time to respond so leave time for discussion. Don’t
be defensive under questioning – be modest, accept shortcomings,
and move the debate forward.

7.
The presentation does not end with the last slide.

Conferences
are coordinating moments in the lives of research communities, and
provide opportunities to better understand that community. You
can develop networks, leverage interest in your research, and share
ideas informally and socially.
If all else fails, visit the host
town or region to get a wider perspective, clear the decks and think
about your research in a new light.

8.
Presenting is a critical academic skill, and learning it takes time.

Everyone
has bad presentations, but good presenters learn and move on. But
also learn from other people – think about what you like and
dislike about other presenters. Ask others for constructive feedback
and give it when asked. A good rule for feedback is “one good
thing, one bad thing and an idea to improve”.

Lastly,
keep in mind that even you have a bad day and feel embarrassed with
your presentation, remember that being an academic is the best job in
the world!

Paul Benneworth is a Senior
Research Associate at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies
(CHEPS) at the University of Twente, the Netherlands.

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