PhD Hack: Tips for Conference Presentations

Within the domain of academia, there lies a rarely spoken of, yet critical skill for researchers, whether student or professor: Conference Presentations. When I was approaching my first conference, I was particularly nervous about the idea of giving a presentation - not just what to say, but what to show on the PowerPoint slides. I put together some guidelines, which I felt helped me give a clear and comprehensible presentation. I hope these guidelines will be useful to anyone else who is approaching their first presentation.

1. Have a message - People are going to listen to a lot of presentations during a conference. They aren't going to remember all the facts and figures you throw out - so pick one idea you want them to leave with about your topic, and make sure you state it clearly. Still include the facts and figures - but they're there to support your message.

2. Create an outline - and keep showing it! My slides were basically an introduction, outline, page, outline, page, outline, page, outline, conclusion - with a marker to show how I have moved through the outline each time. Not only does this remind you where you are going, it makes it simpler for the viewer to follow the thread of your argument.

3.  Don't include too many slides - I'd say fifteen slides as a maximum, and that's with half of them being the outline. You don't want to be losing track or racing through, and you'll probably only have 15-20 minutes to share your ideas. So make sure you aren't going to have to keep poking the slide changing button.

4. Don't say too much - Mainly, I mean this advice for the slides themselves - they're there to enhance your speech, not to give it. You can include key quotes, key figures, or key words, but don't write out whole chunks of text. The audience will get bored and you'll be repeating yourself pointlessly. But also, don't include too many ideas - you might know the topic inside out, but for most of the audience, this will be new to them (depending on how  specialized your audience is). Keep your audience in mind when doing this.
5. Make the slides pretty - The slides are there to enhance your presentation, so make them interesting. Include pictures, diagrams and key figures, and try to do so in an appealing way. If you're feeling self-conscious, make sure the audience look at the slides, and then they'll be looking at you less.
6. Break your speech down by slides - Make sure you number which paragraph goes with which slide. Otherwise, you'll get hopelessly confused - this is another reason to limit your number of slides. Each slide should be conveying a point, and your speech should also convey it. For me, this means my speech is in paragraphs with the slide number and title at the start of each so I can keep track.
7.  Create your presentation slides and presentation speech simultaneously - I find this helpful, you might not - but it could be worth a try. To make sure the speech and slides fit, you can work on them both at the same time, from a previously created an outline. By working on them at the same time, (I don't mean the final fiddly bits of making the slides look good - instead I'm talking about the actual content of both) your message and delivery is consistent.
8. Practice by yourself - Even if you are planning to read out your speech, having a vague idea of what you want to say is helpful. Also you may find that you have less time than you prepared for - so knowing which areas of the speech you can drop can be very practical. (For me, this literally consists of enclosing a few paragraphs in brackets. Then, if I'm running short on time, I skip over them!)
9. Practice with an audience! - Be this audience a housemate, a course mate, a goldfish, or a random stranger you've kidnapped (please don't kidnap a stranger), having someone to listen is always good. They can tell you if anything is too fast, or if something is unclear (unless you've gone for the goldfish option). Also, it helps you get used to practicing - and if you're feeling embarrassed, remember that other people on your course will probably have to give presentations themselves - so you can volunteer to return the favour.
10. Relax - I know that this is hard, but if you know your material, then you are more knowledgeable on your topic than other people in the room. Giving a presentation can seem frightening, but it's a really useful experience - try to make the most of it.

Best of luck with any future presentations!

This entry was written by Jenni Hunt, a PhD student at the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies, researching the display of narratives of disability within museum collections. Twitter: @our_objects


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