How to prepare a great conference presentation:Part 1

Part 1:  The Dos and Don’ts

In approximately 21 days I will be presenting my first ever oral presentation at a conference as a graduate student. I have presented posters before but this is new, exciting territory.  Instead of 3-5 minutes of floor time, I have 15-20! Instead of a single poster, I’m generously allowed to present at least 15 electrifying slides!

The possibilities are endless, and apparently so are the jitters. Luckily, I work with a laboratory full of truly brilliant researchers, each of whom have had more experience than me in presenting at conferences all over the world. Looking for their guidance on preparing the best conference presentation possible, I asked them three questions:

  1. What was the best advice anyone has ever given you concerning presentations?
  2. What are some mistakes you have made in the past?
  3. Is there something you do every time you present?

I’ve summarized their golden nuggets of wisdom for your benefit and mine:

The DOs

  •  Simplify your research. Make sure anyone can understand. It will make them feel smarter that they understand your research which makes them more interested as well!
  • Anticipate your audience. Allocate presentation slides and time in relation to the conference or panel topic.  I work in psychiatric epidemiology, so methods and results should be given more weight than a long-winded introduction in an oral presentation. However, if you’re breaking new ground, maybe spending more time explaining theory and defining terms would be beneficial.
  • Practice. In the shower, while walking the dog, while pacing the kitchen floor… Practice often, until you almost memorize your topic, because if your stress makes you freeze at the podium, at least your mind can go into automatic delivery mode. Also, while practicing try to notice the filler words or nervous ticks; keep the “um’s,” “so’s,” “likes,” and distracting hand gestures to a minimum. If you can, practice in front or your peers, especially ones that can give you strong feedback and maybe some warm and fuzzies to jack up your confidence level.
  • Truly listen to the questions and comments following your presentation. Sure, you will might feel woozy and your vision might be blurred by the stress of realizing “um… what just happened?” but stay vigilant: take note of what questions get asked so that  you can better prepare your next presentations and anticipate questions in future conferences.
  • Arrive early, and be social. By being punctual, greeting the audience and thanking them at the end you appear professional, and open to discussion.

The DON’Ts

  •  Don’t freak out or be too hard on yourself if something goes wrong. Something always will. Be it a typo on a slide, a joke that no one gets, or an embarrassing mispronunciation:  It’s okay. Stay confident as you present and that is what people will remember.
  • Don’t try to fit too much into those prized 15-20 minutes! A common mistake is to jam as much as we can in there. 15 minutes? That’s like the content of 5 poster presentations, right?! Wrong. The best thing to do is practice with a timer, and make sure that you are not rushing through your material. 1 slide per minute is the age-old rule.
  • Don’t  jam too much into the slides either! Make sure as few words as possible appear on the slides. Check out this website for lots of advice on presentation design.
  • Don’t have a long, detailed introduction. Keep it short and clear so that you keep the audience’s interest right from the beginning.
  • Don’t try to wing it. Unfortunately, for 99% of us, this technique doesn’t work. Be prepared, practice the presentation several times, and you’ll be great.

With these words of wisdom in my academic toolbox, and now yours too, I’ll be preparing my presentation. In part 2 of this post, I’ll let you know how it went and what I learned!

Acknowledgements are extended to the members of Dr. Norbert Schmitz’s research team for their input for this post;  Dr. Kimberley Smith, PhD candidate Geneviève Gariepy, and MSc candidate Bonnie Au all deserve gold stars.

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