The 10 commandments of conference presentations: do’s and don’ts.

I’m thinking about stopping attending academic conferences.

When I first started my PhD I would pass time by looking for conferences to go to, and I would dream about the places I’d see and the people I’d meet. Six years into my academic career I feel like conferences are mostly a waste of time. Why is that? What happened?

When I was sitting at my last conference, bored out of my mind (I will get to why I was bored later), I started thinking about the conferences I had been to and realized that the good ones had actually been workshops. Now, workshops are different. They are (mostly) planned to spark conversations or even create something new or solve a problem. They are interactive. Conferences can be interactive, but they don’t have to be. And many aren’t.


A workshop I went to last year

I remember a big geography conference a few years ago, that I was really excited to go to. There were geographers from all kinds of fields there and I had scrutinized the program for interesting talks, and there were plenty. But then when I went to the talks, many were difficult to understand, and really not as interesting as the title promised.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I find it so hard to understand or follow talks, and I often feel a bit stupid, but I don’t really think I am. I just have a short attention span and a need to be served information in an interesting way. At least information that I don’t find inherently interesting.

So what it comes down to is SCIENCE COMMUNICATION. Or the lack of it.

Why was I bored out of my mind at my latest conference? I was sitting there listening to a guy who, instead of a power point, had put up his whole paper on the projector. And on top of that, he was reading it out loud to us.

So with no further ado, here are my ten commandments of conference presentations, that hopefully can help someone who wants to improve their presentation skills.

  1. Your research probably isn’t inherently interesting to everyone. You need to make it interesting. You may think that your topic is the best thing since sliced bread (and hopefully you do), but that is not obvious to everyone else. Why should they care? Think about this and try to single out the information that is most relevant.
  2. Identify your audience and adjust to them. This relates to the previous point. Do you know who’s in the audience and what their background is? Do they have all the background knowledge of the topic so that you can just jump right into namedropping theories or showing fancy and complex equations? What information is relevant here? How can you make sure that the ones who are not familiar with the topic follow what you say, while you maintain interest from the experts in the field?
  3. Why are you there? Figure out the purpose of your presentation or conference attendance. Are you there to get input on your fresh paper, do you want to enhance your network, or do you just want to see the place where the conference is at? If you want input, again, you need to make an effort to package your research in a way that people will listen and want to give you constructive feedback.
  4. Avoid monologues. Yes, you will probably be up there alone for 15-30 minutes, but you can make it seem like there is a dialogue going on. Start with a question and try to answer it. Look at the audience and see if they are following. Tell them a story as if you were talking to a friend. Make them feel engaged.
  5. Don’t read your paper to us. Seriously, if we wanted to read your paper we could just print it and sit at home on the couch in softy pants. Prepare.
  6. Put on a show. Presentations may be the closest to showbiz that scientists get, so why not use that opportunity to make things interesting. Use your voice, take up space, act, make jokes (if that’s appropriate). If you have a power point, use colors and images and nice fonts. Make an effort.
  7. But don’t show off. You should be confident of course, but jargon and complex expressions are better left to the one-on-one discussions. You can talk in simple language and still come off as an expert. Be approachable and you will probably be approached by people afterwards, to discuss further.
  8. Know your weaknesses and compensate for them. If you’re not a native English speaker (or whatever the language of the conference is), then make sure that you have a good visual presentation that can help people follow. Prepare well and practice the parts that are difficult to talk about. Remove words that are difficult to pronounce. If you tend to get nervous, think about what could make you feel more safe. For me it’s having a manuscript prepared and practicing that several times before. To me it always seemed that the competent researchers never took the time to practice and prepare, and that if you did that you were just not good enough, an amateur. No, it rarely comes naturally, so do what you need to make a good presentation.
  9. Don’t apologize. Don’t diminish yourself. At my latest conference, everyone apologized during their presentation, even I. But unless you do or say something really offensive, don’t. Don’t apologize for your bad English, for not knowing the answer to a question, for loosing the thread or for the strange colors in your pie chart. If you think about apologizing for not preparing well enough, DON’T! Just make a mental note of what you can improve for next time.
  10. Keep the time. This is really important. Conferences usually have a tight schedule and there will be people presenting after you (unless you’re the last one for the day, if so there are other reasons for keeping it brief) and going over time is extremely disrespectful to them. Also, the audience has a limited attention span, and you trying to rush through your last 24 slides doesn’t help them. What to do instead? Practice and time your presentation. Do you need to remove some slides? If you’re uncertain of the time, build the presentation so that you can skip the last few slides right to the final slide if you need to, but keep them if there’s enough time. Remember that the way you finish up is important.


Anything you’d like to add or ask? Feel free to leave a comment!

2 thoughts on “The 10 commandments of conference presentations: do’s and don’ts.

  1. These are very good points to consider when planning one’s presentations at conferences. It may be important to also remember that conferences are only part of a larger institutional pattern — one that could explain why many attendees fell that they must submit papers to conferences even when the subjects of their research is not of immediate interest or concern to other attendees. One reason is that their future at their institutions, manifested in tenure and promotion decisions, is intimately tied to such ‘peer-reviewed’ publications. As a means of maintaining discipline standards, this is a good reason, but today possibly could be achieved by other means.
    The ‘socialization’ aspect — manifested mainly in personal interactions ‘between’ the actual presentations — is no less important: this is how younger participants become part of the larger ‘community’ of researchers in their discipline. The submitted paper is only the entry ticket for that aspect. These interactions will of course also have career implications: e.g. networking — getting to know the people sitting on search committees for new members of their institutions? But the insights and questions raised in such interactions are often critical catalysts for important future research developments and cooperation between institutions.
    The ‘marketing’ aspect — making presentations interesting to the audience — is often secondary because the ‘real’ audience — people who would actually put the research results to work in society or benefit from them — are not present at these conferences.
    Yes, these issues deserve discussion.
    (Thorbjoern Mann)

    • Thank you for your thoughts.

      I believe the socialization aspect of conferences is very important, but it often gets less time, especially when presenters don’t keep the time limits. I get more value for my time if I spend it networking with people, rather than listening to presentations, but still most time is allocated to lengthy panel discussions.

      Making presentations interesting (“marketing”) is not only for non-academic audiences, it’s also important for good communication between academics. This is extra important when the audience is multidisciplinary. So unless academics want to only talk to their small group of peers and not connect with others, they should think about how they present their work.

      It all comes down to the aim of the conference organizers and the conference attendees, which is often hard to tell.

      Here’s another interesting blog post on the topic of conferences and the way we design them:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s