Conference Presentations 101

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but I’ve – har dee har har – been busy with conferences lately and haven’t had a chance. Now that I have a few minutes, let’s get ‘er done.

In my few years of going to academic conferences, I’ve seen a lot of paper presentations. Some have been great. Some, not so much. Likewise, some of my own presentations have been great, while others have fallen pretty flat.

At my latest conference, I started making a list of things I did and didn’t like in others’ presentations. Not so I could criticise them, but so that I could reflect upon my own presentation style and see if there were ways I could  improve by stealing things that I liked from other people. Here’s my list: mostly for my future self, but also for anyone else who may find it useful.

Don’t read from your PowerPoint.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule: if you’re feelin’ not-so confident in your content, if you’re not speaking in your first language… Sometimes you need a bit of a boost, and your slides can help provide that.

What I mean by this is to not just get up to the front of the room and spend your entire 20 minutes reading from a computer or, even worse, from the projection. I can read your slides myself, thankyouverymuch. If you don’t add anything to what your slides say, you may as well just turn the slides on a timer and sit right back down.

Don’t forget to read from your PowerPoint.

At the same time, don’t forget to read the really important bits from your slides out to the audience to emphasise that they are indeed really important. It can be hard to read slides and listen to/watch a speaker at the same time. Having the speaker read out quotations, or just really key bullet points, from the slides can help slow the presentation down and give the audience time to digest the content.

Explain your quotations.

It’s great when a presentation has a juicy quotation, and even better when that quotation is both on a slide and read aloud. However, quotations don’t speak for themselves, and should always be explained. Your audience doesn’t know your content as well as you do, and it can be easy to think that a quotation’s utility is clear when it’s really not.

Tell your audience what you think about the quotation. Read it out, and then summarise it. Tell them why it matters. Tell them what’s wrong with it. Don’t let your own thoughts get overshadowed by dense quotations coming from other people.

Don’t use the same language you would use for an article for your presentation.

Reading an article, your audience can take their time thinking about your points. They can refer to a dictionary if they don’t understand a word. They can reread trickier sections. Those luxuries do not exist in a presentation, even if that presentation will be recorded and made available later.

The language you use for an oral presentation should be much simpler than the language you use for writing. Keep words short and simple – less than three syllables, if possible. If you start more than three words with ‘meta’, stop and evaluate whether that extra ‘meta’ is really necessary.

Also, step away from the thesaurus. I love a good synonym as much as the next gal, but there is a time and a place for peacocking the extent of your vocabulary and a conference presentation is neither.

If you’re reading from a physical paper, look up at your audience every once in a while.

I tend not to read from papers when I present, as I’m quite confident with the content that I’ve been presenting lately. Also, in my first conference presentation ever I read from a paper, and I was so nervous that people literally could not hear me speaking over the sound of my body uncontrollably shaking the paper into the microphone. Never. Again.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with reading from a paper, particularly if you have some facts or quotations you need to reference, feel like you may need a reminder every now and again, or are presenting in a non-native language. Just don’t forget to look up. Your audience is there to see you, and you don’t even need to be there if you’re just reading from some paper.

To help with this one, make sure that your presentation is printed in a big and readable font. If it’s useful, put a highlight on every few lines to remind yourself to look up. Throw in a comment here or there that isn’t written down to make your presentation a bit more fun.

Use a microphone.

My last tip: use the flipping microphone if there is one. If there isn’t one, ask if there is one and, if there is, use it. If there isn’t a microphone anywhere in the place, speak loudly and clearly, and then complain that there was no microphone in your conference feedback form.

You may be the loudest speaker in the world (even louder than I am!), but your choice to use a microphone is not about you. It is about your audience. As someone with not-so-great hearing, I struggle to hear presenters when they’re in a room with other people moving around and whispering to each other. It doesn’t matter if it’s a large or small space – my ears struggle to distinguish sounds when there are lots of things happening. A microphone helps the sound of your presentation stand out, so I can actually hear it.

USE. THE. MICROPHONE. Please and thank you.

Image result for gif mic drop

And there’s my list of conference presentation tips! You’re welcome, Future Leah et al.

Also, a final note. At my latest conference, I gave a really good presentation. Like, really good. The best I’ve given in my life so far. Other people liked it too – I got lots of compliments. One compliment I didn’t appreciate? A woman exclaimed: ‘And you’re only a PhD student?! Incredible.’

Folks, please don’t ever say this to any PhD student. Acting surprised when a PhD student gives a good presentation implies that the contributions of PhD students are somehow less exciting and less important than those of more established academics. It implies that you don’t believe in the future of your field. It’s a subtle jab at the quality of doctoral work, and it’s not the kind of uplifting comment that a baby academic needs or wants. Cheers, y’all.

A Quick Reminder That You Don’t Suck

I have been thinking a lot about failure recently.

It started when a paper I had submitted to a conference that I was really hoping to present at was rejected. This actually wasn’t so surprising – I was aware of the major issues with the paper’s methodology, and the competitiveness of this conference’s acceptances. Moreover, I knew that my paper would drastically differ from the other papers the reviewers would be reading, with my humanities perspective in stark contrast with that of the harder sciences. I wasn’t expecting to get accepted to this conference, but was nevertheless hoping that my submission would be welcomed.

Well, it wasn’t, and that sucks.

But it wasn’t all bad. When I received my rejection email, I was at a week-long conference in Montréal, and was knee-deep in a feeling of travel exhaustion. There was one plus: getting rejected from this conference meant that I didn’t have to travel for another week.

As my sense of disappointment slowly shifted to relief, I scrolled through the rejection email to see that the paper’s three reviewers had provided comments about my work. Long comments, that demonstrated quite deep engagement with it. They complimented me on my writing style (not like I’m bragging or anything). They pointed out the precise places where my methodology was flawed. They offered concrete suggestions about how to fix these flaws, and potential avenues for future research.

My paper hadn’t been accepted for the conference, but it had nonetheless received a kind of peer review that has helped me better understand my own work. The reviewers’ comments have, in a way, served as their own kind of success; I’d gotten some of the expert feedback that I had been hoping to get at the conference.

This isn’t to say that I’m completely over not being able to go to the conference. I still want to go, but know that I’ll have to skip it this year. However, I’m now able to take a step back and recognise that this rejection doesn’t mean that I’m a failure – it just means I have some more work to do to ensure that I get accepted next time.

I don’t want this to be a post about how every failed attempt is somehow an underlying success. It sucks to not get what you want, and it sucks even more when someone tries to convince you that ‘every moment is a learning opportunity’ or ‘you’ll be a better person for this’. What I want this post to be instead is a reminder to those reading that your failed attempts do not make you a failure. Not getting accepted to a conference isn’t personal; if it is, you may want to reconsider why you want to go to that conference in the first place.

PhD students are, generally speaking, unfortunately familiar with feelings of failure. Conference and paper rejections, unjustly mean criticism, unrealistic expectations from the powers that be… We often feel like what we are doing is not good enough, if they even enough. Our peers’ successes make us feel inadequate, regardless of how happy we may be that our friends are doing well.

What I have come to realise, though, is that those peers – who get accepted for everything, who are constantly publishing, who are completely nailin’ it – actually seem to face rejection more than anyone else. These people try, try, try, and just keep trying until something works. They get their rejection notices, and then they keep going.

And here is the crux of this post:

You’re only a failure if you let your failed attempts eat away at you. Accept your rejections, and then keep trying. Take any feedback you’ve been given, and apply it (or don’t). Move on.

This is something I have only just learned, and am working on internalising. I am more than my work, even if I have put my whole heart into it. A rejected paper (or two, or a million) doesn’t make me a failure. It just means that there’s room to grow.

Now, don’t let anyone – including yourself – get in the way of your growth.

Seriously, when can I get my TED Talk?!