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Academic life

Conference presentations: 6 ways to make an impact

Normally at this time of year (spring), I’m getting ready to head to one of the big annual geography conferences. Although I’m taking a break this year, I’m noticing my colleagues’ excitement as they share news of their upcoming panels and presentations across social media. At their best, academic conferences let us share research, catch up with distant colleagues, and meet new people. Unfortunately, much of our time will be spent listening to rather underwhelming talks with shoddy Powerpoints in overly air-conditioned rooms with terrible acoustics.

You can’t fix the soul-sucking vibe of the typical North American hotel-chain conference centre. (Those carpets!). If you’re presenting, however, you can give your audience something to remember – in a good way. To my mind, conference presentations should make the audience think, feel, or remember something. Ideally, that something matches up with your intended message. In this post, I’m sharing six tips for planning a conference presentation that will help you connect with the audience and maybe even overcome their day three conference malaise. #thestruggleisreal 😉

Six ways to make your message matter

1. Meet your audience where they are.

At an academic conference, you can be pretty confident that most of the people in your audience know something about the topic at hand. Since academics are so specialized, however, few will actually match your expertise. It’s nice to ease people in by making a quick connection to something they already know or can relate to. This might be a recent news story, a recurring issue in your field of study, or a relevant societal problem. Giving them an easy entry point helps you to bring everyone along on the journey.

2. Plan for accessibility.

The quickest way to lose parts of your audience is to fail to make your message available to them. While individual presenters can’t address every accessibility need alone, we can do a few simple things to help. If there’s a microphone available, use it. Don’t assume your voice carries or that everyone has the same level of hearing ability. Prepare several handouts with either the text of your talk or key points, including a few large print copies. If you would prefer that these be returned, just ask. If you’re using slides, describe the images. Anyone who may not be able to see them can then follow along. Repeat questions so the whole audience can hear them. Often audience members won’t have a mic or will be facing away from everyone behind them. For more accessibility tips, check out these guidelines from the Society for Disability Studies.

3. Don’t forecast, just do it.

While it’s okay to give a quick (quick!!) outline of your presentation, most conference presentation slots are so short that you don’t have time to forecast the whole talk. I’ve seen presenters use their entire time describing what they plan to do in their presentation, only to get cut off by the moderator before they’ve really begun. Much better to dive right in and signpost along the way. For example, when you’re ready to talk about methods, just say, “let me share the methodology for this study.”

Hand raised with presenters in background.
How will you leave the audience feeling engaged?
Photo by Marcos Luiz on Unsplash.

4. Skip the lit.

If you only have 15 or 20 minutes to present some aspect of your own research, you can’t spend a lot of time laying out the relevant background literature. This might feel hard for novice researchers! You don’t want to seem unaware of previous work. I suggest quick nods to key pieces of research or particular scholars. Then, situate your work in relation to these and carry on with your message. No one goes to conference presentations to hear literature reviews, anyways.

5. Focus, focus, focus.

Even in the humanities, where you might have the luxury of a whole 30 minutes to present, you can’t expect to share the equivalent of a journal article, let alone a thesis. Thus, you have to focus on one clear idea. Try asking yourself, “what tune do I want my audience to be humming at the end of my talk?” Your message is the melody. Give them something to hang onto after they leave the room. So many conference presentations are forgettable, in part because there isn’t a stand-out message. Try this exercise: Someone leaves your presentation and runs into a colleague in the hallway. The colleague asks, “what was that presentation about?” What do you want that audience member to say? That’s your melody.

6. Finally, don’t be a time thief.

Sticking to your allotted time might sound like a very basic tip. However, it’s connected to some broader principles that really do matter in the world of academic communication. First, you don’t want to give the give the impression that you’re either unprepared or arrogant (or worse, a nasty mix of both). Second, going way over time is disrespectful to both your fellow presenters and your audience. There’s only so much time in the schedule and the more you take, the less someone else has. Third, it’s also an accessibility issue: don’t assume that everyone can give up the precious break time between sessions or presenters. If you’ve followed most of the preceding tips, especially ones about being focused and getting to the point, you’ll be in less danger of going over time.

Final thoughts

Let’s face it, academic conferences are often a snooze. Not everyone is a born presenter and some topics just won’t fire people up. Nonetheless, a little forethought about the core of your message, how to make it accessible, and how to deliver it in a focused and timely way, can make the experience memorable and engaging for everyone. You can apply these principles to your classroom lectures, academic job talks, and any other kind of presentation you’re called on to give. Go forth and fight the scourge of boring academic communication!

Want some advice on your next conference presentation? I can offer feedback on your outline, draft, and/or slides, as well as advice on presentation style. Check out my consulting services or get in touch here or via Facebook Messenger to find out more!

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