Presenting at conferences

A guide to making the most of opportunities to present at conferences

Why present at conferences?

As a graduate researcher, you are encouraged, often required, to present your research at conferences for several reasons:

  • Conferences are an ideal forum for communicating your research to experts in your field. The research you present can be a completed study, a work-in-progress or a part of your overall project (e.g. a literature review).
  • Attending conferences allows you to stay up to date with developments in your field and to be in contact with important people
  • Conferences inspire your current research. Staying connected and establishing a sense of community not only helps you with your research ideas, but also sustains motivation for your research throughout your candidature.
  • You can polish your presentation skills by watching effective presenters and, indeed, learn from the mistakes of less effective presenters.

Participating in conferences

  • The process

    Participating in conference presentations usually involves the following steps:

    • Call for papers: Typically, the first step is to be aware of calls for papers in your field. You can learn about these through online forums, discipline-specific newsletters, faculty emails or your supervisor.
    • Abstract submission: You then need to submit an abstract to a review committee. The length and precise nature of the abstract will be detailed in the call for papers.
    • Acceptance: If your abstract is successful, you may be requested to submit the full paper by an indicated date. If it isn’t successful, don’t be disheartened. The feedback that you receive from the reviewers is usually extremely valuable. It can help you learn about academic expectations, amend your original paper and increase the likelihood of it being accepted in other conferences or for publication.
  • Presentation types

    Oral presentations give you the opportunity to communicate your research to a wide audience for a specified time.

    Poster presentations allow you to engage in one-on-one interaction with your listeners and can, therefore, provide more customised feedback on your research.

  • Networking

    In addition to presenting a paper, you can use networking opportunities at conferences. Here are some suggestions for effective networking:

    • After a talk, ask a question relevant to the presenter’s research. This not only demonstrates that you are informed and interested in the presenter’s work, but also increases your chances of being noticed, facilitating your opportunities to chat later.
    • Don’t simply spend time with people from your own institution; you can do that outside the conference context. Use the time at the conference to meet researchers you don’t often have access to.
    • Lunch and dinner functions are great occasions for establishing links with industry for the commercial applications of your research.

Preparing for conferences

  • Ask yourself: what does the audience already know and what do they need to know? For purposes of length and detail, remember that if people are interested in your research, they will take the opportunity to read your research paper.
  • Formulate a clear structure where, a) your aim is stated in the introduction; b) your points are explicitly made, linked and supported; and c) your conclusion has a clear ‘take-home’ message.
  • Practice the talk and time yourself. Keep the talk within the time limit and be flexible about omitting some slides if necessary.
  • If possible, visit the room you will present in beforehand. Attend a session held in the same room to identify any potential technical difficulties. If the conference is online, familiarise yourself with the platform on which you will present.
  • A general rule of thumb for the number of presentation slides is one slide per two minutes. Use visuals where applicable and minimise the amount of text on your slides.

Involving your audience

  • Make eye contact

    Avoid reading notes or talking to the data on the screen. Look at the audience before you begin and throughout your talk. Practise presenting one thought to one pair of eyes, breathing, moving then to the next pair of eyes for the following point. If your presentation is online, try to look directly at your webcam as much as possible.

  • Project confidence with body posture, voice and movement

    Use a posture which focuses attention on your upper body and face: balance your weight evenly on both feet and keep your hands together about waist-high. This is also an easy position to gesture from. Direct your voice to the audience and articulate your words and sentences.

  • Begin the presentation with a ‘hook’

    Attract your audience’s attention by:

    • giving them a problem to think about, e.g. ‘Have you ever wished that the ultrasound images of your unborn child were considerably clearer?
    • stating a remarkable fact, e.g. ‘Did you know that prior to the September 11 attacks, fire had never caused any steel-framed buildings to collapse?
    • sharing a story or personal anecdote, e.g. ‘When I think about creativity, I’m reminded of the man who invented the microwave oven. He spent years experimenting with radar transmitters when he noticed that, while doing so, the chocolate in his pocket consistently melted.

    Remember: your hook must be closely related to your presentation topic.

  • Arrive early

    This gives you a chance not only to set up for your talk but also to chat to audience members about their backgrounds, interests and expectations.

  • Be aware of levels of engagement throughout your talk

    Towards the end of a full day of presentations, and in the middle of a talk, audience concentration levels can wane. Re-engage the audience by assigning activities, using humour or giving a stimulating example of your research application.

Presenting your research

During your presentation, make sure you:

State your aim/purpose

Talk about the goals of your research or the purpose of the presentation before discussing techniques. You must first convince your audience of the importance of your work before requiring them to tackle the more technical details.

Contextualise your research

Position your study within current literature and methods. This allows you to create a context for your own work.

Present methods and findings clearly and attractively

Focus on your main approach, the reasons for choosing it, the key results of your research and their implications. If your audience are interested in the details of your research, they will ask questions, arrange to chat with you after the talk, or read your paper.

End your talk with a powerful ‘take-home’ message

Emphasise the major points raised in your presentation and highlight the significance of your research.

Deal with questions effectively

Before the presentation, anticipate likely questions about your research and prepare your answers. During question time, maintain eye contact with the person asking the question. Paraphrase their question to ensure that you have understood it correctly and other members of the audience have heard it.

If you do not have a direct answer, you can acknowledge the point being made and suggest ways of carrying out further research. You can also ask for their own recommendations and exchange contact details for follow-up.

Final tip

Conference presentations provide great opportunities for you to communicate your research to a wide and interested audience, get feedback on your work, learn from other presenters and broaden your professional network. Preparation and practice are key to getting the most out of these occasions.

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