Academic Conference Presentation Tips

by | Apr 24, 2018

You’ve been doing research for months, crafted a kick-ass academic conference abstract, and traveled halfway around the world to meet with scholars whose work inspires and motivates you. Now you’ve just got to get an audience of your peers and potential mentors as excited about your work as you are.

Academic conferences are a big investment with an even bigger potential payoff. How can you make sure you rock your next conference presentation? Here are our tips for sharing your work with the clarity and confidence you need to connect to your audience.

Foreground “why”

Before diving into the work of creating any sort of presentation, take a step back from your work and ask yourself the simplest (and hardest) question: why does this matter? Beyond the valuable time and energy you’ve invested in your scholarship, you should strive to clearly articulate what your work is about and why it matters to those without your level of personal investment. It can feel awkward and even uncomfortable to place your efforts in this frame, but it is a crucial building block for assuring your work resonates.

If the answer to such a broad question feels immediately out of reach, try getting there in smaller increments. Ask yourself what drove you to pursue this line of research, what current questions or debates in your field you are responding to, or what impact you would like to see your work have on a given set of issues or problems in academia and the world at large. Let whatever answers you come to serve as the foundation for your conference presentation.

Look for connections

Now that you’ve established the broad significance of your research, place it in context. What is the theme of the conference where you’ll be presenting? With what other panelists will you be sharing the stage? What kind of scholars are likely to be in the audience listening? In other words, zero in more precisely on an answer to the question of why the particular audience you are presenting to should be thinking and caring about your scholarship.

Tell a story

Great presentations share a lot in common with great performances; they capture attention through storytelling. Now that you’ve reflected on the impact and purpose of your work, hone in on a succinct narrative you can present in the allotted time.

One way to begin is to excavate your research for stories you can share. Are there case studies or components of your primary sources that are particularly compelling, new, or unexpected? Think about how to show, rather than merely tell, the central argument or arguments that drive your scholarship.

Less is more

Even the most exciting research can be bogged down by a tedious or overwhelming slide deck. When it comes down to creating the visual elements of your presentation, keep in mind that less is more. As a rule of thumb, don’t overwhelm your slides with images and text—make sure the images and text you do select for a given slide corresponds exactly with the point you will be making at the time. As much as possible, strive to cover only one idea per slide.

As for the slides themselves, avoid visual gimmicks like animations and distracting fonts in favor of a more streamlined approach that complements, rather than competes with, your talk itself. To make your presentation accessible to people with hearing or sound-related disabilities, consider supplementing your visually streamlined presentation with print-outs of your script so they can follow along.

Respect the clock

Last but certainly not least, respect the time limits for your presentation! Time limits are there for a very valid set of reasons: you have to share stage time with your fellow panelists, and you want to leave enough time for a meaningful question and answer session after you present.

Before you give your talk, run through a few timed practices. Remember, you can’t (and shouldn’t try to) do justice to every facet of your scholarship in one presentation. But following these steps will help you engage your audience and leave them wanting to connect with you for more.

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Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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