ESA - Handy hints for conference presentations

ESA - Handy hints for conference presentations 

These hints are intended as a foundation in the development of an aid for people preparing to present their research. If readers have additional advice to recommend, please forward it to the ESA website manager. 

Before you begin

Treat a conference presentation as a verbal form of an extended abstract
  • Just like an abstract, the focus of a good presentation is around its design and communicating a few, clear, well supported points. A well structured presentation will also aid in countering nerves.
Tailor your presentation to your audience
  • Consider the background of the audience when designing the presentation.
Timing
  • Be familiar with the approximate length of your presentation and the extra time unplanned elaborating can take up. Presentations are often structured for 12 minutes, followed by 3 minutes of question time. However, question time can be consumed by people moving between rooms if sessions are being held concurrently. You have two clear options: present for less time to ensure some time for questions or use the full length of time allocated and hope interested listeners will pursue you to ask their questions in the breaks.

Main design

Opening statement 
  • Before you begin, have a clear opening phrase in mind that focuses on the context of your research. Avoid wasting time or undermine yourself by making excuses about aspects of your presentation.
Introduction
  • Provide a couple of slides introducing the context and reason for your research. Not only does a clear introduction set the scene for a clear presentation, it establishes the basis of the scientific merit of your work. There can be a number of reasons why research was initially undertaken (e.g. 'money was available', 'my supervisor suggested to project', 'I just like working with mammals'). However, once you've started this work, you should have developed a clear understanding of the purpose of the work as the principle researcher. A clear introduction can also provide useful prompts to counter nerves.
  • Avoid using an introduction slide in short (~12 minute) conference presentations. If you're not confident that the structure of your presentation is clear, try intermediate options of using section headings in the slide header, and relate results to aims often. 
  • Develop a clear research question and refer back to this question throughout (i.e. strong links between the aims and findings).
Use of citations
  • Remove citations unless tied to use of figures or plots, relate to a key project that you wish to discuss, or indicate where you have published your work being discussed. The use of citations beyond this is mostly distracting to listeners and you're most likely to be judged on the clarity of the presentation and scientific merit rather than indicators of your background reading. If you want, have a handout summarising key literature to supply if asked.
Main text
  • Limit text to key words. Extensive text is often poorly presented, and can overwhelm or distract  listeners, whereas use of limited text as key words can help you engage with your presentation. 
  • Use a font size appropriate to the size of the venue. If the room is small (<50 people) avoid using the large, default font size in power-point. To help decide, check the room you're presenting in before loading your presentation. Minor changes like font size can often be made last minute. 
Figures and Tables
  • Briefly explain what the figure or table is showing before discussing key results 
Conclusion
  • Relate key results to the aims of the research
  • Make solid conclusions / recommendations 

Delivery 

Speak clearly, engage with your audience and allow your passion to come through
  • This behaviour can give the impression of confidence and enthuse listeners with similar interests, highlighting that you're a valuable colleague. If you have any doubts about this, be patient and wait for the adrenalin to kick in by the time of the Q and A.
Practice makes perfect (or at least assures the nerves!)
  • It can be possible to practice in an empty room, including the conference venue early in the morning (the friendly conference organisers may be able to assist).
Handy hints to address the nerves

Presenting is primarily an opportunity to communicate the value of your research. If nerves threaten to impede your capacity to do this:

 

  • take a few deep breaths,
  • don't forget to eat and drink as per normal, leading up to your presentation, but try to avoid sugary foods if the nerves are starting to bite,
  • have faith in your presentation and prompts.

QA

Take a moment to gather your thoughts
  • Consider allowing the session chair to field questions for you.
  • Take a moment to gather your thoughts before answering a question
  • If you need to, ask the questioner to explain the question
Relax your expectations

Presenting in front of your peers can be nerve-wracking, leading to a strong sense of vulnerability that can cause you to be uncharacteristically intolerant to questions, or expect unrealistically detailed quizzing by peers, or to become an instant celebrity.

In reality, QA are a chance for you to clarify the broad goals of your research outside of the rigid structure of a presentation, obtain some feedback from your peers and begin connecting with potential collaborators.

Be prepared and be concise

QA can be a mixed bag, varying from questions about your work (detailed to general), to being a way for questioner's to promote their own work.  So be prepared to re-affirm research outcomes, briefly explain components of the method, and engage in peer review.

The process of peer review can be challewnging.  In some situations you may feel that you ineffectively articulated your work, leaving you frustrated and demoralised,  It may help to keep in mind:

  • Every presentation is practive in articulating you work,
  • Listen to everyone - every question is a chance to identify potential issues that may arise when submitting your work to a journal for review,
  • New research isn't 'safe', so generating debate can be a good indicator of pushing the boundaries.

If you're not receiving any questions, or you're feeling unsatisfied with your last answer and have a little time left, feel free to elaabortate on something you feel is an important point.

Avoid self promoters and conversationalists

Some people ask questions that shift the focus of QA to their own work or settle in for a long discussion.  Unfortunately, you only have time to answer a few questions at best, so to managae the situation be aware of the time spent on one person:

  • If the questioner is raising valid points, and there are no other questions, feel free to expand the conversation, however, before the conversation gets too involved, offer to meet the person in the next break (for example).
  • If the person is asking invalid points or you feel is ignoring your response, look to the session chair.  They should be stepping in at this point to redirect the conversation to a more constructive dialog with peers.  If the session chair is pre-occupied, try re-directing the conversation yourself by thanking the person, commenting that what they have to say is useful and worth considering in future, then asking the audience if there are any more questions before moving on to the next questioner. 

What comes next?

Expectations about networking
  • Presenting is a great way to introduce yourself, and your research, to your peers. However, it may take some time for people to become familiar with you as a collaborator. To help this process, present your work often, be open to making new acquaintances and review the attendees list prior to the conference to identify peers relevant to your field of research that you may wish to seek out.
  • Attend your session early to introduce yourself to the chair and others presenting in your session.  
Benefits to presenting
  • Presenting can help clarify the context of research, and assist in structuring theses or manuscripts. 
  • Well structured slides can become a valuable asset to be used in subsequent presentations.