Top 10 Tips for Presenting at Your First Conference

By Gabrielle Bishop

Ah, the summer – a time for relaxation, working away at the internship/co-op post and deep reflection on the past academic year. With only two weeks left before heading back to the grind, here are some tips to help you ace your first conference presentation (because obviously your summer has been filled up with endless conference presentation applications, right?). From one Master’s student to another, knock ’em dead! 

  1. Media scan before, during and after the conference

This especially holds true for those studying international affairs. In our rapidly globalizing and social media-reliant world, new information on your topic can arise at any moment. This could impact the relevancy and perhaps even the core argument of your presentation. Even if said new information is only related to your presentation in a minor way, your presentation and responses to audience questions will seem far more credible if you are able to casually relate your responses to recent events.

Before beginning your research, scan media outlets and social networks for news related to your topic. An easy way of doing this is to create a Google Alert for terms related to your topic. While you’re working on your paper and presentation in the weeks leading up to the conference, you’ll receive email alerts (daily, weekly, or however often you want) as new content appears online related to your subject.

You can also scan outlets like Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram using popular hashtags like #cdnpoli (Canadian politics), #globaldev (international development) and so on. Canadian politics-specific hashtags can be found here.

  1. Read the other presenters’ papers and bios.

Some conferences require presenters to circulate their papers prior to conference presentation, in order to allow for informed panel discussions and expert feedback. Reading your co-presenters’ papers will allow you to ask more well-rounded questions and will give you a sense of where they’re coming from in relation to your conference’s topic.

Try to check out their bios (sometimes listed in conference materials) and/or their social media presence; LinkedIn and Twitter are some great places to start. This comes in handy networking before, during and after the conference, as you’ll have a couple conversation starters up your sleeve (ex: “Hi ______, I saw online that you recently did some fieldwork in _____! I’m really interested in ______; did you encounter that at all during your research?”).

  1. Get expert feedback

Much of this overlaps with media scanning. Before starting your research, spend some time online searching for experts in your topic of study. That way, if any questions arise during your research, you can shoot them a quick email or give them a phone call to ask for some insight. Many experts (academics and practioners) are quite happy to discuss their topic of interest. They may be able to point you in the direction of even more useful contacts and resources, which will better inform your paper and presentation.

This spring, I had the chance to attend a couple conferences in the Bay Area. A few weeks before I arrived, I emailed a faculty member at Stanford, who recently co-authored a policy paper I referenced heavily during a conference presentation last fall. He was able to answer several specific questions I had about his policy recommendations, and even provided me with a bound hardcopy of the 115-page paper I referenced in the fall.

If you get in touch with experts before the conference, it will give your presentation that much more credibility – hey, you can even name-drop when answering questions! (ex: “Yes, that’s a great point. I actually asked [insert famous academic’s name here] the same question when doing my research, and here’s what I think…”).

  1. Time yourself

Thanks to notorious ramblers that seem to exist in all fields of academia, more and more conference organizers are starting to enforce strict time limits for conference presenters. Rehearsing your presentation while timing yourself is a crucial way to avoid being cut off before making your earth-shattering conclusion, or being playfully chastised by the moderator(s) for rambling later in the conference (both of which have happened to yours truly!).

I recommend bringing a stopwatch with you to the podium or arranging for a friend to give you some sort of signal as you approach the final 30 or 60 seconds of your presentation (in the past, I’ve brought my smartphone up to the podium with the stopwatch app running, but often, the screen has shut off, leaving me looking unprofessional while struggling to get the app back on the screen).

Instead of rushing to squeeze the rest of your presentation into those 30-60 final seconds, use your time to provide a clear conclusion to your argument.

  1. Be healthy – take care of yourself

There is no substitute for a full night’s worth of sleep and healthy breakfast for feeling awake and at-ease before presenting. Don’t think that you can make up for the missed hours of sleep you got the night before by simply slamming back the caffeine the next morning. You will be jittery and your brain won’t be able to function to its full capacity, leading you to feel drowsy during the other presentations or possibly bomb during the Q+A period.

Eating a hearty and healthy breakfast can help ensure you feel alert and mentally on-the-ball during your conference. Many all-day conferences “go all-out” and offer free breakfasts prior to the day’s proceedings. Unless your conference has somehow managed to secure an impressive amount of funding, this breakfast will likely consist of the usual continental breakfast subjects: grocery store-bought pastries and juiceboxes. If possible, plan to eat a more protein and other nutrient-rich breakfast before attending (think: salmon, eggs, nuts, berries, Greek yogurt, oatmeal, green tea, coffee and orange juice). This will help improve your cognitive abilities during the conference.

#4a

  1. Dress for confidence

Most conference dress codes will largely vary based on the topic, audience, location and other factors. For example, the dress code at a student-run conference on food security and environmental sustainability in Havana will likely be much more relaxed than the dress code at a professionally-run conference on international trade and finance in Manhattan.

If no dress code is mentioned in the conference materials, contact the organizers to ask. You might be surprised to find out that it’s much more formal or informal than you expected. This is especially important if you’re travelling and need to pack a few solid options. Nothing’s worse than showing up at an event (especially one you’re supposed to present at!) and being severely over or under-dressed.

A few days before the conference, plan out your time required for eating a healthy breakfast, showering, getting ready and travelling from your accommodations to the venue – then add an extra 30 minutes onto your schedule. It might seem excessive now, but you’ll at least have 30 minutes of wiggle room in case you have a wardrobe malfunction or, in the case of sharing a hotel room with several other attendees, when shower/bathroom time is precious!

As cliché as it sounds, when you look good, you feel good. Projecting confidence will only help to enhance your argument.

#6

  1. Invite some friends

If your conference is taking place on-campus or somewhere local, invite some friends to attend. It can be very calming to have a few familiar faces in the audience to look to for supportive gestures! They can also throw you a question during the Q&A period in case you don’t get any from the audience. Friends in the audience can also be harassed to take a couple “candid” presentation photos for some much-deserved humble bragging on Facebook later and/or for use on your LinkedIn profile!

#6 friends in audience

  1. Engage your audience using social media

Many conference organizing staff are creating event-specific hashtags for audience members to share their thoughts during the day’s proceedings. Try to check this hashtag on Twitter at least a few times throughout the day. Someone may have already reached out to you to respond to your presentation! To facilitate better audience engagement and build your online brand, include your Twitter handle on your PowerPoint slides (aim for 12-20pt font, somewhere discreet along the bottom of your slides).

#8

  1. Take notes while the other presenters are speaking and when you’re being asked a question

This might seem obvious, but it can be a great way to calm your nerves while making yourself appear more pensive and professional. As well, you might develop ideas for questions with the more things you write down. It’s also great to have a “cheat sheet” of points you took down while being asked an audience question to refer to while answering said question. It will help you organize your thoughts better, stick to your time limit and verbalize everything you wanted to say. Plus, they make for great memory-joggers later if you’re hoping to develop/tweak your paper for another conference (or just write a quick post up for the blog!).

#9

  1. Listen to your feedback and don’t take it personally

Perhaps the most important tip on this list is this: do not take any audience, moderator or panelist feedback personally. Academics are trained to pick every little detail of something apart (as is their/…our?? job!). As such, any person who is hoping to help you develop your ideas will have some criticisms to offer. Welcome these criticisms, research them after the conference and have them inform the future work that they do. By just writing your feedback off, you are forfeiting arguably the most valuable takeaway from presenting at your first conference: the chance to fine-tune your argument and make it (and future work) even stronger.

#10

Have any tips that didn’t make the list?

Got any particularly funny conference presentation horror stories?

Share them in the comments below!

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