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Academic presentations: Conferences

“... if you cannot stand up and present your findings, in one form or another, you will struggle to achieve the intellectual and professional success which will allow you to move on to even more interesting projects.”

Lucinda Becker, Presenting Your Research: Conferences, Symposiums, Poster Presentations and Beyond

Research students are often asked to give presentations at academic conferences. This can be both terrifying and exciting in equal measures. This page gives some top tips on how to make sure your presentation stands out from the crowd and that you get the most from the experience.


Why give a conference presentation?

There are many, here are just a few:

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To get feedback on your research that you can act upon to improve your final thesis or a future published paper. This can be absolutely invaluable in stopping you going off-track or forgetting to include important material.

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To make other academics want to read your finished thesis or a future published paper. Think of it as the trailer to the upcoming movie – it needs to be full of your most interesting material but leave them wanting to know more.

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To make contacts that are relevant to your research area. Never underestimate the importance of networking at any academic conference. You can even ask people working in related research to find you after your presentation.

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To get your name known in relevant academic circles. This is a real chance to showcase your work and gain a reputation within your field. With a good presentation you could get a reputation as a real expert in your field.


Basic structure of a conference presentation

In a conference presentation you need to choose an aspect of your research that can comfortably be conveyed to an audience in an interesting way within the timescale you are given. This is usually only about 20 minutes (with 10 minutes for questions) so resist the temptation to cover your entire PhD thesis. A useful simple structure is shown here.

As you can see, this still follows a simple story structure, with a beginning, a middle and an end as covered on our Structuring Presentations page; it is, however, a little more research focused.  Depending on the conference type, you may choose to use one of the structures on the other page. What is most important is that the structure of your presentation is clear to the audience. You will only be one of many presentations and they can all start to blur in the audience's mind if you are not careful and clear.

1 Issue; 2 Approach; 3 Findings 4 Conclusions


Make your presentations visual

It is a temptation in a conference presentation, where you have a lot of information you want to get across, to fill the slides with text. Again, remember your presentation needs to stand out to be remembered so resist this temptation and make sure you use good visual slide design as covered on our Slide Design page. Using full sentences for your titles and visual content is vital for the quick levels of understanding that a conference environment requires.

 

Image with bullets points giving statistics of endangered mammals alongside image of the same figures shown as a pie chart with an iberian lynx sitting next to it

 


Finish with a flourish

The questions and feedback that you get at the end of a conference presentation is one of the most important reasons for attending. Make the most of this time. End with a slide that contains the most important point that you want the audience to take away and then specifically say "Thank you for your time, are there any questions or feedback?". Do not put another slide up at this point. That way your most important point stays on screen for longer than any other slide. By including a call for feedback at the end, rather than just asking for questions, you are more likely to get useful responses that can move you forward in your work.

Never EVER go over time

This is the cardinal sin of conferences. Some conferences will not let you go over time, and will cut you short (after a few warnings). This is also a problem as you lose your time for questions and feedback which is one of the main reasons for doing the presentation in the first place! Avoid going over time by making sure you practice it often and trim the slides if necessary. If you are using PowerPoint there is a tool called Rehearse Timings in the Slide Show menu which times you as you move through the presentation and tells you your overall duration. Just remember NOT to save the timings within the presentation or it will start automatically advancing your slides as you give the presentation which can have disastrous results.