There’s a lot at stake. Your career and reputation are on the line! You’ve been invited to speak at an upcoming industry conference. To present your research or project. You can make the most of this opportunity and ensure that your presentation is memorable and successful by following my tips below.
Have you ever gone to a conference session with excited anticipation of what you were going to learn? You spend money on flights or a train ticket. You book accommodation. Expectations are high. You’re attending the event not only for the networking. You’re also expecting to learn something. Be challenged in your thinking. Be inspired to do things differently. You are there for a learning experience that is a step up from the self-driven learning that you can do from the comfort of your home or office. You are there to listen to a human being. Someone who has been there. Who has lived it. From whom you can learn. You want to be inspired!
Unfortunately, all too often, with great expectations of an inspiring speaker and rich content you end up bitterly disappointed; you could have just read the abstract, or even the speech transcript, yourself. You could have read the report. The fact is: the presenter didn’t add anything to the experience. It’s a very frustrating situation for many of us.
I worked for many years for an organisation which coordinates an enormous (think 20,000+ participants) international health conference. I know the number of hours and effort that was put into choosing the sessions, handpicking the speakers, putting the conference programme together, peer reviewing, scoring, and cross-reviewing abstracts out of thousands of submissions from all over the world. It involved hours and hours of work. And the research was fantastic. Some of it was ground-breaking. The committees and staff were happy with the conference programme that they had painstakingly put together; balancing the different disciplines and areas which needed to be covered, making sure the sessions didn’t repeat the same material, and that competing sessions would draw different crowds.
However, onsite, during those 5 days of presentations, there were very few presenters who were able to do justice to their content. The presenters were great researchers but they were not great presenters. Why would they be? They’d never had the training. For some it was their first opportunity to present their research in front of an audience outside of their lab, hospital or institution.
Maybe you are that first-time presenter in a big conference? Or maybe you know that your presentations don’t do justice to your research?
How can you turn great research into a great presentation? How can you ensure the conference organisers and audience walk away glad that they had made the effort to attend the event and listen to your presentation?
Here are my tips:
1. Know your audience.
Are they from the same field as you? Are they more or less experienced? Are they potential collaborators? Or are they from another field which intersects with yours? Are they potential funders of future research? Has the audience had an opportunity to read your abstract or report? What information has been provided already on your presentation? What information will be provided to the audience following your presentation? (Will your slides distributed, for example)? How many participants can the session room hold? Will there be simultaneous interpretation into other languages?
Just as you speak to your boss differently from to your partner, so too you need to orient your presentation to your audience. You need to know who you are speaking to and their motivations for listening to you. For example if your audience is in the same area of expertise you can use industry-known acronyms and references. However, if you have people from a different area of the industry you may need to provide more context and explanations.
The more you know about your audience the better you’ll be able to tailor the message (see point 3) to them. The audience are the reason that you are up there speaking. It’s not for your own benefit – it’s for theirs. The more you direct the presentation to the audience the more relevant you will be and the more impact you will have.
2. Know the programme.
Where are you in the overall conference programme? First day? Last day? In the middle? First thing in the morning? What else is happening at the same time as your presentation? Are there parallel sessions which will split the conference participants? What’s happening just before and after you present? Who else is presenting in the session? Are they bringing divergent issues or angles to the session? Or are you each building on the other presentations? Is there are Q&A section immediately after your presentation? Or at the end of the 5 or 6 presentations in the session? Is there a panel discussion at the end of the session?
If you understand the context in which you’re presenting you will be able to better craft the presentation. You are not presenting in a vacuum. A lot of information is being presented at the event, so having these elements clear in your mind when you are crafting your message you will ensure your presentation is relevant to the audience. Acknowledging other research or presentations will make the audience feel that you realise that you are not operating in a vacuum, that you see how your research fits into the larger scheme of things happening at the conference and in your industry.
3. Determine your Call to Action
Once you’ve researched points 1 and 2 you need to ask yourself: “What’s the point of your presentation?”
I know – it’s to inform the audience about your research, project or findings. But do you want only to inform them, or do you want to move them? Is your aim to Inspire them?
Speaking at an industry conference is a great opportunity for you and your research. You could have people in the audience who could replicate your research (with a different cohort, for example), thereby strengthening the field’s body of research. You could have a future employer in the audience – on the look out for her next star researcher or programme manager. There might be a potential funder out there – who’s on the search for the next “hot” thing. Maybe your methodology is unique and you want to inspire the audience to try it or test the results in a different circumstance.
Your job as a presenter is not to just present what your abstract or project report says, it’s to move the audience. It’s to make them to think. It’s to persuade them to act, to contribute to the industry. You also want to be noticed, or at the very least, for your research area to get the kudos it deserves.
Define your call to action and ensure your presentation content reflects that.
4. Keep it simple
Even if your research or project is complex, if you’re using slides (keynote, PowerPoint or other), remember that the audience is there to listen to you. The slides you provide should add to your presentation, not detract from it.
For a 10-15-minute presentation, you should choose only 3 or 4 graphs to present. Keep them simple and explain to the audience what they represent. Focus only on the most salient points of each.
Don’t put all your information on the slides. Include key numbers, facts or names. You should not have so much information on the slides that you read your presentation from the slides. Two or 3 bullet points, maximum, on each slide. If you can replace words with images, then do. Just make sure you have permission to use the image(s).
I know this is hard. Every part of your research or report is important. You want to include it all but you have limited time, (you MUST respect this time limit), so you need to choose the most relevant or interesting information for YOUR audience (see point 1) which leads to YOUR call to action (see point 3).
Remember, if the audience is interested and wants to find out more they can read the abstract or contact you for more information! This is the aim – giving them enough information to interest them so that they want to follow up. Don’t give them absolutely everything. Let them leave the session wanting to hear more from you because you were so interesting and met their needs.
I know you know this but it cannot be over-stressed. You need to practise your presentation, with slides, if you have them. Out loud! That doesn’t mean in your head. Do a real “dress rehearsal” – as close to the actual conditions as you can. Invite friends and family to listen to you (or even better hire a presentation trainer). Practise looking up from your notes. Indicating the slides, when appropriate. Practise smiling. Practise at the appropriate pace – giving the audience members time to absorb what you’re saying. Remember that you’re the expert and know your research or project inside out. The audience doesn’t. They need time to grasp the brilliance that your presenting.
Standing up in front of a roomful of strangers can be daunting but the more prepared you are, the better a job you will do. To feel confident, you need to practise.
Next time you are invited to speak in a conference, follow my 5 steps and you will stand out from the crowd. Your audience will walk away having learned something, been inspired and challenged. To top that off the conference organisers will be more likely to invite you to present again.
You’ve been chosen to present for a reason. You have been invited to add to the discussion in your field. Be proud of that fact. Present with confidence. You will be memorable. You will come across as the expert that you are, and your presentation will do real justice to your research or project.
If you are a conference organiser and you want to increase the quality of your scientific programme, you should invest in a speaker training package to support your speakers and session chairs.