So, your paper has been accepted to a conference or you've got another academic speaking engagement coming up. First of all, congrats! It's a big accomplishment, and you should feel super proud of yourself! When undertaking something as imposter syndrome-inducing as a PhD, you should DEFINITELY take time to appreciate your wins. Okay, now that you've done that, you're probably looking for some tips for academic presentations to crush that first conference presentation.
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I know content is king (and we’ll get into that!), but one easy way to impress your audience is with a beautiful presentation. However, not all of us (myself included!) are blessed with a knack for design.
That’s where one of my favourite tools in the world comes in: CANVA.
Now, you’ve heard me talk about Canva before, but, honestly, it’s the best free design tool out there. They have SO MANY professional presentation templates that you can use. Here are a few examples I’ve adapted for my own presentations.
You can either add your content on the platform or download a PowerPoint copy and work locally. It’s super handy.
I know some universities (mine included!) require that you use their templates / header in your conference presentations. If that’s the case, you can upload the header to Canva and design on their platform. Alternatively, you can just use their templates as a jumping off point. Use them for inspiration for things to add to the boring university templates.
Either way, Canva is the best shortcut I know for creating BEAUTIFUL presentations. They literally look like they were created by a professional graphic designer. If you manage to wow your audience with a slick PowerPoint presentation, you’re halfway to a successful first conference presentation.
As a side note, all of my friends at uni who I’ve told about it now use it as well. It’s not just me!
You may even be able to use your research budget for Canva Pro (which gives you access to more designs, images, and features). It’s definitely worth checking with your supervisor on this!
One of the great things about Canva is that they have LOTS of stock photos and design elements to spruce up your presentations. Strive for good balance between designing a simple presentation and using enough visual elements engage your audience. You can use icons, stock photos, and also, of course, any charts and graphs from your paper.
While this isn’t specific to academic presentations, keep in mind general accessibility best practices when designing your presentation. Make sure your fonts are big enough (at least 24 point). Use contrasting colours that are easy to differentiate even for those who are colour blind. Finally, don’t use too much text on your slides.
It’s all well and good to have a pretty presentation, but if your content sucks, your first conference presentation simply won’t be successful.
If you’ve been accepted to the conference, clearly your research and paper were good enough. But how do you translate that into a good first conference presentation?
I would start with something attention-grabbing or thought provoking. Consider asking your audience a question and getting them to offer their thoughts. People’s attention spans are short; you need something to grab their attention right away or they’re likely to just drift off.
I generally like to follow the outline of my paper in drafting my presentation. However, you don’t have to follow it exactly. And, depending on the allotted time for your presentation, you may not be able to include everything. You may not want to, anyway. Your paper may have a long related work section primarily containing literature with which everyone in the audience is familiar. There’s no reason to spend ages rehashing it.
Speaking of your audience, keep them in mind when you’re preparing your presentation. Presenting your research to a solely academic audience is VERY different from presenting at a conference also attended by members of industry. A research audience may be much more interested in the theoretical foundations and methodology. Someone who works in industry might care more about the impact and applications of your research. Take a look at other people who are presenting at or attending the conference (if available) to get an idea of your potential audience.
Now, on to actually delivering a stellar first conference presentation. My primary tip here is to PRACTICE.
First, I write out a script to get an idea of what I want to say in my presentation. DO NOT read your script in the actual presentation. However, I find it helpful to fully plan out what I’m going to say before I even start practicing.
I do my first practice run by timing myself reading through the script. Then, I practice another time (again, timing myself) just with the presentation. Then, do at least one more practice round in front of someone else.
What should you think about when you practice your presentation? First, think about the main point you’re trying to convey with your presentation—what is the real crux of your research? Your goal here is to tell a story about what you found out in your research and why it matters.
You are essentially giving a performance—think about your presentation as an actor would a monologue. Pay attention to your inflection, speed, and movements. Try not to stand stiffly or completely still throughout the presentation—walk around and gesture naturally. You should also generally talk more slowly than you think you need to. Don’t rush through your presentation. This is particularly important if you will be presenting to an international audience. Also, think about what you’re going to say, even if you need to pause for a few seconds. I know pauses feel SUPER long when you’re in front of an audience, but, I promise, they aren’t.
Finally, you should practice the technical aspects of your presentation beforehand. If you’re presenting on Zoom, request access to the room the day before to make sure everything works. If you’re presenting in person, go into the room in advance. Ask what kind of tech will be available to you before you arrive (will you need your own computer, HDMI cable, etc.?). Also, make sure to arrive early to set up.
Questions are perhaps the most nerve-wracking part of your first conference presentation. Academics are notoriously critical and, often, ask confusing questions that are not really questions just to hear themselves talk.
You should definitely anticipate questions about your presentation in advance and prepare some sample answers. If you practice in front of someone familiar with your subject area, you can also canvass them for questions.
If you will know someone in the audience, you can also plant some easier questions for them to ask.
Now, what should you do after the presentation? First, definitely stick around after you’re done in case someone wants to speak with you after. Be sure to have some business cards on hand for this purpose.
If someone does give you their business card or asks a question, make sure to follow up with them. The whole point of conference and other academic presentations is to publicise your research and make connections. Someone may be interested in you giving a follow-up presentation or, even better, hiring you for some consulting work. Make sure to engage with anyone who asks you questions afterwards via email as well; you never know where it might lead!
How did you prepare for your first conference presentation? What are your best academic presentation tips? Let me know in the comments down below.
Interested in more academic tips? Check out my other PhD advice articles.