Conference presentations are a curious genre. While they can draw from seminar papers, lab reports, and/or research proposals, moving from a written text to a spoken one—and delivering your work—can present a range of unique challenges.
Below are some tips and tricks that can help you get in the mindset of giving a conference talk, especially if you’re new to sharing your work in this way.
Preparing for Oral Delivery
One of the biggest things to keep in mind when preparing a conference presentation is to pay attention to what’ll work for an audience that’s hearing your work (rather than reading it). How you should deliver your talk in part depends on the field you’re in as well the conference you’re attending, so reading a paper might be appropriate in some venues and inappropriate in others. But regardless of how you share your work, your presentation should feel spoken as opposed to read.
As such, you’ll want to be attentive to how you’re using field-specific terms in your talk. Either break this terminology into manageable chunks, unpack it for your listeners, or make it more colloquial for oral delivery. It’s also worthwhile to explicitly signpost or forecast what you’ll be doing in your presentation throughout. In other words, explain to your audience what you’re going to do (“First, I will discuss X before moving to Y”) and explicitly reference what you’re saying at key moments in your presentation (“Now, I will discuss Z”). These strategies can help listeners orient themselves to your work.
On the topic of oral delivery, speaking anxiety is common when it comes to conference presentations. To help manage any nerves that might come up, be sure to practice or look over your presentation in a quiet, distraction-free environment half an hour before delivering your talk. If you’re feeling really anxious about presenting, you might record yourself practicing your talk or rehearse it to a friend or colleague in advance. When it comes to the presentation day itself, scope out the room you’ll be in ahead of time, both to get a sense of its layout and to help imagine yourself giving a successful talk. In addition, it can help to have a script or notes nearby during your presentation so that you have some sort of safety net to fall back on. And remember that, even if you lose your place, pause to collect your thoughts, or reorient yourself during your talk, these moments are rarely noticeable to audiences. More often than not, they’ll be welcome moments for them to stop and digest what it is that you’ve already shared.
Keeping Your Audience In Mind
What does this tangibly look like? For starters, think about how much you’ll need to contextualize your topic for attendees. Depending on the types of people who show up—for example, academics, practitioners, interested laypeople—and what disciplines they’re in, you might need to devote more or less space to situating your work in scholarship from your field.
That’s not to say that your literature review should overshadow your own scholarly contributions. You only need to discuss the literature that you’re directly responding to or contributing to. As such, you’ll want to ensure, both up front and throughout your talk, that your argument is what takes center stage. That means, for a standard 15-20 minute presentation, you should be getting to your own data, claims, or analyses around five minutes in. Regardless of where you are in your program, your audience is in attendance to hear about you and your work.
Navigating the Question and Answer Session
Once you’ve successfully delivered your talk, you’re almost in the home stretch. All that’s left is the question and answer session. Depending on how you’re conceiving your presentation and imagining your audience, you might consider brainstorming beforehand to imagine what attendees might want to know more about. Jotting a few notes down in advance here could help you prepare for what could be asked during your session. Also, in anticipating the “hard” questions you might receive, be mindful that all work (including your own!) has limitations. In cases like these, you can always say how you’ll address the limitations of your own work in future research.
During the Q&A itself, keep in mind that you’re in a room with other audience members and panelists interested in the same topics as you. When appropriate, it can be productive to take note of and call out connections or shared resonances between your work and those of the other presenters. And if you find, during the Q&A, that someone asks you something you’re not quite sure how to answer, you might offer some preliminary thoughts on the matter and then say, “I’d be curious to hear what others in the room have to say on this.” This way, you’re leveraging the conversational space of the conference and inviting others to participate in a rich, dialogic, and informative exchange. Or in instances where the question is too broad, complex, or tangential to answer in a Q&A setting, you can always politely respond with an invitation to chat more in depth after the session.
It can be challenging to (re)imagine your writing for a conference environment, especially given the host of unique considerations that revolve around speaking in front of an active audience. In taking on this work, however, you’ll stand to more deeply consider the interplay between speech, writing, and communication across contexts, in the process developing crucial academic literacy skills that will serve you well throughout your academic career. And remember: The Writers Workshop is available to help you prepare and practice your presentation!
This post was written by Logan Middleton, Assistant Director of The Writers Workshop. It is part of our Grad School 101 series.