Presenting at a conference as a graduate student can be intimidating and stressful, but a crucial part of your graduate school experience! As conference season rolls around, members of the CSGSH committee offer a compilation of presentation tips for graduate students preparing to present in humanities conferences. Whether this is your first time presenting or you are a seasoned presenter, these tips can help improve your presentation. We have divided the list into tips for before, during, and after presenting.
Before the Presentation
Allot yourself enough time to begin preparing well in advance of the conference, as there are a lot of things that need to come together by the presentation day.
When presenting from a seminar paper, you should plan on revising it to make it effective as an oral presentation. An unedited seminar paper rarely has the level of signposting required for an oral presentation.
Similarly, it is not recommended to present from an outline containing just key words or to speak impromptu. Withstanding extensive public speaking experience and nerves of steel, it is recommended that you create a carefully edited script.
When editing a written work for an oral presentation, it can help if most sentences are two lines long or shorter. Good punctuation can ensure that a five-line sentence remains coherent in writing, but in speech it can be hard to follow. Leaving really long sentences in a script before can mean losing your place while reading, or giving words the wrong intonation as read, which makes the ideas harder to follow.
If you are using a PowerPoint or a Prezi, avoid overloading with too much text, which can distract your audience. You want the audience focusing on you, not your slides. Here are some helpful tips for slides. (Also, mark the slide transitions in your script, if you are using slides.) Too much text also relates to accessibility.
Consider guidelines for accessible conference presentations. The Society for Disability Studies presents accessibility guidelines here. A disability accessibility specialist offers tips here. And the Web Accessibility Initiative offers many accessibility tips here.
Practice reading your presentation aloud. It is a truism that one double-spaced page takes about two minutes to read at an unhurried pace, so ten pages would make up a twenty-minute talk. But really, sometimes ten pages ends up taking eighteen minutes or sometimes twenty-two minutes, to read aloud. So, once your script says what you want it to say, read it aloud as many times as you can, making quick notes as you go (and editing afterward), until it sounds right. Some sentences that look fine on the page do not sound quite right when spoken.
Once the script sounds right, practice it with any A/V you will be using. That practice may bring forward technical issues you might not otherwise anticipate, giving you an opportunity to smooth these issues out. Then practice leaving extra space to say hello to the audience, to thank the panel organizer, and to offer any background that the audience might need (i.e. remarks that prepare and engage them). It is more than okay to write these extemporaneous-sounding remarks into the presentation script, if it will keep you on track. Ideally, try to practice in front of colleagues/department-mates. Practicing in front of a partner or friend can also work. Have someone time you as you read.
When it comes to A/V, prepare for the unexpected. What will you do if your laptop battery fails? What if your phone dies, and you lose your presentation notes? We live in a high-tech world, but sometimes technology can fail. Make a checklist of your materials and check it both before you leave home to travel to the conference, and before you enter the room to give your presentation. Have a video adapter for your machine (and expect that one of your co-presenters may need to use yours).
If you can, try to meet up with your co-presenters before the presentation, even if just for a 15-minute coffee to say hello. Meeting beforehand can really help organize the panel, and getting to know everyone’s work can make connections between the panel’s ideas during the presentation.
Bring business cards with you. You never know who might ask a great question or offer an idea post-session. Having your contact information handy allows you to take advantage of the connections you might make.
Plan what you will wear with your presentation in mind. For example, if you know you will be standing for your presentation, consider what shoes you will wear to be comfortable.
If you are nervous and have someone you know at your presentation, ask them to sit where you can see them. Sometimes, it is nice to be able to locate a familiar face as you look around the room at your audience.
Consider bringing a snack to eat an hour or so before your presentation, so you have something in your stomach.
Most of the time, you will have been asked beforehand for a bio, but if not, bring a short, succinct bio that a moderator can read during the speaker introductions.
During the Presentation
Get to the room where your presentation is as soon as you are able, and double-check your tech. Give yourself time to get organized and take some deep breaths.
Bring a bottle of water and take some sips during your presentation, even if you are not thirsty. This helps avoid a dry throat while talking.
Start by catching the audience’s attention and make a connection. This can be accomplished by reading a quote from the primary material that sets the stage, conducting a quick poll that gets them involved, or by sharing what led you to study your topic. Make it personal and make it pithy!
Signpost your argument with easy-to-follow language so that your audience stays with you throughout the presentation. Your introduction should prime the audience for what is to come (i.e. “In this paper, I draw on X and Y to argue that Z…”) and the structure of your presentation should be verbalized. Words like “first,” “next,” “furthermore,” “however,” and “finally” are your friends!
While the script you have prepared will keep you organized and ensure that your language is precise, make sure to read slowly and make eye contact with the audience. Notes in your script to “pause,” “slow down,” and “look up” make this easier.
Bring a couple printed copies of your presentation slides for accessibility.
Speak to the audience in front of you, not to your college professor and not to your high school English teacher.
Be respectful of your colleagues’ and the audience members’ time. This is essential conference etiquette and ensures that there will be time for discussion. Having the script that you have practiced reading aloud and timed beforehand keeps you within your allotted time.
One useful gesture is when you are exploring a new idea in the presentation, to say so and tell the audience that you would welcome their suggestions during the Q&A. This gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their expertise, and to help you refine your idea.
It is okay to ad lib if you want to point out a connection between your presentation and someone who has presented before you.
Do not sweat the Q&A. More often than not, you will get genuinely helpful, encouraging, and generous feedback that will help you work toward the next stage of the project. It is okay to take a second to think about your response before answering an audience member’s question. If you do not know what someone is referring to, you can always ask them to clarify or to restate their question. There may be audience members who seem to be there with the sole purpose of tearing down you and your co-panelists’ work, but this does not reflect on your presentation. And, keep in mind, that even a seemingly “hostile” question can indicate a gap in or a useful addition to your research that you had not considered and could become something that you follow-up on after the conference.
Take notes during your fellow presenters’ presentations. This will help you to make connections between your presentations and come up with questions.
Here is an essential part: be confident that you have something important to offer. You were accepted to your panel, to the conference, to the convention. No small feat. You have already convinced the panelists and the organizers that you belong. So, you do.
Don’t forget to have fun! If you are having fun, your audience will be too.
After the Presentation
Get together with your co-panelists. You have enough in common with them to be on the same panel, so try to have a meal together during the conference. They may even become your most treasured collaborators.
Take time after the conference to reflect on what you have learned during the conference, as well as to reflect on how your presentation panel went. There are many connections, materials, and new resources that you have probably learned about from your panel and during the conference, so do not forget to follow-up on these notes.
Remember, we are all learning and refining our arguments. Conferences are a great place to get ideas for further avenues of research. Pursue these threads after the conference is over so that you can further your project ideas.
–List contributed by Ariadne Wolf, Didem Uca, Kristina Reardon, Amir Hussain, Gerard Holmes, and Kayla Forrest