There’s a lot of great advice out there about how to give good presentations at conferences, especially from the “GradHacker” community (here and here and here). We’ve written about everything from how to make your presentations exciting with audio-visual elements to using improv to improve your communication skills. But with technology constantly changing, there are always new things to consider and new things you can do to improve your conference presentations and make your research accessible to a broader audience.
Here are some things you might not have thought of.
Promote Your Talk on Social Media
I’ve already suggested making business cards and adding stickers with the date and time of your talk, but this only reaches people you network and talk with. One way to ensure your research reaches a broader audience is by promoting your conference presentation through social media channels like Twitter. Write a post with the time and date of your talk, the title, an image of your first slide, and a brief statement about what you’ll be talking about or what you’re looking forward to (see an example here). Be sure to use the conference hashtag and any relevant hashtags from your field so that people who are not at the conference can see it.
Make a few different posts to promote your talk and post them in the days leading up to your presentation. Some labs even make fliers to promote on social media that include a list of all the students and faculty from the lab who will be giving talks at that conference. Before your talk, ask your friends in the audience to tweet your presentation live. You can even live-tweet your own talk as you’re giving it by scheduling posts with apps such as TweetDeck, Hootsuite and Sprout Social.
Practice With Peers (or Video)
One of the best ways to practice a presentation is in front of an audience, especially when the audience consists of people who are there to help you. Reach out to your adviser and ask if you can present your talk at your next individual, lab group or committee meeting. They may have valuable input on things you should include based on the theme of the conference and the experts who will be there, or things you should take out, such as preliminary data or findings that aren’t ready to be presented yet.
While your adviser and committee will know the most about your work, also be sure to enlist help from people outside your field or specialty who are not as familiar with what you do. You’ll likely have a broad audience at the conference, and you want to make sure that your talk is clear and understandable to those outside your field as well as those within it. Reach out to your department or your graduate student organization and ask if you can schedule practice talks for those going to the conference. You could even see if your student journal club would be willing to devote a meeting to it.
When practicing your presentation for others, ask one person to take notes for you on what questions or suggestions your audience members give you. If everyone has their computer with them, you can also send them a Google Doc and have them write their questions, comments and suggestions in that while you’re presenting. Be sure to add numbers to your slides in your practice talk for your audience members to refer to (“I liked slide three, but the pictures in slide seven are blurry”).
You can also video yourself giving the talk and then play it back to see how you did. While it might be uncomfortable to watch yourself present, you’ll be able to see firsthand what you do well and what you want to improve on. You’ll also be able to send your talk to others and ask for their feedback as well.
Make Sure Everyone Can See Your Audio-Visual Elements
When designing your talk and figures, keep in mind that you may have audience members who are colorblind. There are different tools and apps (like Color Oracle) that you can use to see what your screen will look like to people with different types of colorblindness (you can also set your screen to grayscale to see what your figures will look like in print). Likewise, if you are colorblind, it may be useful to have a friend or colleague who is not colorblind check your slides to make sure there are no clashing colors or other issues.
Laser pointers can also pose problems -- red and green lasers can be very difficult to see. There are new devices available that act more like a spotlight, brightening one part of the screen while dimming the rest. Another alternative is to redesign your slides so that you don’t need a laser pointer. Use arrows or animations to point out the important parts of figures or complex diagrams that you want your audience to focus on.
Share and Cite your Presentation
Not everyone who gives a conference presentation has a conference paper they can publish, share and cite afterward. If your presentation consists of a poster, video, slides or other nonwritten media, consider publishing it online in an open-access data repository like figshare or your university’s equivalent (Penn State uses ScholarSphere). These repositories will give your talk a digital object identifier (DOI) that you and others can cite (for example, check out this talk I gave last year). You can even put the DOI on your poster or on the last slide of your presentation so that those at the conference know where to go to access your talk.
Grant Permission (or Don’t) for Photography and Social Media
Maybe you don’t want your talk shared online or promoted on social media -- maybe you’re talking about a sensitive subject, or presenting preliminary data from research that isn’t finished yet. Make it clear to your audience at the beginning of your talk whether or not you grant permission for others to take pictures of your slides or promote them on social media. You can also add “no photography/social media” or “photography/social media allowed” icons in the corners of your slides as a reminder (see this conference’s social media guidelines for an example). If you do allow your audience to share your talk on social media, make sure to include your Twitter handle, as well as that of your lab and department, so people know who did the work and who to get in touch with if they have more questions.
And Lastly, the Most Important Thing: Read the Presenter Guidelines.
I know this seems obvious, but always check the guidelines for presentations, even if you’ve presented at that conference before, because you never know whether the rules have changed or not. This has happened several times at the large annual conference that my department members and I present at. One year, there were so many student submissions that they reduced the time length of student talks from 15 minutes to 10 minutes. Many students didn’t realize the change until it was too late -- they went over time in their presentations and lost points in the student talk competition.
Another year, the conference organizers changed the slide presentation settings from the 4:3 aspect ratio to the widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. While this doesn’t seem like a big difference, it can change the entire look of your presentation; converting from the 4:3 aspect ratio to the 16:9 aspect ratio can shrink or move your text and images. That year, I didn’t realize the change until I got to the presentation upload room at my conference, and then had to fix all of my slides just hours before my talk. Speaking from personal experience, don’t do this to yourself -- save yourself the trouble and check the conference rules ahead of time.
The most important part of giving a presentation is finding what works for you. These are some tips for things you might not have thought of -- if there’s anything that I haven’t thought of, or if you have more ideas, please write them in the comments below!
The author would like to thank Shelby Kilpatrick for her insightful comments and contributions, and Tyler Jones for her photography.