How to prepare for your first conference talk

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Career advice

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Career advice


Being invited to give your first talk at an academic conference is hugely exciting, but it can be nerve-racking too. Here are some tips to get you ready for your first conference presentation:

1. Practice, practice, practice. The absolute best way to overcome presenting nerves is to practice as much as possible. In the weeks leading up to the conference, try to give your talk to as many people as possible. Don't worry about trying to memorise your talk, as this can make you come across as stilted. Instead, try to accustom yourself to speaking in different sized rooms, to larger or smaller audiences, in different environments. Whenever your friends have 10 minutes to spare in the pub, ask if you can present to them. The more you do this, the more used you'll be to presenting. And do ask your practice audience for feedback too – was there anything that they didn't understand, couldn't hear, or couldn't follow?

2. Cut your slides. You think you need all of these slides! But trust me, you don't. Your presentation should be short, simple, and contain no more than a few keywords on each slide. If you put too much text or too much detail onto a slide, then your audience will be so busy reading the slide that they won't be able to pay attention to you. Avoid this by keeping your slides as basic as possible while conveying the required information. You should have no more than one slide per minute of presentation time, and absolutely no more than 25 slide maximum. You almost certainly have too many slides with too much detail on them, so cut ruthlessly.

3. Time yourself. It's actually quite hard to talk for exactly and only a limited amount of time. 10 minutes might seem like an easy talk until you're up in front of an audience and suddenly you feel pressured to go quickly. Overcome this issue by giving your talk out loud while timing yourself several times. With a bit of practice you'll get a feeling for how long your presentation will take. And remember, it's okay to fall short of your allotted time but going over can cause a real problem – keep in mind that no one ever complained about a conference talk being too short!

4. Anticipate questions or comments. One part of giving a talk which lots of people worry about is how to answer questions from the audience. Depending on the audience and venue, these questions can come across as harsh or even hostile. Prepare yourself by trying to anticipate what objections people might make to your work or to your talk, and then coming up with a response. To be really impressive, prepare extra slides with further data on topics which you think people might ask about. Then when someone asks for more data on a particular issue, you can pull up the relevant slide to reply to them.

5. Practice speaking loudly and clearly. It might sound obvious, but no one will be able to take in the contents of your talk if they can't hear you. When it comes to presenting, often you'll have a microphone to use if the room is large. But even if you do have a speaker system, you still need to speak precisely and clearly in order to be understood. The first few times that you try speaking more deliberately slowly and enunciating will feel odd, but the more you do it the more comfortable you'll feel addressing an audience.

6. Come up with a pitch. When you arrive at the conference, you might well talk to lots of people who want to know what your talk will be about. Think of a way your can briefly summarise your talk in one or two sentences which even a non-expert can understand. Be prepared to give this pitch to anyone who asks, so as many people as possible will be informed about your work.

For more tips about attending conferences, take a look at our website.



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