3 Dec 2013

This article is a summary by Paul Benneworth of the Top Tips on Presenting Skills Workshop held as part of the RSA European Conference 2013, Tampere, 6th May 2013. The editors of Regional Insights are grateful to the presenters at that workshop for their contributions and insights.

A highlight of academic life is attending conferences. No just an opportunity to hear leading speakers set out future research agendas and to discuss your own research in detail with your peers, conferences also involve travel, discovery, relaxation and catching up with friends. They are places where people’s voices are heard. At the heart of that lies giving a paper, which sets out your work, and allows others to debate, contribute, criticise and sharpen it before publication. But few delegates have either the time or the inclination to actually read your paper, especially if you are a new, almost unknown researcher. Giving a good presentation may be your best bet to create interest.

Constructing a good presentation can be a difficult and daunting process, but it is a vital skill to learn to get the most out of a conference attendance. The Regional Insights team organised a Skills Workshop at the recent RSA European Conference in Tampere. A good cross-section of RSA members were invited to reflect and discuss what made a really good conference paper. And in no particular order, they gave eight things they are looking for the next time they see you present!

1. You are the centre of a good presentation – give yourself the best chance to shine.

Presentations are a chance to market your research and persuade the unconvinced to spend their precious time reading your work. They become your peers, provide serious feedback, referee journal submissions and shape how your research makes an impact. Preparation is absolutely critical to persuading people of its value, so come up with ‘ideas you can believe in’: good ideas that are interesting for your audience!

2. Any presentation is competing for an audience’s attention.

It is bad enough with ten parallel sessions, but laptops, tablets and free WiFi mean boring speakers are quickly blanked out. To grab attention you need to offer a clear contribution – give the audience a takeaway message. Having clear steps is a great way to hold audiences’ attention. They follow your progress with you, feel satisfied with that progress, and are pleased to hear the final messages.

3. There are many kinds of audiences, all with different expectations regarding rigour, detail and societal implications.

Defending your PhD is different to speaking at an informal workshop or pitching to policy-makers. You MUST strike the right balance. There are also different cultures to conferences – the RSA conference is friendly and inclusive, but others can be more hostile. Know your audience, and know what a positive reaction sounds like!

4. Freshness is paramount: if you over-prepare, your ideas can seem stale.

You need to remember what the audience needs to hear – good starting points are the contemporary debates you are addressing. Remember to give the audience enough information to understand your idea, without bombarding them with everything that interested you. Everybody likes to see a few holiday snaps, but dreads going through a friend’s 300 photos after a vacation: conferences are no different. Be succinct, but keep it interesting.

5. Conference presentations are in competition, but there are “rules of the game”.

The cardinal rule is don’t speak for too long, as this steals time from other presenters or the audience. Realistically, you cannot get through more than one slide per minute, but you may go slower than that, particularly if you are distracted by minutiae. If you are running out of time, be prepared to prune: get to the punchline, give the takeaway message, and stop on time! And to ensure the session starts promptly, it doesn’t hurt to arrive early, get your slides ready and discuss the format with the chair.

6. Any presentation is part of a scientific conversation, so give the audience cues to engage with you.

This starts with your demeanour; eye contact and natural speech are essential. Preparing keywords and memorising a few sentences is far better than reading a presentation. Be willing to talk freely – you are the expert and people want to hear what you have to say. But people want time to respond so leave time for discussion. Don’t be defensive under questioning – be modest, accept shortcomings, and move the debate forward.

7. The presentation does not end with the last slide.

Conferences are coordinating moments in the lives of research communities, and provide opportunities to better understand that community. You can develop networks, leverage interest in your research, and share ideas informally and socially. If all else fails, visit the host town or region to get a wider perspective, clear the decks and think about your research in a new light.

8. Presenting is a critical academic skill, and learning it takes time.

Everyone has bad presentations, but good presenters learn and move on. But also learn from other people – think about what you like and dislike about other presenters. Ask others for constructive feedback and give it when asked. A good rule for feedback is “one good thing, one bad thing and an idea to improve”.

Lastly, keep in mind that even you have a bad day and feel embarrassed with your presentation, remember that being an academic is the best job in the world!

Paul Benneworth is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) at the University of Twente, the Netherlands.