Presenting at seminars and conferences

Presentations are great opportunities to network and gain valuable feedback

To benefit fully from presentations at conferences and seminars, you must plan your trip if the event is out of town, prepare and rehearse your presentation, and track feedback from your audience. You can then reflect on the design and/or interpretation of the project based on the feedback and informal responses noted during networking.

 

At [a conference] I gave a presentation and immediately afterwards a couple of senior scholars came up to me and said, “You have to publish that right away!”  And they have offered to look over my stuff because our research areas have a lot of overlap so that is a way that I think I can—I’m definitely developing these relationships.
(Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)


An important aspect of doctoral and academic work is presenting at academic conferences. As the student above pointed out, there are many benefits of attending conferences, including:

  1. the opportunity to communicate your research to a larger audience;
  2. the feedback from local and international students and faculty that can help improve your work;
  3. the expansion of your academic network, such as interacting with researchers that you have cited; and
  4. the improvement of your CV through listing the presentation, publications in conference proceedings, and journal articles resulting from the presentation.

Types of presentations students may give include poster presentations, talks, or participating in panel discussions. Although each has distinct preparation requirements, they generally follow a similar timeline as listed below.

Finding presentation opportunities

Students can discuss where to find presentation opportunities with their supervisor, supervisory committee, and peers. Try the suggestions below.

  • Listservs, websites and bulletin boards relevant to your field

  • Student-led conferences in your institution, department or faculty

  • Seminar or lecture series in your institution, department or faculty

  • Annual local and international conferences

  • Open houses and events for prospective students at McGill

Supervisors can motivate graduate students to start attending conferences in many ways, such as:

  • attending a conference with them;

  • involving them in the organization of a conference; and

  • explaining the benefits of conferences.

As a supervisor or research group leader, you might also reflect on the contribution that graduate students could make to the wider influence of your work. Enabling your supervisees to present their work in progress and findings at disciplinary conferences will enable them to publicize your work and theirs.

Planning for conference attendance

Once you have found a presentation opportunity that interests you, be sure to consider:

  • abstract requirements and submission deadline;

  • registration deadline;

  • funding, if necessary (see the ideas tab for more on this); and

  • transportation, accommodation and any other relevant logistics.

Preparing the presentation

Conference or seminar presentations are compact speeches that require the presenters to deliver ideas within a fixed time period. Try the suggestions below to optimize this time.

  • Think of your talk as an advertisement for your paper. Your goal is to cultivate interests, and to spark curiosity.

  • Choose your data selectively, and consider your time limit in this choice.

  • Look at your audience.

  • If you have to read from scripts or notes, use simpler words and shorter sentences.

  • Be aware of the advantages and limitations of slideware such as PowerPoint (see the research tab for more information).

  • Make sure the most important information comes at the beginning and at the end.

  • Respect the time limit and thereby show respect for your peers.

  • Conclude your talk with memorable last words.

Adapted from Wineburg (2004)

Many of these suggestions can be applied to poster presentations as well.

Rehearsing the presentation

Doing a rehearsal, even with just one or two peers or the supervisor, can be helpful for students, especially those with less presentation experience or who may feel anxious about presenting. During the rehearsal:

  • respect the time limit that will be enforced during the real presentation, but adjust your rehearsal if necessary to account for the possibility that you might read more quickly when you are nervous;

  • ask for audience feedback on the presentation itself as well as any slides or posters; and

  • ask for questions from the audience. This can help anticipate and prepare answers for questions that may arise during the real presentation.

Keeping track of audience questions and feedback

When presenting at conferences, students are often so busy thinking about how to respond to questions that audience comments become a blur. Arranging someone to keep detailed notes of comments and suggestions made during the discussion can be very helpful for reflecting on afterwards.

Trafford and Leshem (2002) provide a list of twelve predictable questions; below are the most relevant for conferences.

  • Why did you choose this topic?

  • How did you arrive at your conceptual framework?

  • How did you arrive at your research design?

  • How would you justify your choice of methodology?

  • How did you select your respondents or materials?

  • How did you arrive at your conceptual conclusions?

  • How generalizable are your findings – and why?

Consider the possibility that questions which arise from a doctoral student’s conference presentation are likely to relate to the questions that will be asked by examiners at the dissertation defence. This point raises the idea that conference presentation may be a very effective aspect of preparation for the oral defence, especially in the way that it exposes the student to the reality of external criticism of their work.

Using the presentation as a step towards publication

In many fields where journal publications are the norm of academic communication and time from acceptance to publication is lengthy, a useful strategy is to consider a presentation as a preliminary step towards a publication, as this newly graduated student describes:

I’ve set myself a schedule …the papers that I’m presenting at conferences are the ones that I’m going to turnaround [into publications]. I have some previous conference submissions that I can work on so I’m going to always try and have—and I was told to do this—always have three articles on the go at any one time.
(Social Sciences PhD student: McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

Presenting orally has an additional advantage that it provides the opportunity to obtain scholarly feedback that can then be used in re-working the final version.

See also Publishing during graduate studies.

Being a panellist

A panel presentation is not the same as a conference paper. It is not a solo performance but more of a conversation that is part of a community of knowledge production. This means that an invitation to join a panel requires different preparation. Here are some tips for preparing for a panel presentation.

  • Think about why you have been asked to join a panel:

  • Have you been selected for a particular point of view?

  • If so, do you accept this or challenge this?

  • What is unique about your contribution?

  • Being a panellist means thinking through what your key messages actually are (e.g., no more than 3-5 points). Add in personal experience and perspectives.

  • Try to provoke thinking among the audience; aim to generate discussion which will include the audience and not just be confined to the panel.

  • If you are speaking later in the panel, listen to other’s comments; if they make the same points as you are going to, don’t repeat them but either reiterate swiftly or build on them.

  • Good panels are about good criticism – they are about unsettling knowledge production and moving it on in productive ways.

Adapted by Lynn McAlpine from Bærenholdt, J., Gregson, N., Everts, J., Granås, B., & Healey, R. (2010).

Can one present at too many conferences?

There are many rewards to conference-going, such as the opportunity for networking and feedback. However, travelling to conferences can be expensive and most students cannot get funding for more than one or two trips per year. It is also worth considering whether a CV with many more conferences than publications indicates a problem.

 

Funding for conferences

Supervisors may have funds for their students for their attendance of conferences or students may apply for other funding.  McGill offers travel awards to student presenters, known as the GREAT Awards (Graduate Research Enhancement and Travel Awards). Note that these awards are distributed through individual faculties, so if students want to apply for them, they should contact their faculty.  Departments, some student societies, and academic societies that host the conferences may also offer funds for student travelling.

Unfortunately, not all students have enough funding to participate in many conferences. Students who go to many conferences risk incurring debt that they cannot easily repay.

Here are some questions to consider regarding conference funding.

  • How much will the conference cost, including registration, transportation, accommodation and any other necessities not provided by the conference?

  • Are you or your student eligible for any grants, scholarships or bursaries that can cover the costs?

  • What are the benefits of this particular conference (e.g., who will be there, what are the main topics of discussion)? Are there other conferences that will provide the same benefits with a lower cost?

Conferences and publications on the CV

A related concern, suggested by anecdotal experience at least, is that some students might present at too many conferences and focus on networking without establishing credentials in the journals. Lacking evidence of scholarly publications, a long list of conference presentations on your CV might indicate to some readers that you have been unable to conclude the process of writing acceptable papers.

In your experience (or your peers/colleagues experience), has this been encountered? What do you think the best conference-publication balance is?

Optimizing presentations through considering the audience and using slides appropriately

Helping students with their first presentations is an important form of support that supervisors can provide. Supervisors can help by offering tips based on their own experience on topics such as the audience, the message, and the medium. An important topic to include in student-supervisor discussions is the appropriate use of slides.

 

Learning to communicate ideas and findings is an essential part of research. Aspects of a presentation which supervisors can discuss with their students include:

Considering audience characteristics

Think about who the audience will be, and whether they will understand and be interested in each point being presented (Alley, 2003). Consider the background knowledge of the audience particularly in the use of technical language and abbreviations, as well as level of detail.

It is common to present to mixed audiences, including individuals with a range of background knowledge on the presented topic. In these cases, focus on ensuring everyone is satisfied at the end of the presentation rather than attempting to fully engage everyone at all times. This can be done by targeting different audiences at different times (Alley, 2003).

  • Begin with a simple and easily accessible introduction to engage everyone.

  • For each section of the body of the presentation, start with more accessible points and then increase the depth and technicality. Less specialized individuals may get lost, but their engagement will return at the start of the next section.

  • Return to simple and accessible points during the conclusion.

Using slides appropriately

There is a debate about the use of slideware (e.g., Edward Tufte’s PowerPoint Is Evil and Don Norman’s In Defense of PowerPoint), but it is very commonly used in conference and seminar presentations.

Visual aids can help the audience process the verbal information (Garner & Alley, 2013), however too much irrelevant or distracting visual information can increase the audience members’ cognitive load (i.e., how much information is in working memory) and therefore reduce the processing of the relevant information (Tronsco Skidmore, Slate, & Onwuegbuzie, 2010). If it is difficult to make a concise slide for a particular idea, consider that (Schmaltz & Enström, 2014):

  • the presenter may not be familiar or confident enough with the material; or

  • slides may not be the best way to convey this information. Another visual aid, such as a demonstration or handout, may be more appropriate.

General guidelines regarding slides

  • Reflect on the message of the presentation first. Then, think of the slides as a way of most effectively conveying that message, clarifying complex information, and emphasizing key concepts.

  • Use a simple background and minimal text to reduce cognitive load.

  • Use sans-serif, bold, large (32-point) type to ensure everyone can read it.

  • Avoid text in all capitals because this is read more slowly than lowercase text.

  • Never project a quotation without reading it to your audience.

  • Avoid red on green or blue on yellow colour schemes, as these can be difficult to read for individuals with colour-blindness.

  • Keep blocks of text to 1-2 lines, and lists to 4 items or less.

  • Use slides to orient the audience to where they are in the presentations (e.g., a mapping slide, title slides for each section).

  • Allocate at least one minute of presentation time per slide.

Adapted from Alley, 2003; Schmaltz & Enström, 2014; Tronsco Skidmore, Slate, & Onwuegbuzie, 2010; Wineburg, 2004)

A recently proposed style of slides is assertion-evidence slides, which replace the conventional title with a sentence headline that states the main assertion of the slide, while the body of the slide contains images and limited text to explain or support the assertion (Garner & Alley, 2013). Students who participated in a course using assertion-evidence slides were better able to comprehend and recall the learned information, developed less misconceptions regarding the presented material, and reported a lower mental effort during the presentation compared to those who learned the same content using conventional slides (Garner & Alley, 2013). For examples and more information, see Garner and Alley (2013).

 

References

Alley, M. (2003). The craft of scientific presentations: Critical steps to succeed and critical errors to avoid. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Bærenholdt, J., Gregson, N., Everts, J., Granås, B., & Healey, R. (2010).  Performing academic practice: Using the master class to build postgraduate discursive competences. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 34(2), 283-298.

Garner, J.,& Alley, M. (2013). How the design of presentation slides affects audience comprehension: A case for the assertion–evidence approach. International Journal of Engineering Education, 29(6), 1564-1579.

Schmaltz, R. M., & Enström, R. (2014). Death to weak PowerPoint: Strategies to create effective visual presentations. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, Article 1138, 1-4.

Trafford, V., & Leshem, S. (2002). Starting at the end to undertake doctoral research: Predictable questions as stepping stones. Higher Education Review, 35(1), 31-49.

Tronsco Skidmore, S., Slate, J. R., & Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (2010). Developing Effective Presentation Skills: Evidence-Based Guidelines. Research in the Schools, 17(2), xxv-xxxvii.

Wineburg, S. (2004). Must it be this way? Ten rules for keeping your audience awake during conferences. Educational Researcher, 33(4), 13-14.

Further Reading

Craswell, G. (2005). Writing for academic success: A postgraduate guide. London: Sage. (Chapter 11)