Top tips for conference presentations

Last week Dr Meghan Brown attended a conference in Helsinki for the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science Annual Conference where she delivered two presentations. The IADMS student committee asked Meghan to write a feature for their blog with her tips on presenting (she was named a conference highlight and one of the top presenters at the previous conference in Houston last year). This blog post should be useful to our own students who will be doing presentations for their assessments (certainly final year students!), or just want to develop presentation skills!

Dr Meghan Brown presenting at conference


At the IADMS Annual Conference in Houston last year, one of my presentations involved sharing the findings of my last two PhD studies; investigating nutritional strategies to improve recovery in female dancers. I really enjoyed delivering that presentation! Here are my top tips for those presenting in future:

The content

Be a storyteller! Have a clear (and concise) beginning, middle, and end. It might seem like common sense, but I have seen many presentations that did not really do this! I find it easier to consider that the content should follow a similar structure to a written piece of work. So this should include:

1) An obvious rationale for why you are delivering the presentation (the ‘why?’).

2) A clear main body of the presentation, with the key information (the ‘what/how/who/where?’). For some pieces of information (for instance specific details of the methods and results) I ask myself ‘do they really need to know that to understand the key messages?’ and if the answer is no, I am usually quite brutal about getting rid of it! Indeed, if the audience wants to know more, they can just ask!

3) Standout concluding remarks and take-home messages – i.e. the practical applications, impact of the work, and future directions (the ‘so what?’). As a guide, I typically present between three and five of these.

As I am very much about attention to detail, I also have my own formatting rules – that I’m sure many share! For instance I make sure that the slides are consistent and not too distracting (background, fonts, animations etc), the text boxes and images align neatly, and if there are really important details that I want to highlight, I bold these and change the colour (usually blue or red). I also rarely include a slide that only has text on it (indeed, I try not to include much text beyond the essential) as I like to show images to talk around; of the equipment, methods used, and of course figures of the results! Finally, as timings are usually quite restrictive, I always have fewer slides than the amount of minutes I have to present. That gives me peace of mind in terms of the length of the presentation, as depending on the slide I know I have around 1-2 minutes per slide. For instance, for the 20-minute presentation I delivered last year, I had 15 slides and that included the title and acknowledgements slides!

The delivery

My approach to the delivery of a presentation is a safe one! I always write out roughly what I am hoping to say for each slide beforehand and naturally this usually happens at the same time as I put the slides together. I practice this to see whether I have done too much / too little, and I adjust the content accordingly to make sure I stick to the time. So I make sure that I rehearse the presentation quite a bit. Not to the extent that I sound like a robot or I get stuck/lost/flustered if I get a single word wrong (that’s no good!). But rehearsed enough so that I always know what’s coming next, and I could deliver the presentation in slightly different ways (maybe change a phrase or the wording I use, or make additional comments here and there), yet the key information and messages I want to relay are always done so successfully! It is important never to assume that the audience knows anything about your topic! So explain everything that is essential!

It goes without saying, but appropriate pace and volume are vital! This makes the delivery more confident too. You’ll find (or at least most people do) that you speak faster when presenting for real, so I consciously give myself a little pep talk beforehand to remind myself to breathe and to slow down! Eye contact with members of the audience always helps to keep them engaged, but if I feel like I might be particularly put off by that (if friends/colleagues are in the audience for example), I just look a little above them – to still create that illusion and maintain engagement! And my advice is to always smile! That makes such a difference! In fact, I try not to take myself too seriously and aim to include at least one joke, funny picture, or anecdote in a talk to make the audience laugh. They might not remember all of your content, but a laugh is always memorable!

Question time is always a little nerve-racking but if I’ve learnt anything in my experience of presenting it is to give as much time to prepare for this part of a presentation as you would putting the presentation together in the first place. Try to anticipate the types of questions you might get especially considering your audience. For instance, are they likely to question my methods? Do I know enough about other literature in the area that might be similar/contradict what I present? Do I know the strengths/limitations of what I’m presenting and what I would do differently/do next? Could someone in the audience have done something along these lines or have expertise/opinions in a specific element of what I am presenting? In the past, where possible, I have delivered my presentation to peers/colleagues in advance. This is useful not only because they can offer feedback on the presentation in general, but also because the questions that they have are likely to be similar to what others might ask. And certainly that has happened before, so I have been better prepared for it! Finally, I’ve learnt that it’s ok to say that you are not sure how to answer a question. It is much better than to try to blag your way out of something. In fact, some people asking the questions actually already know the answer, or have an opinion, so they would just see right through that! Of course, most ask questions because they are genuinely intrigued to hear your thoughts and want to create some discussion (they are not trying to trick you!) so embrace that and don’t take things personally or get defensive! If you are not sure, just keep smiling and let the audience know that you think it is an interesting question / point, and that you would like to look into it!


Best piece of advice

My personal top tip for those presenting at future conferences is to over prepare! Practice and practice again! There is nothing better than standing up in front of people to talk about something you are passionate about, knowing that you have prepared well (even excessively!). In my opinion, having that confidence makes the presentation a million times easier and more enjoyable!



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