Re-thinking the Conference Presentation

Conference season is now upon us. Travel. Networking. One dull, poorly-constructed, over-time PowerPoint presentation after another.

I suspect that less than a quarter of the presentations I attended last week at a major, international conference remained within the allotted amount of time. 10 minutes is, quite simply, not long enough  to fully (or even briefly!) discuss research questions, theory, methodology and results. The almost inevitable outcome, it seems, is a sequence of PowerPoint slides full of text too small to read, and that distract the audience rather than enhance the presentation.

I have no idea where the standard conference presentation format came from. If a 10-15 minute presentation followed by 5 minutes of questions pre-dates the invention and widespread adoption of PowerPoint or rose to dominance alongside it. Regardless of how or when this tradition developed, the fact of the matter remains that it is ineffective.

As PhD candidates (and early career researchers), we’re hardly in a position to overhaul the academic conference system. I think that we can, however, adopt innovative approaches to presenting our work that might eventually and collectively shift expectations for what a good conference presentation should be. Rather than conform to the status quo, we can choose to focus in on one aspect of our research (research questions, theory, methodology or results) in our presentations, and remind the audience that the other dimensions of the project are discussed in the accompanying paper. More focused presentations will require fewer slides, less text.

More focused presentations might also lend themselves to a diverse range of presentation tools. Why not illustrate your main points with images (photos, icons, clip art, drawings, diagrams, graphs, etc.). Your presentation then becomes an explanation of the graphics rather than oral repetition of projected text. Similarly, new presentation tools like Prezi are better able to visually demonstrate connections and relationships between complex ideas than linear ppt. slideshows. That said, learning to use these tools well takes time. An effective, memorable presentation is not created the night before.

Practice is also essential. Rehearsing is the only way of knowing how long your intended presentation will take. If reciting your notes takes 20 minutes in your hotel room, you’ve got more work to do. But better to find this out when you still have time to fix it than by being caught out on stage. It might seem like common sense, but I suspect that very few scholars actually bother to run through their conference presentations in advance.

Professional conferences provide excellent opportunities for networking. They also give you a chance to draw attention to the originality of your work as well as your promise as a young researcher. A bad PowerPoint presentation will only undermine your efforts to make a good first impression.

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