How to present at a conference: Part 1 – Taking the first steps

It was early June, 2004 and my year-long slog with DELTA had finally come to an end. As fulfilling an experience as it was when it was finally over, I was ready to move on and I wasn’t wasting any time. Anyone familiar with the DELTA will know that the exam was (is it still?) always on the first Wednesday in June; in retrospect it was a bit ambitious to make my first conference presentation on the following Saturday. My thinking was that I wouldn’t have time to worry about the presentation because I’d be getting ready for the exam in the weeks leading up to it. Nevertheless, many, many things ran through my mind in the days leading up to the conference. What if somebody asked a question I couldn’t answer? What if people got up and walked out during my presentation? Would I remember what I wanted to say? How would I feel if nobody showed up? On the day of my presentation I tried to go to other sessions and get something out of what was being said, but I was much too busy imagining myself in the presenter’s shoes. So, the day wore on, the time had come, the room was full, I had all my materials ready, and I was off.

In many ways my first conference presentation marked a significant transition point in my career. Albeit a small step, I had made the jump from being teacher to being a contributing professional who was concerned about the advancement of English language teaching. My opportunity arose as a result of being part of a small team tasked with developing innovative and engaging materials for the university’s self access CALL center. For the first time I felt that I might be doing something that few others had done and therefore my travails might make for a suitable topic to present to other teachers. A local conference came up that was focused on a theme appropriate to what I wanted to present, I submitted the proposal, was accepted, and then the panic began!

Over the course of the next month, leading up to my ‘appearance’ at IATEFL in Harrogate, I’ll be writing a series of four posts dedicated to getting ready for a conference presentation, which I hope all those of you who’ve gone through the process can relate to and those of you who’ve never done it but are giving it consideration can learn something from. Today I’ll be looking at the pre-pre-conference stage, and is really specifically for those among you who’ve never done this before. This is an important stage of the process, as it is the stage at which many falter. Indeed, a lot of people give up before they’ve even thought about submitting a proposal. Here then, are four small steps you can take to help get you on the way to making your first conference presentation.

1. Attend a conference

If possible, attend a conference before you present at one. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the one that you end up presenting at later on, any event will give you a feeling of what being a part of a conference entails. Knowing what conferences are like will give you an idea of the types of presentations people are making (a talk, a research presentation, a workshop, etc.) as well as helping you feel more confident about presenting. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to be a first time attendee and a presenter at the same time, but it’s not the way I wanted to do it when I branched out into this area of the profession so I wouldn’t recommend it.

If you’ve been to a TEFL conference, you’ll probably feel more confident about presenting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, while there are many great presenters in the world of TEFL, a lot of people absolutely stink at it. I was (still am) amazed by the number of people who are prepared to stand in front of their peers and read directly from a printed word document for forty minutes. You would also be amazed at the number of people who either wrap up after 20 minutes of their allotted 45 or who clearly have no regard for anyone else at the conference and are determined to outlast one of Fidel Castro’s infamous six-hour monologues. Believe me; you’re already better than half of the people out there doing this. Secondly, you’ll quickly realize that you don’t have to be breaking barriers to contribute in a meaningful way.

If you can’t get to a conference, then try looking through past programs, or talking to colleagues who have attended to help you get some idea of what is involved.

2. See what’s coming up

Check websites such as IATEFL or TESOL, your school’s notice board, journals for upcoming events. My advice for starting out as a presenter is to present at a relatively small national conference in the country where you teach, rather than at a behemoth of an event like IATEFL International. You’ll probably find that there are quite a regular number of events near you, so wait for one that has a theme you’re interested in. If you look carefully at the description of the conference and the expectations for submissions, you’ll have a better idea with regard to identifying an appropriate venue for your debut. As much as I’m tempted to say here that pretty much any well-written proposal will get accepted by your chosen event, I won’t (I’ll leave that until later).

3. Choose your topic

Think about something that you do particularly well in your classroom or perhaps something you’re interested in doing research in. What ideas have you shared with your colleagues over a cup of coffee or a glass of beer? This may have seemed like idle chit chat, but it could have unwittingly provided the seeds for your presentation.

Most importantly when thinking about what to present is to choose a topic that you feel comfortable with; don’t worry about being an expert. Sometimes, particularly with newly emerging areas there are no experts. Podcasting was a big fad a couple of years ago, for example, and I had a couple of colleagues who did a great job of simply showing people how to use iTunes and download podcasts: it sounds simple but it was quite an innovation at the time (yes, I am jealous I didn’t think of it). You may think that you don’t have anything new to contribute. Remember this: you are a unique individual in a situation different, even if it is only slightly, from the other conference participants, so never doubt that you have something to offer. The purpose of the conference is for people to learn from one another and you’ll find that people really will come to your presentation to hear what you have to say. You should, of course, do your homework and be as knowledgeable about your topic as you can.

4. Get in the hired help

In my first presentation I had a co-presenter, as I did for my second and third presentations. In fact, it wasn’t until last year that I stepped up to the plate and did it on my own. I don’t know if I would ever have made even a first presentation without someone by my side, never mind becoming a regular presenter. A co-presenter can facilitate both your preparation and your actual delivery. In terms of preparation, your co-presenter will be able to offer practical input on ideas and how to organize and deliver them. If you’re going to bring in the hired help, don’t even think about who will do what at this stage, just focus on developing ideas collaboratively. You’ll have time to work on the mechanics of who does what later on. As for actually delivering your presentation, your co-presenter gives you the ultimate advantage of only having to speak for half the time you would otherwise have to.

I hope these few ideas have given those of you who are thinking of getting onto the conference circuit a few ideas of how to take the first step. Next up I’ll be looking at how to put together a proposal that will get accepted.

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21 thoughts on “How to present at a conference: Part 1 – Taking the first steps”

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  2. All quite true. I don’t like to be negative either, but you are quite right – there are plenty of people who are lousy at presenting, and some of them are giving plenaries ; P

    1. Thanks, Darren. I’ve no intention of naming names, but there are plenty of people out there who shouldn’t be doing this. I’m a great believer that every presenter has something to offer, it’s just that some have a lot more than others.

      Feel free to come and heckle me at IATEFL, by the way. I am, after all, setting myself up for it!

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  4. You made some good points there. I did a big search on this topic and think most people will agree with what you’ve said on your blog.

  5. Great article, i just bookmarked your blog so I can regularly check it. I’m now looking forward to reading future articles.

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