How to present at a conference: Part 4 – Delivering your presentation

Well, I’ve just found out today that I will be giving my IATEFL presentation at 17:50 in the evening on the final day of a grueling three-day marathon. The biggest challenge of being scheduled at such a time slot is one that’s completely out of my hands; will I have an audience? This is compounded by the fact that I’ve been placed in a room with a potential audience of 60 people. The number doesn’t frighten me, the prospect of there only being five people in this big room does. I’m not bitter of course, but let me know when submissions for TESOL Arabia 2011 start! So, it looks like the conference organisers have given me plenty to think about in the weeks leading up to the event, but what else is there to consider for those of us who’ve never done this before? Here are a few ideas that will help things run smoothly for you.
What a happy bunch
1. Find your room

A great way to psychologically prepare yourself – assuming you’ve done everything I suggested in part three, of course – for what is to come is to familiarize yourself with your surroundings. When you arrive, find your room and look at the size and layout. Stand at the front where you’ll be delivering your session if you can.

2. Arrive early

Get to your room at least 10 minutes before your session is due to start. This will enable you to set up any necessary equipment and make sure you’re ready with time to spare. Some people, me included, like to attend the presentation scheduled ahead of theirs in their allotted room. I do this so that I can start making my preparations at the earliest possible moment. You are also in the position to politely remind people if / when the presentation before yours starts to overrun. Don’t feel embarrassed about making a noise when somebody is overrunning; they are being rude by not sticking to their time limit, not you.

3. Have enough handouts

I get really upset when I’m in a room and I don’t receive a handout that other people get. Sometimes the conference organisers allow more people in the room than should really be there so you can’t always blame the presenter, but it is extremely disconcerting when the person at the front has only made 10 copies for a room of fifty people. Also, people coming to your session will appreciate receiving a handout at the start, so they can use them for note taking if nothing else. If you’re using a PowerPoint presentation, therefore, make sure you make the type big enough that people can read it and write down anything not included on the handout.

4. Stick to what you should be doing

If your session is supposed to be a workshop, make sure it is that. As I suggested in part three, people will want what’s written on the tin, so don’t start presenting research or deliver a literature review during your workshop; that’s not why people are there. If you can stick to what you said you’d be doing, you’ll have won half the battle.

5. Don’t get led away

Sometimes people in the audience will ask you a question that causes you to go off at a tangent. Such questions may even lead to interesting discussion among several audience members. This is all well and good, but you have an obligation to your entire audience to provide the session you promised to deliver based on what they read in your abstract. If someone asks a question that leads you off in a new direction, you’ll soon pick up on the discomfort in the audience, probably a lot more than the person asking the question does. There are a couple of things I do that are good ways of avoiding this scenario. Firstly, you could announce at the beginning of your session that you won’t be answering questions during the presentation but will be allotting five minutes at the end to answer any queries. Secondly, and this is a good one if a question absolutely throws you, tell the person asking the question that you can’t ask them now but would be happy to discuss the issue they’ve raised after you have finished. These ‘solutions’ will lead to you having time to deal with such issues without causing harm to the flow of your session.

6. Be nice

Always extend every possible courtesy to your audience; they were after all good enough to choose you over all the other sessions on offer. Speak loudly and clearly (ask people if they can hear you) and respond respectfully to questions, however you have arranged to receive them. A nice touch (which I wish I would remember to do) is to ask the name of the person who’s asked the question and then to thank them by name before answering.

7. Don’t panic when people walk out

It’s happened to the best of us, so don’t be alarmed if it happens to you. This doesn’t mean that you are doing a bad job; it is more than likely that these people are merely making the most of their time at the conference and hadn’t read your abstract clearly enough. Remember: what you’re doing will not appeal to everyone. You’ll almost always find that there are several concurrent sessions, and as a consequence a few people might take the opportunity to join another when they realize that yours doesn’t meet their interests.

8. Tricks of the trade

Here are a few things I always do to make sure that things run smoothly.

Reward with a tasty treat

Have a bag of candies with you. Reward people who respond to your questions or who ask a question with a treat. This sounds really childish but it’s surprisingly effective. I go even further and put a candy on the table in front of each participant along with their handout, so that when they walk in they are happily surprised and aren’t staring at you.

Get them involved from the off

I always leave a small slither of paper next to the candy with a couple of questions on it relating to my session. Again, this stops this group of people that you don’t know from staring at you for a few minutes at the beginning of the session and it gives the participants something to positively focus on. You can also elicit their responses to open your presentation to instantly involve your audience (but don’t forget point 5).

Keep them involved

Just as you would plan a variety of tasks in a lesson to maintain interest, vary the way you deliver your session. This could mean showing a short video clip in the middle of your presentation to display how students approach the task you’re describing, or even get participants to speculate among themselves on the outcomes of your research before actually delivering your findings. Short activities like these change the focus of the session and get your participants involved.

OK, enough for today. I’ll be wrapping up my ‘much longer than I thought it would be’ series on conferences with a, hopefully, brief epilogue next week. All comments on the mumbo jumbo above are greatly welcomed.

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    6 thoughts on “How to present at a conference: Part 4 – Delivering your presentation”

    1. Really good advice.

      Wish I had read something that clear and concise before my first few presentations/workshops.

      By the time I was ready to start my objectives had been reduced to not wetting myself with stage fright, or dropping all my notes because my hands were shaking so much.

      1. Thanks Sarah. I have to agree, I wish I’d known what I know now, or at least had someone poinitng me in the right direction. I genuinely hope these posts prove useful for those doing their first presentation.

    2. Hi ya Adam,

      I’m so incredibly sorry to have missed your presentation – yours was very much on my list of ones to go to. Unfortunately got grabbed into a meeting with some folks and wasn’t able to get out to see yours but there was a big circle around 17.50 on Saturday.

      Hope to see you live one day though.

      Take care,

      1. To be honest, I wouldn’t have been there at that time if I hadn’t been presenting! Looking back on this post has given me plenty to reflect on for the next time I do one.

        Hopefully see you here in Turkey soon!

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