Elizabeth M. Olsson | 28 January 2019
Veteran academics joke that the most important parts of a conference are the times in between: the coffee breaks, the lunches, the drinks at local pubs. This is where academics have genuine, inspirational conversations about their work and, most importantly, it’s where they make human connections. This rarely happens during conference presentations, but it could. Before I get to that, I’d like to outline the problem. The reason academics don’t connect with each other during presentations has a lot to do with the ways in which they are made. I presented in two conferences in the last month and I watched countless presenters read from scripts, rush through the entire contents of their papers, and generally present too much complex information in the space of approximately 10 minutes. To make this a little more concrete, I watched one presenter blast through 38 PowerPoint slides in 15 minutes and I witnessed another speed-read a 20-page paper in 10 minutes. Needless to say, these presentations fell flat because both presenters put themselves in positions where they simply couldn’t engage with their audiences. This is a problem.
So what’s the alternative? It turns out that the most effective presenters present very little concrete information and they make their presentation with rather than for their audiences. It seems these presenters know intuitively that there is no need to present a paper in it’s entirely. After all, they can send their papers to anyone in the audience who wants to read them after the presentation. Instead of covering too much in too little time, they employ strategies that promote interaction and meaningful discussion. This occurs when the presenter presents just enough to get members of the audience thinking and interested in what they have to say.
How is this done and, more importantly, how can you do it? The answer is simple: engage your audience. Tell jokes, ask questions, show images rather than texts, and keep the content of your presentation as simple and straightforward as possible. I’m not suggesting that you dumb down what you have to say. Instead, think it through and craft it to such an extent that any conference participant could walk into your presentation and enjoy watching it.
Are you still having difficulty wrapping your head around a more simple and straightforward presentation approach? Here are five practical suggestions.
Drastically reduce the number of slides you present. Ideally, present no more than 1 or 2 slides for every 5-minute-block of your presentation. This means that if you’re scheduled to present for 10 minutes, you present no more than 4 slides. Moreover, each slide should contain very little information. The slides should be used as a jumping off point for discussion and should not contain all the information you present.
DO NOT READ from a script. The easiest way to disengage with an audience is to read what you want to tell them. This is because you will read too fast and, more importantly, you won’t maintain the eye contact you need to gauge if your audience members understand, agree, or disagree with what you are saying. This may sound daunting but, if you cannot talk about your topic freely, you may want to reconsider presenting it in the first place.
Ask your audience to participate as you present. Ask them questions; ask them to do things. You can even ask them to briefly discuss a concept or question with the person sitting next to them. The point is, if you talk to them without asking them to do something, their minds will drift and you will lose them.
Presentation attitudes are a self-fulling prophecy so keep yours positive. It’s easy to worry that you will mess up or appear stupid. It turns out everyone worries about this. But it’s not helpful. What is helpful is to think of everyone in your audience as there for the sole purpose of helping you. If you think of your audience this way, you are much more likely to steer your presentation in a successful direction.
Do not rush to answer difficult questions. It is perfectly okay to ask someone to clarify what they mean before answering his or her question or even to tell that person that you need to think about what they have asked before responding. This is a great opportunity to extend the discussion of your ideas outside of the presentation.
The next time you present at a conference, give these suggestions a try and see what happens. You have very little to lose in engaging with your audience and a whole lot to win if you get people interested in your research. And, if your presentation does fall flat, you’ll have a great story to tell at the local pub. Cheers!
Elizabeth M. Olsson is a Ph.D. student at SGS. She previously worked as a classroom teacher in the United States, Japan, Sweden, and the Occupied West Bank. Her research interests include constructive classroom conflict, the school's democratic mission, and resistance among educational actors. She is bizarrely passionate about public speaking.