Academic conferences: some tips for newbies

Academic or scientific conferences tend to be a bit more formal than most presentations. It’s not so much about entertaining as getting the information across – but that doesn’t mean you have to be boring. Remember you are there to GIVE a paper not READ a paper. The audience may already have your paper and they can read it themselves. Your job is to present the highlights, draw attention to key points, possibly provide some additional background. And ultimately encourage them to read your paper and perhaps follow up with you.

Most academic conferences have a clear structure. There will be keynote or plenary sessions where the whole audience attends. Then there are likely to be a series of parallel sessions/workshops and probably a poster session.

Keynotes and plenary sessions

Picture1If you are lucky enough to be invited to give a keynote address then you need to take it seriously and prepare very well. The audience is likely to be large and you will want to impress.

 

 

 

Things to do are:

  • read the instructions – find out what the usual format is and stick to it
  • find the convenor and introduce yourself
  • make sure you give good biographical details to the person who will introduce you
  • ask the convenor to give you a sign as you get close to the end time, for example, a five minute warning
  • agree with the convenor on how you are going to handle questions
  • find out about some of the other talks at the conference – you may want to refer to them in your talk
  • get the technical staff to check and double check all of the equipment

Parallel sessions

Parallel sessions are usually run in a block, for example, three or four presentations of about 15–20 minutes each. Obviously less people will attend each of these as the audience is spread over several sessions.

If you are giving one of these sessions there are a few things to remember:

  • make sure you have your PowerPoint loaded before the series or block begins, there won’t be time for a handover in the middle
  • normally there will be a moderator or convenor. Make a point of meeting them beforehand. If you want to be introduced in a particular way you can let them know. Check with them how questions are going to be handled. Will it be after each session or at the end of the block?
  • get a clock or watch so that you can keep a track of when you are on and where you are up to
  • get there early to check out the lectern and controls. You may not have time immediately before your talk

Have a look at the abstracts for the other speakers in your block. Will they be saying similar things to you or contradicting you? Do you need to modify your content based on what they will say? For example, if one of them steals your best line or joke do you need to have a back-up?

A problem with parallel sessions is that the previous speaker may run over time. This could cut down your time. You then have to think about which parts of your talk you could speed up or drop out. Perhaps you might allow less time for questions (yippee!)

Adapted from Presenting your Research with Confidence, Hugh Kearns.

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Some tips on PowerPoint

PowerPoint has become the de facto standard at most conferences and most presentations. PowerPoint has some wonderful advantages but it also has some pitfalls for the novice.

badfonts

Too many colours, fonts, sizes and animations.

The temptation is to have too many slides and to overuse the special features, for example, fonts, colours, flying arrows etc. This has led to the terms:

Death by PowerPoint

and

Death by bullet point

 

So here are a few simple guidelines to help you use PowerPoint effectively.

Use standard templates

When people start using PowerPoint they can get carried away with all the possible colours, backgrounds and effects. This can lead to some very ugly combinations. There are people who spend many years learning how to use colours and how to lay out text and images. They are called graphic designers and they have prepared a wide range of templates that come standard with PowerPoint. My advice is that unless you’re a graphic designer, use some of the prepared templates. PowerPoint comes with a standard set of templates and backgrounds. You can also get other templates from the web, for example: http://office.microsoft.com/templates

Your organisation may have a standard template you are supposed to use. Use it. One of the advantages of standard templates is that generally the colours have been chosen so that you can read the text easily. This is one of the problems of creating your own templates. What looks OK on your laptop screen may not project very well.

The rule of 6×6

6x6Six lines per screen and six words per line is a reasonable rule to follow. This forces you to think about what you put on the screen rather than just putting your whole script/paper there. It also means the writing will be large enough to be easily read. Obviously it’s just a guideline but it does give you a sense of how much information to include.

 

Use images and pictures

Newspapers would be very dull without some pictures to provide interest. Images and pictures add another dimension to your slides. However, they should be relevant to the topic.

brain

The PhD student’s brain.

When I’m talking about how a PhD student’s brain works I use the following image.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orollercoasterr when I’m talking about how the PhD experience can be like being on a roller-coaster I use this image.

 

 

 

 

 

Use charts and graphs to highlight

ChartIf you need to talk about a lot of numbers use charts and graphs to highlight points. Make sure you label the important points, for example, put an arrow pointing to the thing you want to highlight.

 

Number of slides

There are no absolute rules, but in general no more than one slide per minute (less if possible). Which means for a 20 minute talk probably no more than 20 slides. If you have more than this you are going to be rushed and probably have too much material. There may be exceptions, for example, if you are showing lots of pictures.

 

And finally “I know you can’t read this but …”

If they can’t read it then what’s the point? Just because you can scan in a page of text doesn’t mean you should put it on PowerPoint. The exception here is if you are showing what a form or graph looks like. To be legible the font size should be 18 points or higher.

Extract from Presenting your Research with Confidence, Hugh Kearns.

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Get a room – Five things you need to know

I was talking to a PhD student recently about her confirmation seminar which she had given a few days earlier. Her presentation went fine but she’d had a lot of logistical problems that caused a bit of anxiety. And most of them related to booking the room. You’d imagine this would be fairly straightforward but I’m going to go through five things you need to know about booking rooms. I’ve learned all of these from the school of bitter experience.

1. Not all rooms are equal

lecturetheatreIf you say to the keeper of rooms “I need a room” you may get a room but one that is not appropriate for your presentation. I’ve run workshops for ten people in a lecture theatre that seats 300 people. I’ve run workshops for 100 people in a room that holds eighty.

Some rooms will not have a/v equipment or a whiteboard. Or the room may be in some obscure corner which means nobody will be able to find it.

So, not all rooms are equal. Work out what you need and find a room that suits. If you have to go through the keeper of rooms then explain clearly what you need and check out the room they assign.

2. Book and re-book

If you wait until the week of your presentation you will probably find that all the good rooms have been booked months ago and all that’s left now is an extended broom cupboard. So to get the room you want get in early.

Once you’ve booked the room you might assume all is well. That is until the day of the presentation when you turn up at the room only to find another group firmly entrenched. This will be followed by an awkward conversation during which you realise the room has been double-booked or your booking has strangely been lost and nobody remembered to tell you.

occupied_toiletYou might be justifiably annoyed about this but that doesn’t solve your immediate problem – the twenty people behind you waiting to get into the room and hear your presentation. And it also doesn’t help your anxiety levels which have now gone from high to extreme.

 

So double-check, and if it’s an important presentation, triple check your booking as you get closer to the presentation day.

3. Setting up time

Let’s assume your presentation is running from 10:00-11:00am. Because you’re organised you turn up early, say 10:30am to get set up.

10to11However as you are about to open the door you realise that there is another meeting in the room which runs from 9:00-10:00am. So you can’t get in to set up. And at 10:00am they show no sign of finishing so now you have to barge in with grumpy people in front of you and a line of grumpy people behind you. And you have no time to check your equipment, to set up the chairs, to give out the handouts.

930to11So book the room for at least a half-an-hour earlier than when you begin. Longer if you are using complicated technology and have to move the furniture around.

4. Wrapping up time

So you’ve done that – you book the room from 9:30 – 11:00am. But as you get near the end of your presentation, say 10:50am you notice people gathering outside the door or even the odd one barging right in. Because of course they’re waiting for the 11:00am meeting. So now you have to rush your conclusion and there will be people wanting to ask you questions. And as you try to dismantle your computer the next presenter is hovering over your shoulder trying to get ready. (And inevitably because you’re rushing you will forget your memory stick. Been there, done that.)

930to1130So book the room for at least half-an-hour after your presentation is due to end.

 

 

no-input-signal

The dreaded No Input Signal screen

5. Book technical support

Recently I was giving a workshop in an Australian university which was going to be tele-conferenced to a group in Malaysia. The workshop was due to start at 2:00pm and I was assured technical support had been arranged. At 1:30pm no sign of any technical support. At 1:45pm no sign, which led to some hurried calls. Because of course the technical support had been booked for 2:00pm. Which would have meant that the first ten minutes of the session would have been “Can you see us in Malaysia? Can you hear us now?” and so on.

So book the technical support for 30 minutes before the start of your presentation.

Summary

You might think this seems like overkill. Surely you can just rely on the keeper of the rooms or the technical person to do their job.

However, it’s your presentation. You will be the person standing up in front of the audience explaining why things have gone wrong. And your anxiety will be rising all the time. You can blame the other people all you like but your presentation and reputation will suffer.

So if you have to give an important presentation and you want it to go well, check and double check.

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Speaker’s notes

ObamaNotes

Obama’s notes from State of Union address 2013

Most speakers at some point will lose their train of thought or get stuck for words. It happens to me regularly. This isn’t a sign of memory loss or early senility. It’s just that when you have a lot on your mind you sometimes get lost.

But it can be quite anxious-making. Having something to fall back on is a good idea. Which is where notes come in. What type of notes should you use? Well it depends.

A full script

If you are giving a big talk to an important group then it is wise to prepare detailed notes. You probably won’t need to read from them but they are reassurance that if you get nervous you have something to fall back on.

When writing notes remember that speaking is different from writing. When you speak you are more informal/unstructured than in writing. So once you’ve written your script, read it out to see if it flows.

NotesSizesBut a densely packed page of font size 12 is not going to help much. When you get anxious the words on a page will turn into a moving sea of letters and a simple task like finding your place on the page becomes very difficult.

 

So:

  • make the font size 14 or 16, maybe even 18
  • double space the text so it’s easier to read
  • you can use a highlighter pen to mark key words which will remind you of what to say
  • you can handwrite key words in the margins, again to remind you of what to say
  • number the pages to keep track of where you are.

Conference papers

Once you have written your conference paper it’s very easy to think that this is your script. It’s not. If you start reading your paper you will quickly lose your audience. They can read faster than you can speak so they will stop listening and start reading. You need to create a different set of notes for your talk. In your talk you will be highlighting key points – not going into every minute detail.

Another fundamental difference is that we speak differently from the way we write. When we speak we tend to use shorter sentences. When we write, sentences can be long and often complicated. In speaking we also tend to be more informal and not always grammatically correct.

This is one reason why a person reading a paper can appear quite stilted. Academic papers are also generally written in the passive voice, for example:

“The survey was administered to 30 subjects”.

People generally speak in the active voice, for example:

“We gave the survey to 30 participants”.

Key points

If you feel confident you might use key points. Many people use PowerPoint for this purpose. The key words will trigger you to elaborate and remind you of the content.

Even if you are using key points you might decide to write out some parts in full, for example, if you need to explain a complicated concept; if you have a specific story or example that it is important to get right; or if there are complicated words or names.

Cue/index cards

cue2Some people use index cards rather than A4 sheets of paper. The index cards are not a full script, just reminders of key points. They are easy to carry around and limit you to key points. However, if you’re nervous you might drop them and then lose your place. So some people number them, punch a hole in them and tie them together.

PowerPoint for notes

In PowerPoint you can create a notes page for each slide. You can print these out to refer to as you go through the slides.

Extract from Presenting your Research with Confidence, Hugh Kearns.

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The presenter’s survival kit

If you present regularly you’ll know the experience. You turn up at the venue but there are no markers. Or worse, there are markers but they don’t work because they’ve run dry. Or you’ve forgotten your watch and the room doesn’t have a clock. Or worse it does have a clock but it doesn’t work because nobody has changed the batteries.

As a result of many experiences like this I now carry a presenter’s survival kit. Let’s look at what’s in it.

A remote presenter with laser pointer

If you are going to be presenting regularly pointerthen a remote presenter is an essential part of your kit. They come with a USB stick that you put into the USB drive of the computer and that’s it. No software required. You get them in electronics shops and they cost between $50 and $100.

To use it you hold the remote presenter in your hand and by pressing a button move your PowerPoint forward or backward one slide at a time. This means you don’t have to stay beside the keyboard all through your presentation. Most remote presenters also come with an in-built laser pointer which is really neat for pointing out parts of your slide.

A clock

It is useful to have a small clock that you can put on the lectern to keep track of time. It needs to be something that balances easily on sloped lecterns. It should have big digital numbers so that you can read it easily when you are blinded by anxiety. You can use a watch but it needs to have numbers you can read easily. You could use the clock in your mobile phone but what if it rings! The clock I use is a small travel clock that folds up so it can fit in my pocket.

Water

waterOne of the symptoms of anxiety is a dry mouth and sometimes a dry throat. In addition, talking can dry up your mouth and throat. To overcome this, bring a bottle of water with you. Have a few sips before you start. And if you need to, have some sips during your talk too.

 

 

Markers

Markerlaw1I’ve created some laws about whiteboard markers.

Hugh’s first law of whiteboard markers:

There will be a whiteboard in the room but there won’t be any markers.

 

 

Markerlaw2Hugh’s second law of whiteboard markers:

If there are markers in the room, they will have run dry.

 

 

 

Hugh’s third law of whiteboard markers:

Markerlaw3If there is one marker that hasn’t run dry and you start using it, you will then find out that it is a permanent marker. (That’s why it hasn’t run dry!)

So to outwit these laws I bring along my own non-permanent whiteboard markers.

 

Eraser

Hugh’s law of whiteboard erasers

If you do find a non-permanent marker that works and you fill up the board you will then not be able to find a whiteboard eraser. Nor will you be able to find any tissues. You will be reduced to asking an audience member for a second-hand handkerchief. To avoid this embarrassing situation my survival kit includes a whiteboard eraser.

survivalchecklistSo before you set off for your presentation make sure you have your survival kit. Go through the checklist so that you don’t forget anything.

You can download this checklist in the Free Downloads section of this blog.

 

 

Extract from Presenting your Research with Confidence, Hugh Kearns

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Managing slip-ups

Even the very best and most prepared speakers will make mistakes. You will make mistakes. I make slip-ups. It happens.

BackspaceFor example you might:

  • forget a word
  • mispronounce a word
  • find a spelling mistake on your PowerPoint
  • miss out a slide
  • leave something out

The main advice is not to let minor slip-ups put you off your stride. Firstly, if no-one has noticed, just carry on. Unless it’s central to your presentation they’re not going to know what you’ve left out! So just carry on.

 

If you do need to go back and include a point or talk about a slide don’t make a big fuss, such as:

“Oh I forgot to mention …

I know this is out of order but …”

 

Instead you could simply say:

“There is one additional point I want to make about …”.

 

If you stumble over a word just say:

“Sorry” and repeat it.

If you really mangle a sentence you could say:

“Let me try that again. In English this time!”

 

If your mind goes blank and you can’t remember a name or a fact or the right word just say:

“The detail has slipped my mind for a moment. It’ll come back to me”. Or

“I’ve had a blank. I’ll come back to that”.

Then move on.

Don’t keep thinking about your mistake. That will make things worse. Move on to the next thing. Don’t draw attention to spelling mistakes and other minor mishaps. If you do start to get anxious, take a breath, have a sip of water, compose yourself and focus on the next bit.

And after the event don’t beat yourself up about slip-ups. You can fix things up the next time, but for now, focus on what worked.

Remember we all make mistakes.

Extract from Presenting your Research with Confidence, Hugh Kearns

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Public speaking and the imposter syndrome

Who hasn’t felt like an imposter when they think about standing up to give a public presentation? You might have to stand up in front of an audience, it could be a team meeting, a class seminar or a conference in front of one thousand people.

In those moments before they call out your name, imposteryou get that sick feeling in your stomach, your hands and knees shake, your heart pounds. You worry that you’re going to open your mouth and say something stupid (or worse, say nothing) and then they’re going to realise that you have no idea what you’re talking about. And there will be that horrible uncomfortable silence, or worse, they will laugh or ridicule you.

You are going to be in the glaring spotlight. Even putting yourself forward is a terrible risk. Who am I to think I could do this? Maybe they’ll ask a question I can’t answer. They’ll find out that I don’t know very much at all. The other presenters are so much better. Who am I to be standing up here in front of all these people? You scan the room and feel all those eyes focused on you. It’s like being caught naked or exposed. What if they laugh? If they are bored? If they just think it’s silly?

It’s a bit like the emperor’s new clothes. You are standing up there hoping they will like what you say but worried that they’ll see right through you! At any point, someone could call out “You don’t know anything”.

As a result, many people avoid presentations. Or only do them when there is no way out and, therefore, don’t do enough of them to get good at it. They miss out on the many opportunities that come from putting yourself forward.

Extract from The Imposter Syndrome.

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BME: structuring your talk

It’s important to have some structure in your talk. How do you do that? Well here’s a simple idea. How about having a beginning, middle and end?

bme

A beginning, middle and end.

And a very nice and simple structure is to link your beginning and end.

bmelink

Link you ending back to your beginning.

For example:

bmelinkphrases

Linking the end back to the beginning.

Sometimes at the start of my workshops for PhD students I tell a story about a PhD student called Frank and some of the difficulties he faced and in particular the isolation he felt along the way.

Then I move on to other content but at the end I sometimes say: Remember at the start I talked about Frank. Well he applied some of the strategies I’ve talked about today; he developed networks; he got a routine going and made some small changes. And the good news is that just recently he sent me an email saying that his PhD had been accepted. (Frank by the way is real, although I always change names to protect the innocent.)

 

Some phrases you can use to make the link between the beginning and the end are:

As I told you at the start …

Remember at the start I mentioned …

When I started I told you the story…

Which brings us back to where we started …

As I said at the start it’s important to have some structure in your talk. And how do you do that? Well as you’ve seen a simple way is to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Extract from Presenting your Research with Confidence, Hugh Kearns

 

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If English isn’t your first language

If English isn’t your first language it can be very daunting to have to stand up and make a presentation in English. Most people find public speaking difficult in their native language. It’s even harder when it’s not your first language. It can be even worse if you have a very pronounced accent or a very quiet voice. So here are some suggestions.

Practice

You will need to spend more time practicing. Present the talk to the mirror, to the dog, to your friends, to anyone. The more often you practice, the easier it will become.

spectacularSpend extra time on complicated words and phrases. Get someone to help you with pronunciation of difficult words. You might need to write them out in a way you can understand them. Many words are pronounced differently from how they look written down.

You must have written notes. These are your fall-back if you get confused or anxious.

 

 

Take every opportunity to speak

It’s tempting to avoid speaking; to tell yourself I’ll wait until my English is better, or my results are clearer, or whatever. The reality is that the only way to get better at speaking is… to speak. So take small less threatening opportunities when they arise, for example, speaking at a team meeting, a lab meeting, with friends, at a course.

Accents

If you have a particularly strong accent that might be difficult to understand, then slow down your delivery. You can also put more words on your PowerPoint slides or handouts. This way your audience can check the written material if they get lost. Don’t put everything on PowerPoint. Just the complicated bits.

Volume

Many people have quiet voices. This is okay in day-to-day conversations but when you are making a presentation you need to be heard. Think about whether the person at the back of the room can hear you easily.

In general most people need to speak more loudly. You need to practice doing this so it feels more comfortable to you. At the beginning you will feel like you’re shouting, but keep at it. After a little practice you will work out the volume you need. If you want to check this out, get a friend to go to the venue with you and stand at the back while you speak. They need to be able to hear you clearly. Remember when the room is full of people there will also be background noise.

twain

Understanding questions

Most of us are anxious when presenting, which means we don’t have many brain cells free to listen to questions and think up appropriate responses. This is even harder when you’re working in a second language. Firstly, you have to try and understand the question, then think of the answer and put it into words.

If you haven’t understood the question you could ask the person to repeat it or put it into different words. For example:

“I’m not sure I fully understand your question. Could you rephrase it please?”

If you are not confident about understanding the questions one alternative is to bring someone with you who can translate for you or clarify it in words you understand. Or ask someone in the audience to clarify it.

For example:

“I’m sorry. I’m not understanding the question fully. Can someone help?”

The good thing about being a non-native speaker is that your audience will probably understand and be more forgiving of any slips.

Extract from Presenting your Research with Confidence, Hugh Kearns

 

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Five conference fails and easy fixes

FiveFails

I’ve been to many conferences in my time. Too many. And while there have been some great presentations there have also been some epic fails. Fails which could have been easily avoided. I was at a conference recently so here are five fails I came across and five fixes.

1. Not familiar with content

While the presenter was well qualified in their subject area they clearly weren’t familiar with their own presentation. They didn’t seem to know which slide was coming next and even why some of the slides were there at all.

I suspect this happens because many presenters are putting their presentation together at the last minute – often on the plane to the conference or late the night before. This means that there isn’t enough time for them to practice the content. Their first run through of the material is in front of the live audience.

Fix: Practice, practice, practice

Practice means reading through your notes and the slides many times. But it also means reading the content out loud. It will sound a lot different than reading it quietly in your head.

2. Reading a paper

The presenter wrote an academic paper and then proceeded to read it to us. Reading anything reduces the spontaneity but reading an academic paper is mind-numbing. The problem is that we don’t talk the way we write. When you write you will be trying hard to be grammatically correct. You’ll probably have long sentences and complicated words. When we speak naturally, we are not always grammatically correct, we use shorter sentences, and more commonly used words. So reading an academic paper often comes across as stilted.

Fix: Write out what you will say

As well as the academic paper you need to prepare notes of what you will actually say. These need to be written in a more conversational style. You probably won’t read these but they are your back-up. And don’t assume you’ll remember clever things to say on the day. When you are anxious, all those good ideas will disappear. So write them down.

3. Technology fails

The person brought along their own laptop which of course didn’t easily attach to the connections on the lectern. When they did finally get it connected, their desktop appeared on the projection screen and as they searched through their files we all got to view their recently downloaded movies and various other files. Another person thought it would be a good idea to have their notes on their tablet, which of course froze half-way through their presentation.

Fix: Check and double check the technology

Technology will always let you down and the more stressed you are the more likely it is that things will go wrong. So check everything out, with the equipment in the venue, several times before your talk. And keep things as simple as you can. Print out your notes because paper always works.

4. Timing fails

Over and over again presenters said “I’m out of time but there’s a few slides I’ll just go through quickly”. Which meant that the presentation ended in a bit of a rush and often the key point was lost.

Fix: Read your presentation out loud and time yourself

Practice reading your presentation out loud with a timer. If your slot is for 15 minutes and you’ve got 25 minutes worth of material go though and delete 10 minutes worth of content. Then read it out loud again and time yourself again.

5. Too much information

The difficulty for many of the presenters was that they wanted to present their last three years of research in 15 minutes. And so they packed in far too much information, far too many slides, too many tables and graphs, too many words. Which meant as an audience member I was overwhelmed by too much detail and really couldn’t figure out what the main point was. I think another reason presenters do this is that they are worried about running out of things to say. In my experience this has rarely been a problem.

Fix: Two or three main points and leave out a lot

Identify two or three main points that you want to get across. Include these in your introduction, elaborate on them in the main part of your talk and then summarise them again at the end. This will mean leaving out a whole lot of detail. You can mention that more information is available if people want to talk to you afterwards.

 

Most of thFiveFailse fixes I’ve suggested come down to preparation and practice. We all know that we get better at things the more we practice them.

The first time is not going to be great, the second time will be better and by the fifth time it might be getting good.

For most presenters their first practice is the final run so no wonder things go wrong. Practice is the key.

 

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