Presenting at Your First Conference Presentation

By Karyssa Courey

Rice University

Congratulations on your conference proposal being accepted! Conferences are a great opportunity to share your research, connect with other researchers in your field, and learn about the latest research! Although conferences are exciting and fun, they may also seem daunting for those of us that get nervous presenting. Here are my 7 tips for a successful conference presentation.

  1. Be prepared

Start preparing long before the conference. In other words, have the first draft of your slides (or handouts) completed about two months in advance. Procrastinating preparation will only cause you more stress later, and it is a good idea to budget ample time for feedback. Set small achievable goals leading up to your conference (e.g., finalize slides, present for lab mates, practice solo) and pencil them into your calendar. Being prepared also entails booking your accommodations (e.g., hotel and flights) long in advance. Before making accommodations, review your department’s guidelines for using travel funding (if available) and make sure to save all of your receipts to get refunded.

  1. Practice and get feedback

Practice your presentation and get feedback from your advisor, collaborators, colleagues, friends, family, or anyone who will listen to you! Practicing is important for several reasons. First, practicing and getting feedback helps you improve the quality of your presentation. If something doesn’t make sense, it’s better to have your colleagues tell you than to leave people confused at the conference! It also helps you identify any errors in your slides and get feedback on ways to explain concepts with greater clarity. Finally, practicing helps build your confidence in presenting in front of others. 

  1. Keep track of your notes

If there are important points that you want to emphasize, jot them down in the notes section of your presentation. This decreases the cognitive load of information that you must remember, and you can refer to your notes while practicing. A few bullet points can be useful in jogging your memory. Remember that the goal here is NOT to write down everything that you want to say, but rather to note the things that you want to emphasize. Over time, practicing with these cues will hopefully help you remember your key points. The goal is to be comfortable enough with your presentation that you do not need to read your notes, but can glance at them in case you get stuck. 

  1. Consider questions you might be asked

Oftentimes at conferences, there is an allotted time for questions and answers. It’s useful to anticipate questions that audience members might ask (after all no one knows your presentation better than you), so consider points of confusion or controversy. When presenting for others, reflect on any questions, comments, and/or critiques that can help you prepare for potential questions you may receive at the conference. Sometimes I will add additional slides after my presentation that I anticipate people might ask about. That way if I get a question that I am expecting, I can flip to the extra slide to help answer the question!

  1. Talk to yourself

Okay, this might sound odd, but hear me out: Practice your presentation by yourself. Talking to yourself is ultimately just extra practice, but it can help improve your confidence with the material. This is especially helpful when you are unable to practice in front of other people. Be sure to time yourself and refer to or add notes as needed. 

  1. Stay on time

It’s common courtesy and good conference etiquette to stay within your allotted presentation time. Arrive early to scope out the presentation room. When presenting your talk, make sure you budget your talk time accordingly and leave room for questions. Generally, it’s better to end slightly early than to run over time and many conferences will end your session at your designated finish time. Practicing with a timer can help ensure that you are moving at a good pace and staying within the time limit.

  1. Mentally prepare

Thinking about, anticipating, and practicing your presentation is normal, but overthinking and ruminating about what might go wrong can impede your performance and result in excess stress. One exercise that might help involves writing down all of the presentation related events that you are afraid might happen or that you are anxious about. Then go through this list and separate the things that you can control from the things that you cannot control. The goal of this exercise is to recognize and focus on what is within your control. Remember to take care of yourself during your preparation process, and to take time to recharge in the days leading up to the event (e.g., yoga, meditation, listening to music, spending time with loved ones, and breath work). 

I hope these tips help you when preparing for your first conference presentation! Enjoy the process and the experience, and don’t put too much pressure on yourself!