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Advice on Writing and Delivering a Conference Presentation

By Saraya Haddad, Co-Chair 2024

Writing: ‘And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand’ (Sonnet 60)

Quality not Quantity 

A 20-minute presentation always zooms by. If I had a pound for every time I realised post-presenting that my script was too long, I could get a job in academia AND afford to live on an affordable income. The general advice is to keep 20 minutes of speaking to between 2500-3000 words. Of course, if you are someone who likes to adlib, you should also factor in time for that. Personally, I find staying closer to 2500 words tends to be a better idea, particularly if you want to avoid rushing (more on that later). 

TIP: BritGrad presentations should be a MAXIMUM of 20 minutes, for this reason it is a safer bet to aim for about 18 minutes, as it gives you breathing room.  

To have a script or not to have a script…

The short answer to this is: it’s up to you. The majority of presenters tend to use some sort of script, whether it’s fully polished or just bullet points. I like to use essay writing that I wish to discuss and change the odd bit to make the tone feel more conversational. However, I know people who prefer to just have brief guidelines or prompts written down, and people who prefer to speak entirely unscripted. The most important thing is to do what will work best for you. 

‘Suit the powerpoint to the word, the word to the powerpoint’ (Hamlet)

While having a powerpoint or slideshow is not essential, it can greatly enhance a presentation. I will be honest: I struggle to focus on a presentation when it is not complemented by a slideshow. This is the case for most people who have a more visual learning style, and hence the addition of slides is not just more accessible, but means more people will follow your argument. Once again though, it is ultimately up to you to decide what will be best for your presentation specifically. If you do include a slideshow of some sort, remember to ensure it compliments your script rather than convoluting it. As Hamlet once said (or perhaps would have said if the wonders of powerpoint were available at Elsinore…), ‘Suit the powerpoint to the word, the word to the powerpoint’. 

Practice, practice, practice!

Whether it’s for your mum or your significant other, your cat or your mirror, run your presentation at least once before it’s time for the real thing. This will also help give you an idea of if you are under twenty minutes or not!

Presenting: ‘Speak the speech, I pray you’ (Hamlet, 3.2)

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

It is no secret that, when we are nervous, we talk faster. When presenting we need to fight these instincts and remind ourselves to slow down. It is really tricky to follow someone’s presentation when they are rushing through it, which is another reason why it is important to make sure any scripts used are not too long. As cringe as it is, the effect of taking a few slow deep breaths before you begin should never be underestimated. 

The Eyes are the Window to the Soul 

The downside of a script is that it can be easy to hide behind! Try to resist this temptation by looking up from your script as much as possible (pop your finger where you are on the page so you don’t lose your place) and making eye-contact with listeners (or the camera on your laptop if you are joining us virtually). Your audience wants to feel that you are talking to them, they deserve to see your beautiful eyes! 

Kindly tell imposter syndrome it is not invited to the party

As great as conferences are, they can be a hotbed for the plague that is imposter syndrome. I recently came back from a conference myself with a touch of this infectious disease that breeds rife in academic circles. BritGrad is strictly a NO IMPOSTER SYNDROME ZONE. If you lose your place in your presentation, pronounce a word wrong, or something goes wrong with your slides… keep calm and carry on! Trust your work, your ability to learn and grow, and what YOU have to offer that no one else does. 

Passion is infectious

Whether you’re Mark Antony moving the Roman citizens to tears (and enraging them against Caesar’s murderers…), or a 21st Century graduate student presenting at a conference in Stratford-Upon-Avon, passion is infectious! Remember to show us how much you care about your subject. If you find it interesting, chances are we will too. Likewise, don’t feel you need to be overly serious when presenting, breaking from script or cracking a few jokes can further boost engagement! 

The Q&A: ‘Feed yourselves with questioning’ (As You Like It, 5.4)

Grab a quill and parchment (or a 21st century equivalent)

I find Q&As so much easier when I have a pen and paper with me to jot down the key ideas of someone’s question and my initial thoughts. Sometimes people can have lengthy questions, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed in the moment and forget what someone is asking; writing notes helps combat this. Some people also find it helpful to have notes on the key ideas of their presentation to help give them talking points if they find themselves blanking in response to a question. Don’t forget, you can always ask someone to repeat or rephrase their question, they will be more than happy to. 

Pause for thought 

It is very easy to speak before we think. If you do not immediately know the answer to a question, it is ok (and encouraged) to mull it over before a few seconds rather than rushing into an answer.

You are not expected to be an encyclopaedia, don’t worry, we know you’re human

Being put on the spot can be tough, and no one is trying to catch you out. If an answer does not come to you it is ok to say “I will have a think and get back to you” or “That is something I need to look into”. Make sure to get the questioner’s contact details so you can get in touch once you have had time to think more about their question. Remember- even top academics do not always have the answer. Admitting you don’t know shows more courage and integrity than making up an answer because you feel you “should”. 

Last but not least… break a leg (not literally)! I know I speak for everyone on committee when I say, we can’t wait to hear about your research. 

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