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Presenting at a conference

Posted 6/10/2024

Conference presentations are a common but difficult communication environment. Your talk will likely be short, and one of perhaps a dozen that your audience members will see that day. Keeping their attention and helping them remember something is thus a formidable task.

If you’ve been to a conference before, think back to a favorite talk. Usually, I remember someone whose presentation told a compelling story, or someone who helped me think in a new way. Talks crammed full of content are often memorable in a bad way: I rarely leave them with new ideas or a positive impression of the speaker. Keep this in mind when crafting your presentation.


Start planning by thinking about your goals for your audience during your time on stage. A good starting place is:

  1. Leave them with a positive impression of you and your scholarship
  2. Teach them one to three high-level ideas
  3. Get them interested in learning more about your work

These goals do not include explaining details of how you did your work. Viewers don't have the time or attention to learn details from a conference talk, but if they get interested by the high-level ideas they can read your papers later to learn more.

Next, think about your audience and environment. Look at the other talks in your session to think about the background of the audience. If they are attending to hear talks in this session, what are they likely to be interested in? What messages and ideas might they have heard in the prior presentations (which you can either skip to save time or briefly reinforce with your own materials)? Key aspects of the environment to anticipate are the scheduled duration of your talk, the audiovisual equipment available to you, and the approximate size of the audience.

Creating your content

After the preparation steps, organize your ideas into an outline before you make any slides. Write down your conclusions, then a list of evidence to support the conclusions, then the key background content needed to understand your results. Be careful to avoid “interesting but irrelevant” content that doesn’t support your conclusions.

When you start preparing slides, use your outline for guidance rather than starting from previous talks' content. It may feel uncomfortable to wait so long into the process to work on slides, but this strategy will produce a more focused and coherent talk then the “copy-and-paste old slides” approach.

Once you’ve drafted some slides, give the talk at a natural pace to check its length relative to your time limit. Present it to others to get their feedback before you polish it too much. Your peers may give you a polite “it looks good!” response. To get more actionable information, ask “what was the most interesting part of the talk, and at what part were you most confused?” Or use  Adam Grant’s strategy of asking for a score between 0 and 10, and then ask what to change to make it a 10.

As you refine the talk, work on making high-quality visual elements. Images help with audience retention, and a visually polished presentation will help you stand out at a busy conference. Use an “assertion-evidence” format for your slides: make an assertion with the slide title, rather than simply naming a topic, and use graphics and text to provide supporting evidence. This slide format is easier for an audience to process and interpret. Avoid excessive text on your slides, and make sure that the text you do include avoids acronyms and uses complete sentences rather than fragments.

On your final slide, list the main conclusions you chose when planning the talk. Also include a link to your website (remember your goal of getting them interested in learning more about your work). Leave your conclusions slide up during the Q&A, rather than adding a last slide that says “Questions?” so that the audience can look at your conclusions and website link for a few minutes during the discussion.

Giving the talk

As the presentation date approaches, keep giving practice talks to get feedback from peers. Aim to identify and fix confusing or problematic parts before you go out to a public audience. The practice will also help you feel more confident and comfortable during the actual presentation.

You may feel nervous before the talk. Embrace this as your body's natural response to excitement for the privilege you have of sharing your ideas with an audience, rather than resisting it as something inappropriate. If you feel overwhelmed by nerves, take a deep breath before you go on stage, connect with your senses for a moment, and appreciate the chance you have for personal growth and sharing your knowledge. If you think you will talk quickly or breathe shallowly, bring water on stage and take a drink to slow yourself.

When you present, speak confidently and remind yourself that you like your topic. Your energy will be contagious to your audience. For the same reason, try not to apologize during your talk (“I’m sorry that I’m standing between you and your coffee break. I’ll try to hurry.”). Apologies may feel polite or funny, but they risk implying that your talk doesn’t deserve the audience’s attention. An enthusiastic tone with a hint of modesty can land well with an audience in getting them interested.

After the talk, take a moment to reflect. Hopefully, it was a memorable and rewarding experience, even if also a bit scary. Take a moment to reflect on what went well, what changes you might make next time, and what questions arose from the audience. Each presentation is an opportunity to learn about how to effectively convey your work, so capture ideas to utilize next time. As you repeat the process a few times, you should get more efficient, more confident, and more effective in conveying your ideas.


If you think carefully about your goals and message, get feedback along the way, and rehearse a few times before your talk, you will already be ahead of most speakers at your conference. So take the podium with confidence and enjoy the experience!


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