Being able to present your research to an audience is a key skill for researchers to develop. There are a variety of different settings where you may be asked to do this, from the department or faculty research seminar to the international conference. Presentations sometimes take the form of posters as well as talks.
It is important that every presentation takes account of who the audience is. A seminar delivered to an interdisciplinary audience who may have no specialist knowledge of your field will be very different to a conference presentation in front of learned specialists – even if you are presenting essentially the same research at both venues.
Most departments have seminar series where members of staff and postgraduate researchers are invited to come and talk about ‘research in progress’. These are a relatively non-threatening way of gaining experience in presenting your research. They are also an ideal forum for getting feedback on your work, and new ideas for how to take it forward.
Here are some of the things you might want to think about before you prepare your presentation.
Style and format:
- who will be invited? What is their likely knowledge of your research project/area? Are they experts or interested non-specialists? Do they have more experience than you, or less?
- will they expect a Powerpoint presentation or a more informal talk?
- how much of the seminar will you be expected to spend on presentation? How much on discussion?
- where will the seminar be held? Will you have to book and set up the audio-visual aids (laptop, data projector)?
Content and delivery:
- find ways to bring your content to life: pictures, diagrams, quotes, real-life examples, anecdotes, practical applications
- beware of overloading your presentation with ‘special effects’ if using Powerpoint. These can distract from the substance of your talk
- decide how you will organise your content. Will it be chronological? By problem and solution? By rule/example? How do the different topics/issues relate to one another?
Structure your talk carefully and make this structure explicit to the audience:
- introduction: explain why the research is being carried out and why it is important
- content: show the audience how you have structured your talk. Make sure they know when you are moving from one part of the structure to the next
- conclusion: summarise the key points. You might want to pose a question or comment on the future direction of the research, to encourage discussion.
- run through your presentation at least once before the seminar. Make sure that you aren’t trying to present too much information in the time available
- try out any Powerpoint slide shows to make sure everything displays properly
- visit the room before the seminar or arrange to arrive early to test the equipment.
The chance to give a presentation at a conference normally comes about in one of two ways:
- an invitation to you (or possibly to your project manager) from the organising committee
- a ‘call for papers’. Prospective participants are asked to submit proposals for work to be presented. Proposals are reviewed by the organising committee before the final selection is made.
You will normally have to prepare a short abstract and provide bibliographic details for the conference programme. The organisers will explain the required format. You should also be asked for details of your audio-visual requirements (e.g. laptop, data projector, flipchart, whiteboard, internet access).
If you are asked to produce a written paper for the conference proceedings, advice provided on writing for publication may be useful.
Preparing a conference presentation is much like preparing a lecture or seminar. Use the guidance above to help you.
It is particularly important to ensure that you can keep to the allotted time. Practise your presentation at least once beforehand, to make sure you aren’t trying to present too much information in the time available.
Don’t be too disappointed if this means cutting out some material. It is always possible to prepare a few extra slides which you can keep ‘in reserve’ in case the topic is raised afterwards in questions or discussion. You may even find that it is better to excite the audience’s curiosity than to bombard them with too much information.
Presenting at a conference can be nerve-wracking. The following tips may help:
- visit the room beforehand or arrange to arrive early. This will give you time to make sure the equipment is working and to make yourself comfortable
- consider using a radio microphone if you have a large audience or are in a large room
- if you are nervous take slow, deliberate breaths. Try to relax your shoulders. Make sure you have a drink of water to hand in case your mouth becomes dry!
- speak slowly. Project your voice (without shouting) and watch your body language
- make eye contact across the whole room. This really helps to maintain attention.
The Staff Development Unit at your university will run training courses on presentation skills from time to time. If you are nervous about a conference presentation, it can be a great help to attend one of these courses beforehand. The trainers will help you to identify any easily avoidable mistakes, and to deliver your material calmly and with confidence.
Displaying a poster at a conference is a good way of:
- raising the profile of your research
- giving you a focus for establishing networks
- helping you to gain confidence in talking about your research.
The conference organisers will provide information about the required size and format of the poster. You may also be invited to take other supporting literature to distribute on the day.
A good poster should:
- be eye-catching
- have a clear message
- be easy to read from a reasonable distance
- include diagrams, pictures, graphs, photos etc. (in moderation)
- use colour (in moderation).
Remember to find out the budget and arrangements for poster printing and make sure that you leave enough time before the conference to get it done.
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