How to Give an Awesome Conference Presentation
Preparing to speak at a conference is both exhilarating and terrifying. The good news is that many, MANY conference presentations are...well, let's just say they're not awesome. Which makes it easier for you to shine, relatively speaking :).
Here's what to do.
Gather material for your presentation
This is the most important step, and the one that tends to get overlooked. Don't start with your slides! This is the step that takes the most time, at least for me. Once I have a solid outline, I can create my slides in 1-2 hours.
How to create your outline:
Preparing your Slides
Now that you have a rough outline, it's time to prepare your slides. Print out your outline and/or open it up next to your slides. Envision what you'll be saying for each slide as you're creating.
A few design tips
What goes on a slide?
I'll tell you what doesn't go on a slide: big blocks of text. At no point in your presentation should you be reading the slide aloud, nor is it usually appropriate to ask the audience to read the slides to themselves.
Also, avoid fancy animations/special effects.
Here's what to include:
If it even crosses your mind that something on your slide may be too small for the audience to read/see then don't use it or make it bigger. Always err on the side of making things bigger.
Also, for accessibility reasons it is best to have a light background with dark, easy-to-read font.
Creating Slides FAQ
How many slides do you need?
Fewer than you think!
For a 60-minute presentation, I tend to have 15-30 slides, including an introductory slide or two and a handful of slides with references.
For the love of all that's holy, please do not have more than one slide per minute at the absolute maximum.
I'll never forget a conference presentation where the speaker attempted to get through 117 (!!!!) slides in a 50-minute presentation. It was a near-death experience for the audience.
Should you include charts/graphs?
Only include graphs/charts if the audience will be able to view and understand them while paying attention to what you're saying. A complex chart won't work well. You'll lose people as they try to figure it out. It's fine to use simple graphs/charts if you can explain their significance in a minute or less. Be sure to check that you have permission to use the image if it doesn't belong to you!
Should you include citations on your slides?
If you're giving an academic presentation or referencing someone else's work, it is standard practice to add citations to your slides. It is fine to add a citation in smaller font at the bottom or side of the slide. You can then provide a full list of references at the end of the slideshow or on your own website. If your slides will be distributed to attendees, you can also link to your sources directly from the citation.
Is it okay to add a link to your own website or your contact info to your slides?
Check the conference presenter guidelines. In most cases, though, it's perfectly acceptable to link to your own website/social media and/or to provide contact info so that attendees can reach you later if they like. I often create a page on my website with a copy of the slides, a list of references and other resources, and the option contact me and/or to join my mailing list. I will then provide a link to this page at the end of a conference presentation.
I'm not necessarily the queen of perfect slides, however if it would be helpful for you to see some examples that have worked well for me in the past, here are a few:
What makes your conference presentation awesome?
Giving your Awesome Presentation
Now that you've done all the prep work, it's time to actually present your work. Woo hoo!
Getting Over Nerves
It helps to think of this as a chance to connect with people who care about your field. I go into every presentation assuming that the people there are open-minded and excited to learn about my topic. I try to think about everyone in the room as a supportive colleague/friend, rather than focusing on how they are all smarter/better/more advanced/more experienced/waiting to catch me in an error, which is definitely where my mind goes if left to its own devices. I focus on sharing my own excitement and curiosity about the subject, and providing information that I think will serve the audience.
I usually skip the session immediately before mine so that I can review my notes and go for a short walk (outdoors, if possible) to clear my head.
Also, deep breathing is your friend.
Bring your Notes and Slides
Have a copy of your slides on a flash drive, just in case.
Do not rely on the notes section in PowerPoint being available while you are presenting! These will not be visible if the conference venue is using Chromebooks (many are), and under some other circumstances as well.
It's fine to have your notes in PowerPoint, but bring a hard copy as well.
I will often print out a simplified version of my outline with font size of at least 18 that highlights key phrases/reminders and includes any specific stats that I might forget. If you're worried about your hands shaking too much, bring a clipboard for your notes in case there isn't a lectern.
Another option is to put your notes on note cards. If you do this, punch holes in the top corner and run a key ring through them so that your note cards stay in order. You can add colored sticky notes to easily guide you to each section if you like.
What to Wear
Plan how you'll say "I don't know"
It's very likely that someone will ask you a question to which you don't know the answer. Come up with a plan in advance for how you'll answer. I usually say "Great question! I'm not sure/I don't know/I can't recall off the top of my head. If you give me your email after the session's over I'll poke around and get back to you."
You can also say some version of, "Great question! I can't answer right now, but if you meet up with me after the session I'd love to talk to you more about it."
I do not recommend asking whether anyone in the audience knows the answer (under most circumstances), as this tends to derail the presentation.
Starting your Presentation
Smile. Introduce yourself. Tell people that you're glad they are here while looking at least a few people in the eyes. This will help. A lot.
Let people know whether they're free to ask questions during your presentation or whether you'll take questions at the end. If the group is larger than 20 or so, I recommend asking them to hold questions until the end. Otherwise it's easy to have questions derail your presentation. If you are giving a presentation for the first time or very nervous, it may also help to know that you won't be interrupted. However, if it's a smaller group having people ask questions throughout can make the experience feel more powerful/intimate. Rather than feeling awkward about coming to a small talk, participants will feel like they've gotten a personalized experience.
If you can, start with a story. About why you're interested in this topic. What got you into the field. The start of a client case study. Something to hook the audience's interest.
Then, carry on. Do your thing. If you get done early, use the bonus material you prepared when putting together your outline. If you aren't anywhere close to done when you've used up 75% of your time, cover only any main points left on your outline (no subpoints) and go straight to your conclusion. What is the takeaway message? Summarize it briefly and leave at least 2-3 minutes for questions. Under no circumstances should you go over the time you've been given!
Going over your time is the cardinal sin of conference presentations. Don't do it.
After the Conference
Take a few minutes to write down what went well and what could use improvement. I like to do this at the top of my outline document. If I ever give this presentation or a similar one again, I use those notes to adjust.
Key things to write down:
Okay, that's it. What have I missed? Anything you don't agree with? Put your own sage wisdom in the comments below or send it to me personally so I can update this. <3