November 8, 2019

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

Image by congerdesigns on Pixabay

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:

  • Open a blank document and start an outline. 
  • What are the three (or five) main points you want to make? State those in clear language that would be understood by someone not in your field. Yes, this applies even if you will be presenting to a professional audience. These are the main topics of your outline. 
  • Fill in the sections beneath each main point with details. Include more than you think you'll need, and add citations for each statement. This is a good place to add data and statistics if relevant. If you can illustrate these points with a story of some sort, do it! (Talk about a specific client, a question someone asked you, something that happened to you/someone else, a news event, etc.)
  • At the end of each section/subsection, write a clear statement reiterating your main point and why this is important. What should the audience know after hearing this?
  • Once you've finished your outline, think about what you can realistically cover in the time allotted. Remember that you'll need time for questions. Move anything that will probably be "extra" out of your outline and into a separate section called "Overage" or something similar. You can then use this if you find that your talk goes incredibly quickly and you need to fill time at the end. Organize accordingly.
  • Build in some kind of audience interaction. This can be as simple as asking people to raise their hands if they have ever ... You can have them pair up to briefly discuss a topic, or you can get more creative by handing out note cards for questions, etc.
  • Plan on 5-10 minutes for questions at the end. Prepare a few questions just in case no one asks one. If I ask whether there are questions and no one raises their hand right away, I'll say something like "While you're putting your thoughts together, I'll share one of the most common questions I get asked:  xxx" and then answer it. Often this will get people thinking and hands will go up.

Preparing your Slides

Image by rawpixel on Pixabay

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

  • If you're using PowerPoint, click on "Insert>Online Image" and make sure to select only Creative Commons images. PPT will insert the image credit automatically for you.
  • In PPT, use the "Design Ideas" feature to design pretty slides. 
  • If you aren't happy with the images available through PPT, you can also check Pixabay and Unsplash for free images that don't require attribution. If you're looking for diverse stock photos, check out this list.

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:

  • Images that relate to your topic (for example, if I'm talking about a specific blood vessel I will show an image of it)
  • A few key words or phrases that help the audience orient to your topic or presentation
  • Graphs/charts (see note below)
  • A question for the audience to ponder or discuss
  • A summary of your main point after you've made it

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?

Should you include charts/graphs?

Should you include citations on your slides?

Is it okay to add a link to your own website or your contact info to your slides?

Sample Slides

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?

  • Being laser-focused on what the audience wants to hear rather than what you want to present
  • Having three(ish) main points that you clearly communicate
  • Not trying to fit too much into the session

Giving your Awesome Presentation

Image by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

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

  • Wear something that makes you feel comfortable. I recommend a sweater, scarf or shawl, as you never know whether conference rooms will be freezing or sweltering. I tend to get warm when I'm presenting, so I wear layers that I can shed and still look professional.
  • Do wear something with pockets and an obvious place to clip a mic. If you're being recorded, you may be asked to use a wired mic that you'll need to carry. This is inconvenient if you are also trying to hold your notes and/or a clicker/pointer. I'll say it again: have pockets!
  • Also, wear a watch. It's more professional than checking your phone for the time, although that's a reasonable backup. Some conferences have time-keepers who will alert you when you have 30/10/5 minutes left. Some conferences have visible clocks in each room. Many, however, don't. Be prepared just in case.
  • Bring a water bottle and a cough drop or something you can suck on if you have a coughing fit/sore throat. It's ridiculous how often this happens. You can also pause to take a drink if you need to collect yourself briefly during your talk.

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

Image by free-photos on Pixabay

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:

  • Did you go over time? Finish early? Note whether you had too much material or too little. 
  • Were there slides that went over well with the audience? Or ones that didn't? (e.g. people in the back couldn't see)
  • What kinds of questions did people ask?  Anything you should include in your presentation the next time around?
  • Anything else of note? Stories or jokes that were well-received? Or those that weren't? Slides that you would remove the next time around? Etc.  

Ta Da!

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

About Camille Freeman, LDN, RH (she/her)

Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and licensed nutritionist specializing in fertility and menstrual health. I run the Monday Mentoring community of practice and also offer continuing education programs for highly-trained herbalists and nutritionists (Check out this year's Deep Dive!). I'm also a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating.

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