How NOT to give a conference presentation

Continuing my series of posts on the ‘best bits’ of my IATEFL 2013 Conference experience, I feel compelled today to turn the tables and report on a presentation I attended today that taught me a lot–not about the intended subject matter, unfortunately, but about things that make or break a conference presentation (in–and I stress–my personal opinion).

I won’t name names, and I should specify now that, as an ELT professional with little-to-no presenting experience myself, I don’t mean to demean or undermine in any way the courage and professional wherewithal it takes to stand up and present at an international conference.

However, I do have a fair amount of experience as a conference audience member, and from that point of view, here are my recommendations to presenters for a well-received talk:

talk so fast that no one can follow you. If you know you’re a fast talker, practise slowing down (I can empathise with the difficulty of this!). If you’ve done the talk before in 60 minutes and now you have only 30, cut down the content. Don’t speed it up. It doesn’t work.

ramble endlessly, using insanely long sentences with such frequent hedging and fillers that nobody can remember the start of your point once you’ve got to the end. It’s confusing and irritating.

use terms–or worse, coin terms–without explaining them! Or offering audience members a chance to ask for an explanation. If you’re really pressed for time, and/or you can’t possibly get through the talk without using certain jargon, consider giving a glossary on a handout.

use a laser pointer when you’re standing one metre away from the screen in a small room. It’s silly.

show confusing slides with words scattered across them apparently at random and expect the audience to work out the connections between them, or what headings/illustrations are missing.

organise information/points in your talk. Make coherent links between the things you mention. Don’t assume the audience will be able to work it out. They don’t know your presentation as well as you do. The rationale and connections behind the things you’re presenting aren’t necessarily obvious.

finish the talk with your name and contact info. Maybe no one will want it or need it, but it looks professional and somebody might like to have it. It also definitively closes your talk, rather than just trailing off…

mention, preferably at the start, if there’s going to be a handout, and what’s on it, to save people from death by furious note-scribbling.

invite questions at the end. If you can’t, at least say why not, e.g. no time. (This might be another good reason for providing contact details at the end of the presentation.)

actually answer the questions people ask.

interact with the audience as individuals. You may look out at them and see a group, but each of them feels individual and listens to you on an individual level, not on behalf of everyone else in the audience. It’s nice to feel like the presenter’s talking to you (singular), not ‘you’ (plural). And on a related note, it’s also a nice touch to chat a bit with people in the audience who have arrived early to see you, if possible. Aside from building rapport, I’ve heard it can relax an anxious presenter.

cite the sources for the quotes (and any sweeping statements) in your presentation.

proof-read your handouts and slides, if you have any. You’re presenting to a room full of English teachers (read: pedants). Better still, ask someone else to proof-read your stuff as well.

thank the audience at the end. It’s just polite, right? And this is a two-way street, of course (see below).

OK, so much for what audience members (at least those like me) might expect from a presenter. For my part, here’s what I think audience members should contribute in return:

Their attention. It may potentially be divided–they may be taking notes or trying to share key points of the talk with those who can’t make it (e.g. on Twitter)–but it should be there. Gossiping loudly with other attendees when the presenter is talking is a bit rude. So is forgetting to put mobiles on silent.

Their thanks. Where possible, it seems good manners to thank the presenters for their hard work. Because, despite all the criticisms I’ve made above, it is hard work. And, as with most complex skills, those who are really good at it make it look easy. So it can be easy to overlook the hard work involved. Don’t.

Their professional respect. You may not like or agree with what a presenter does or says. That’s not an excuse to attack them in the Q&A session. They’re a peer, and they’re worth listening to (even if you do think they broke some of your expected ‘rules’!).

Update (Feb 2014):

With considerably more conferences under my belt – both as attendee and presenter – since I first wrote this post, and more coming up in the next few months, three more tips have occurred to me which I thought I’d include here:

DO: talk into the microphone when presenting!

DO: repeat questions from the audience back to them before answering.  The person who asked may not have had a microphone, so the rest of the audience may not have heard their question/comment.  If you briefly repeat/summarise what you’re about to respond to, it keeps everybody on the same page.

DO: include your Twitter handle (if you have one) at the START of your talk, as well as at the end, in case people want to tweet about it (and reference you) during it.


11 thoughts on “How NOT to give a conference presentation

  1. dear laura I am going to have my first presentation experience in a few days. I have read your tips and will try a few that sound very interesting.

  2. Thanks Laura
    Very useful thanks. I wish I’d seen this list before presenting at ThaiTESOL in Bangkok in 2005. I’m better now but the first one was a knee-wobbler.
    Ian Paul
    AEIO UK Education

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one out there who feels like this! It’s a shame that you cannot tell from conference programmes which talks are going to be given well! Since your post was “inspired” by the IATEFL conference, though, as a presenter I know that they do send quite detailed guidelines to everyone who is going to present. These guidelines include almost all of the points you’ve mentioned here – so IATEFL are attemtping to improve the situation for us audience members 🙂
    Thanks for a very interesting post – and maybe you’d like to check out my blog, too?

  4. Waaah!! When I followed your blog just now, it recommended I read this post: talk about perfect timing, as I will be presenting at a conference for the first time in June (Applied Linguistics at Warwick) and for the second time in July (MATSDA one in Liverpool). How did it know?? 😀

    1. Great timing indeed! 🙂 Hope you find it useful–I’m no expert on presenting but thought these ‘thoughts from the audience’ might be useful to somebody!

      P.S. Good luck with those presentations!

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