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15 Tips for engaging conference presentations

Conferences offer opportunities to develop professionally, build networks, find potential collaborators, and stay up-to-date with emerging research. As presenters, conferences offer us the opportunity to try out new ideas and get input from attendees. If we use our presentation time to talk at the audience, and don’t create an environment where attendees are invited to think and contribute, we haven’t made the best use of our time. When attendees are straining to read small print from the back of a conference ballroom or trying to stay awake while you talk fast to fit every detain in during the allotted time, the usefulness of the event is diminished.

Three relevant questions, articulated in a new essay in the Life Sciences Journal, provide a framework for recommendations you can use to make your next presentation valuable for you and your attendees (Corwin, Prunuske, Seidel, & Shuster, 2018):

  • How do you engage the audience and promote learning during a presentation?
  • How do you create an environment that is inclusive for all in attendance?
  • How do you gather feedback from the professional community that will help to further advance your research? (p.1)

How do you engage the audience and promote learning during a presentation?

Corwin et al (2018) suggest that you define goals before developing content and activities. Think about your purpose and what you want from your audience. Do you want them to get acquainted and interact with each other, individually reflect on your presentation, or take some action?

First, carefully review conference materials and acceptance letters. Is it a scholarly conference where presentations are typically made in a lecture format or one that encourages active participation? How much flexibility do you have? Are you part of a panel presentation, with a limited time to speak followed by discussion with other presenters? Or are you running a session where you have the ability to include dyad or small group activities?

If the expectation is purely on the presentation, think about what audience members can realistically digest in the time available. Consider whether it is more important to cover some aspect of your topic in depth, versus providing a broad overview. You undoubtedly have much more material than you can use, so clarify your focus. Hone in on clear and succinct points. Offering fewer points with cases, examples, or how-to steps might be more interesting than a presentation that tries to cover more extensive details.

In an article titled “Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations” the author suggests that narratives capture your audience’s attention (Langin, 2017). She suggests that academics and scientists learn from storytellers, crafting a plot around the problem your research aims to illuminate. Langin offers some suggestions:

  • Decide on a cohesive storyline and omit information tangential to that story.
  • Set the stage in a compelling way, for instance by framing a problem to be solved.
  • Start broad, not with specific details about your study system.
  • Avoid unexplained jargon and remove abbreviations.
  • Clearly articulate one or two questions and stick to answering those questions.
  • Leave your audience with a minimal number of clear takeaway points. (p.322)

Langin (2017) also notes that visual communication is essential because text-based slides are not only boring, they also divide audience members attention because they don’t know whether to listen to or read.  Langin highlights the work of Alley and Neeley (2005), who advise presenters to create a slide title that describes the main message in a complete sentence, then use the rest of the slide to communicate that message visually with legible figures, graphics, photographs. Overall, use as little text as possible; make sure to use at least 24-point in a sans serif font.

If you can include exercises, World Café or small group discussions, think carefully about time, focus, and facilitation. Do you need small group facilitators who are prepared in advance, or can you outline facilitation guidelines, a volunteer can implement on the spot? Make sure to allow time for some reporting to the full group, and summarizing what emerged from the groups.

How do you create an environment that is inclusive for all in attendance?

Promoting equity and inclusion is important, and conferences offer people who are new to the field a chance to find their place and get engaged. Will your conference involve students or career-changers for whom the event will provide a first impression of the field?

Corwin et al (2018) suggest important questions for presenters who want to include all voices:

Consider the last conference you attended: Did you hear differing opinions about your work or did the dominant paradigms prevail? Who asked questions; was it only high-status experts in the field? Did you hear from multiple voices? Did newer members, like graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, engage with established members of the community? (p. 3)

When forming small groups, try to include a mix of experienced and newer members. If you are taking questions from the audience, avoid calling on people you already know. When you are facilitating a discussion, limit the time for each question so that “high-status experts” do not dominate. Consider using the strategy I’ve seen work successfully at the University of Colorado Silicon Flatirons, where one-day conferences are offered on a regular basis. There, the rule of thumb is that students are called on first in after-panel Q and A.

How do you gather feedback from the professional community that will help to further advance your research?

Conference presentations allow us to try out new ideas or share work in progress. You might gather feedback in a general way by reviewing the questions that were asked. For example, were attendees confused by concepts and terminology? Or, pose a specific question to the audience around the topic where input would be most beneficial. You could also invite anyone guessing is interested in a follow-up conversation to meet for a meal or coffee during the conference.

If you want to record the presentation and discussion for later review, make sure to let participants know you are doing so. If recording the presentation and discussion is an appropriate in the conference, setting, consider asking a friend or colleague to take detailed notes for you. You can also collect and save notes from small group activities as well as from flip charts use to record questions and comments.

Here are a few resources that might help you prepare your next presentation:

Design slides to avoid the proverbial death by PowerPoint:

Duarte, N. (2010). Resonate: Present visual stories that transform audiences. New York: Wiley. See resources on her blog.

Kirk, A. (2016). Data visualization: A handbook for data driven design. London: SAGE Publications. See Chapter 1.

Moezzi, M., Janda, K. B., & Rotmann, S. (2017). Using stories, narratives, and storytelling in energy and climate change research. Energy Research & Social Science, 31(Supplement C), 1-10. doi: Open access.

Reynolds, G. (2008). Presentation Zen: Simple ideas on presentation design and delivery. Berkeley: New Riders. See resources on his website.

Rooney, T., Lawlor, K., & Rohan, E. (2016). Telling tales: Storytelling as a methodological approach in research. The Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods, 14(2), 147-156. Open access.


Corwin, L. A., Prunuske, A., Seidel, S. B., & Shuster, M. (2018). Scientific presenting: Using evidence-based classroom practices to deliver effective conference presentations. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 17(1), es1. doi:10.1187/cbe.17-07-0146

Langin, K. M. (2017). Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations/!Cuentame una historia! Un llamado a favor de presentaciones mas convincentes en congresos. The Condor(2), 321. doi:10.1650/CONDOR-16-209.1

Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.