A guide to making academic conference presentations more effective

Turn your conference paper upside down. State your argument, expand on it, and state it again.

That is what I am modelling in this blog post, by the way!

I’ve been more than a bit bitchy and critical of conference presenters, slides, and audiences in some recent blogs. I was challenged on twitter to offer something a bit more positive and, yes, helpful. So here goes.

What do you want?

In decreasing order of priority, I expect the outcomes you might want from your presentation might be:

  1. The audience to have a clear sense of your key take-home message, and to take it home (ie. Remember it distinctively amid all the fuzz and crap of however many sessions)
  2. The audience to value your message: to come away with a good answer to the question ‘so what?’
  3. The audience to have an impression of you as a diligent, competent and professional scholar
  4. The audience to think you’ve done your homework and read lots.

I wonder how many readers structure their presentations as if the ranking were the opposite: that the gold medal goes to point 4?

Turn it upside down

I reckon a good way to make sure you hit the most important targets first, is to turn the conventional presentation on its head (conventional in the sense of the structure I’ve seen hundreds of times over the years, and done myself often enough).

I mean, start with the end. Good morning/afternoon, the argument I’d like to make today is ….

That way, if an earthquake strikes or there’s a power cut, or you faint, it doesn’t matter: the key message has been broadcast loud and clear. Note by doing this you radically reduce the chances of the audience falling asleep, and you keep a competitive edge in the attention economics that are wooing your audience away from listening to you (see my post about conference audiences).

Then you might expand on this key argument, say what you mean, outline some different features. Maybe some theory gets thrown in here: not in an abstract explanation of concepts, but theory-in-use as applied to your research or data. In a way, you move backwards from conclusions to key findings.

Then you might say: to all you doubters out there who think I’ve made this up, here is my highly robust, well considered methodology that means you really can trust what I’ve said.

Then you might get into some of the literature and policy or other context. Instead of being boring background that is merely you reporting what others have done or said, this becomes weaponry in your quest to address the ‘so what?’ question.

You show how your argument is new, fills a gap, steps into new knowledge territory.

You show how your argument has something to say about an important issue.

You show how your argument matters now, to xxx people, for xxx reasons.

And then, just for fun, you remind everyone of your argument.

Say what you will say, say it, and say what you have said

This maxim unfortunately leads many people to start their talk with an outline of their talk. Boring and unnecessary unless you’re going to talk for an hour. Even then I’d avoid it.

What I mean is: state your argument, expand and justify it, and state your argument again.

See how this approach makes the most of what you have to say and worries less about what others have done? See how it serves the ranking of outcomes I listed above?

It’s not a spoken paper, it’s an advert for a paper

Okay, there are some conference formats, particularly in the humanities, where people sit and read out full papers from a pre-written text. Even in this (in my view rather dull and unfortunate) practice I would spice things up by putting the conclusion or a quick version of it first.

But for many of us, we have 10-15, maybe 20 minutes. I say bin a presentation based on the structure of your paper. Trying to get through the whole thing just leads to being rushed and doing no parts justice, or being slower but using up your time on the lit review.

Consider the presentation an elevator pitch for your paper.

If you are using slides, here’s a trick to have up your sleeve

Following my approach (I’ll self-aggrandise for a moment and call it the Hopwood upside-down talk), you are prioritising what you have to say over some other things, perhaps background literature, context, nitty gritty of methods.

You will finish reinforcing your key argument, so no-one is in any doubt as to what it is. But you might have skipped a few things on the way. Your audience might have noticed.

No worries.

After your final slide (which isn’t ‘thank you’ or an unreadable list of references, but which is a clear statement of your argument), you might have a few extra ones that anticipate audience questions, like: can you say more about the theory? Or what definition of xxx are you using? Or what were your sample demographics?

I saw this done by a keynote speaker. Finished talk. Audience asks ‘what about xxx?’. Present skips to next slide and bingo! An answer.

It makes you look super-smart and well-prepared. And it gives you a chance to give an even better answer because you’ve got the visuals to match it, not just a pointless ‘thank you’ slide, or, worse, a black screen.

In conclusion

Turn your presentation upside down. Start with the conclusion. Expand on and justify it. End with your conclusion. (and have a few extra bits up your sleeve).

Go on. Try it. Dare you! It is guaranteed to work*.


*Not at all guaranteed in any way.


15 thoughts on “A guide to making academic conference presentations more effective

  1. nickhopwood Post author

    I would add, for students who are presenting at earlier stages of research, and who may not have solid conclusions, arguments, or findings yet:
    Actually, you DO have an argument. It might be that certain questions are worth asking, or that particular theories / methods etc are appropriate.
    My point would remain the same: start with where you have got to.

  2. eva alvarez

    Encouraging. I usually try your way but none appreciates it… Lack of pedigree often say. But I will keep on doing that. Thanks.

  3. Kathleen Neal

    I consciously used your tips to write a seminar paper for last week and it worked a treat. Got a generous laugh with my first slide entitled ‘Take Home Messages’ (“we’re not at the end yet… this is just so that you know where we’re aiming for; and if you’re too hungry for lunch to concentrate for the next 40 mins at least you can remember this slide…”), and the second one ‘Why should you care?’ (“this might not be obvious but…”). Inspired by the underlying communicative ethos of your post I also paid special attention to the composition of my audience (what background did some/all actually need to grasp my points? how many ‘constituencies’ were present?) and signposted for them when I was introducing essential foundations. Also, despite the tradition in my discipline of sitting and reading out full papers, I stood up, walked around, worked just from the slides and some notes, and talked rather than read. I also made a special effort to integrate images/text on the slides into what I was saying to demonstrate and emphasize relevance.
    The feedback was great; people seemed to think I was either some kind of presentation genius, or that I had magical skills granted by occult powers. A few people asked me to teach them to give talks. I’d say that’s a win for you! 😉 Thanks!

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Wow! I’m really pleased you gave it a try!
      More so that it worked so well 🙂
      Thanks for taking the time to comment, and for adding additional pointers and tips!

  4. Rémy Castéran

    Nick, thank you for your humorisitic slides and your relevant ideas about using slides. From my point of view, during training sessions, it’s vrey usefull to print the slides and therefore to allow writed comments for the listener… Then, to promote an active attitude.

  5. S.

    What do you think about pre-empting the audience that are already using their smart phones/tablets by encouraging them to use a specific hashtag as relates to your presentation (e.g.”Hi, for those of you using twitter- feel free to tweet about my talk with the hashtag #mytalk”) – distracting or brining the distracted back into the fold?

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      I think that is a great idea! Rather than resisting new technology, work with it!
      I have some experience of twitter being used very effectively by audiences in conferences – it actually can make some people more alert and listen more closely!

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