Delivering an oral presentation at a conference can be a demanding yet exhilarating experience. It can create a variety of emotions such as excitement, joy and achievement — but for many the overriding emotions are those of anxiety, fear and dread.
A certain amount of nervousness can enhance your performance but how can you avoid pre-presentation nerves developing into full-blown anxiety and fear. The key to successful conference presentation is meticulous preparation and practise.
Imagine you are invited to speak at a conference and you think: "Now what?"
Most of us suffer from at least a small degree of public speaking anxiety. PSA is a well researched topic and is linked to an increase in heart rate, elevated blood pressure and a dry mouth.
The main fears fueling this anxiety are negative evaluation by peers and social scrutiny. It has been shown that a certain amount of nervousness before speaking can keep you on your toes and can actually enhance your performance, but what can you do to reduce the risk of pre-presentation nerves manifesting into full-blown anxiety and fear?
The answer to this question is simple - Preparation and Practise.
Step 1 - First Considerations
Of all the things that you believe you can put together at the last minute, a conference presentation is not one of them. The time delay between acceptance and presentation can be months, and as a result, preparation can easily be put on the 'back burner'.
This is a mistake and in our experience should be avoided at all costs.
Ideally, you should start preparations from 6-8 weeks before the 'big day' . Before you prepare your content you need to be sure how much time you have been given for your presentation.
It is common to be allocated a 30 minute slot - 20 minutes presentation time and 10 minutes question time. You need to consider your audience; Who are they, what is their anticipated level of knowledge in the area you are presenting? Is the audience multidisciplinary? How many delegates will there be? What is the focus of the conference?
You also need to deliver a presentation that is tailored to the interests and needs of your audience. For example, your presentation would have a different focus and a different level of difficulty if delivered to specialists in an area than a general nursing audience.
You don't want to lose your audience with too much depth, nor do you want to teach them to 'suck eggs'! Another consideration is what audiovisual services will the organizers be supplying?
Step 2 - Preparing Your Content
Often, the content of a presentation is based on a project or research and one of the most difficult stages of developing a presentation is cutting down your work to fit a 15-20 minute slot.
It is clear that you cannot present all of your work so it must be condensed to offer key points.
This requires you to decide which points you want to focus on and structure your presentation around them.
A tried and trusted format is:
• Introduction - Outline clearly the aims and objectives of your presentation and relate this to other work.You need to demonstrate how your presentation adds to what is already known.
Outline key literature and key theoretical points. Communicate the focus, themes and hypotheses you are going to address in the presentation. You need to justify why you undertook this study or implemented this change.
• Methods - If you are presenting research you need to outline your research strategy. Describe your sampling method, data collection and methods of analysis. If you are discussing a developmental change/ initiative you need to outline how you went about the change.
• Results - Present the main findings making good use of tables and graphs to illustrate. Remember, keep to key findings, you will have the opportunity to expand on some points in question time and during one-to-one discussions.
• Conclusions - This section is important as you need to communicate what your results mean and what the implications are. For example, how can the results benefit practice? Are there any recommendations for further study or changes? What were the limitations of the study? Make it clear what the main points are.
Step 3 - Visual Aids
The use of PowerPoint is an effective visual aid to assist in delivering your presentation, but remember it is an 'aid' and not the totality of your presentation. The purpose of each slide is to offer a visual outline of what you’re presenting. Each slide should not be read out word for word as they should contain only key points, so use bullet points rather than long sentences.
Remember, the slides you produce must be legible to all the audience, not just those at the front so pay careful attention to font size and style. Never use anything smaller than a 20 font for your text (bigger for your titles) and keep to a basic font, Arial is always clear.
There should be no need to use small font sizes if you have already made good use of bullet points and key points. If you include graphs and charts it is important to talk around them. Do not put the chart up and say 'and so there are some of the results', tell the audience what they mean. Talk the audience through them to maximize impact and understanding.
Other considerations are checking your slides carefully because misspellings and grammatical errors can distract your audience from your message and show carelessness. Always ask someone to check your slides for errors because if you have been working on them for a long time you are unlikely to see them yourself.
Do not be afraid of constructive feedback. It is very important to seek advice from a colleague who has experience at conference presentations as they will give you invaluable advice on layout, colour, font, and most importantly the content.
Finally, find out how the organizers prefer presentations to be stored - on a memory stick or on the cloud. Find out who downloads your presentation and make sure you do this well in advance of your presentation time. This is often an anxiety 'flashpoint' but when the AV technician has uploaded this to the laptop you will experience a huge sense of relief.
For peace of mind it is also advisable to have a second copy of your presentation - hard copy just in case.
Step 4 - Handouts
The preparation of handouts is always very helpful and appreciated. You should prepare handouts of your presentation and maybe even copy your abstract and include some relevant references. It is difficult to cover everything in your presentation and you may not get some of the information across in the way you would have liked, you may even forget to include something. The provision of handouts can compliment your presentation and ensure that the audience takes away an accurate reflection of your talk.
Delegates often listen to many presentations in one day so do what you can to make them remember yours positively. Do not forget to include your contact details as it is likely some will want to contact you in the future.
Step 5 - Practise
The key to successful presentation is practise. You need to learn your content so you can deliver your presentation without reading word for word from a script. Most presenters use a set of key cards, one for each slide with a couple of paragraphs on each.These should act as an aide mémoir.
Remember to keep to time and cut content down if necessary. Practise your presentation out loud so that you can hear the volume, speed and tone of your voice. Practise your presentation with your PowerPoint© slides in slide show mode so you can get the timing right for each slide with your cue cards. Next you need to practise in front of either friends, family or colleagues; this may be nerve wracking but an essential part of preparation - take note of others' comments and make adjustments as necessary.
Step 6 - Preparing for the day
If you have prepared and practised your presentation, the final thing to prepare is yourself.
It is foolish to think that you will not want to go over your talk the night before but you also need a good night's sleep. Pamper yourself, try to relax, read a book, don’t drink alcohol and go to bed early because it is highly likely you will wake up very early the next day.
On the day of the presentation you will feel nervous and that is natural, at this point many people say to themselves 'why am I putting myself through this'.
The reason is because it is extremely rewarding. You need to put it into perspective; the presentation is just 20-30 minutes of your life. You are speaking at this conference because you have been selected.
Abstract submission is not a rite of passage, it is competitive and people are coming to listen to you. Make sure you know which room you are presenting in and take time to visit the room to familiarize yourself with the layout. Finally, introduce yourself to the session facilitator or chair as they are there to help you and will even announce that you are a first time presenter if you wish. If you are taking handouts and/or business cards ask the chairperson where you should leave them.
Step 7 - Delivering your presentation
The immediate time prior to your presentation will be a nervous one. Take deep breaths and try to relax. Audiences understand that presenting is anxiety provoking and are on your side.
Getting the beginning right is important as this can calm down your nerves and get you off to a good start. Before starting your presentation, introduce yourself if nobody did it already and thank the audience for attending your presentation.
Look at the audience and make eye contact, this gives you time to settle your nerves, hear your own voice and make contact (engage) with the audience.
Take your time, speak slowly and calmly and try to exude confidence. It's rather like acting on a stage. Keep a glass of water close by to ease your dry mouth but do not sip it throughout your presentation as this can be distracting both for you and the audience.
The use of humour can disperse tension but do not use it if you are not comfortable with it.
Putting it simply, when you start your presentation:
1. Tell them what you are going to tell them (forecast)
2. Tell them
3. Tell them what you have told them (summary)
4. Then wait for questions.
If you make a mistake just stop and compose yourself— it happens to everyone. Keep calm, don't rush and move calmly and confidently through to the end, by which time you will be feeling a sense of enjoyment, reward and achievement.
When you come to the end, thank the audience for listening and asking questions, at this point you will be faced with rapturous applause so enjoy it, don’t run off the stage.
Step 8 - Tips to engage the audience
Many people will advise you to talk to your audience and make eye contact as we suggested in step 7. To the inexperienced this can be quite difficult especially if you have prompt cards to read. There are always audience members who stand out so it can be very easy to deliver the whole presentation to just two or three people.
The security of attachment with the chosen few is important but you need to look at the other members of the audience for them to feel included.
Try to smile or at least try not to look too terrified as you will find your audience will mirror you.
Step 9 - Questions
Many people feel nervous about the question and answer session held at the end of presentations. Your listeners are not your judges or critics and don't attend your presentation to ask questions that may 'trip you up'. The audience has come to your session to hear you speak with the hope of learning some ideas to take back to their own areas.
Questions are born from interest and are usually a request for clarification and more depth on a specific area. This is quite usual — as discussed earlier, you can only cover key points in your presentation.
Often the audience will discuss their own experience in a way that can compliment your work but try to keep on track because it is very easy for the audience to hijack your session and use it as a vehicle to disseminate their own work or developments.
It is important that you prepare for your questions and that means knowing your project in depth and also the associated literature. If you are asked a question that you don't know the answer to, then say so. It is far better to say that you will find out and get back to them than try to bluff the answer.
Sometimes no-one will ask a question and you experience a deathly silence. This can be due to members of the audience being reticent to ask the first question and not because they have no interest in what you have said and want to move onto the next speaker.
Prepare yourself for this in advance. Don't say 'oh, good no questions', instead you need to ask a question of the audience. For example, 'has anyone here looked at anything similar in a different area?' or 'is this something that could be useful to your area' are good starting points and can get the audience involved quickly.
Step 10 - Networking
Many people view conferences as opportunities to network. Networking is about making contacts, forging links and developing groups of like-minded people usually with a view to collaborative working.
Understanding and developing networking skills is important as it may be the first step to working with others to further develop your area of expertise.
The people with highly developed networking skills take time to find out who is at a conference and will approach each of them in turn, they also link their own 'contacts' together.
To the novice this may seem to be shallow and insincere yet nothing could be further from the truth. It can be nerve-wracking in the beginning so how can you start?
As a starting point it is always good practice to have your contact details on your last slide.
This stays on screen throughout the question and answer session and communicates to the audience that you welcome further contact.
When you have completed your presentation try to stay in the room for a period of time. There will be people who want to talk to you so be prepared to do this and don't starve them of the opportunity. If you go off on your own you will give people the impression that you don't want to be disturbed and will appear unapproachable.
Make a point of talking to people rather than sitting on your own and try to get people involved in a chat if they seem self-conscious. You'll soon find people helping you. Be friendly and approachable. Every moment at a conference is a networking opportunity so always be aware that people may want to seek you out — this can be especially true at the associated social events.
Delivering an oral presentation at a conference is a demanding yet exhilarating exercise and requires meticulous preparation and practise. We hope that by following our ten steps to successful presentation you can avoid the pitfalls and learn from the experiences of those who have gone before you.
Good luck, enjoy your experience and don’t forget to like and subscribe to our youtube channel for more free public speaking resources.