A Practical Guide to Conferences, Part I: Preparing for a Presentation
Initial academic conferences can be a stressful experience for students, especially those presenting their research for the first time. We asked SPIE Early Career Professional Mikhail Kats to adapt his recent Twitter thread — which also recruited advice and suggestions from his colleagues — into this comprehensive guide on preparing for, attending, and presenting at conferences. Part I is below. Don’t forget to check out Part II, Part III, and Part IV as well!
Part I: Preparing for an oral presentation
If you are going to be presenting your research, the presentation will likely be the biggest source of stress both before and during the conference. This stress is normal and healthy! You can manage it and come out with a great talk by following these steps. First, put together a good draft of your talk:
• Your advisor or mentor should be able to help you with a basic outline, but ideally, you will prepare the first draft yourself. Most people find it difficult to give a talk that was assembled by someone else; it’s also just good experience to prepare the initial draft on your own. Once you have a working draft, your advisor or mentor can weigh in with their feedback and suggestions.
• PowerPoint is the most common presentation tool. Use it, unless your research group defaults to different software.
• Don't get too fancy with templates. I prefer a mostly white background, to minimize distractions. You may want to check with the conference to see if they have a preferred slide aspect ratio (4:3 or 16:9). If the conference accepts both, it is best to go with whatever is most common in your research group.
PowerPoint presentation slide example, courtesy of Mikhail Kats.
• The format of the slide presentation can vary, but a typical presentation includes a title slide, an outline of the talk, a background or motivation slide, several slides about the science, and a final slide with conclusions and acknowledgements.
• You should have no more slides than there are minutes in the talk, and make sure to leave time for questions. If you have 15 minutes for your presentation, that typically means 12-13 minutes for the talk, and 2-3 minutes for questions. That translates to about 13 slides total, not including the title slide.
• Your slides should have some text, but not too much: 1-3 bullets per slide is a good rule of thumb. You will sometimes hear well-meaning advice to remove all text from your slides in favor of figures and images, but consider this: you may need the slides to be able to stand on their own and guide your presentation in case you get stuck or forget what to say. They should work as a clear outline for the audience as well as a prompt for you.
• Your slides should be readable from the other side of the room. This means thicker lines and larger axis labels than you would think. Almost every student starts out with axis labels and legends that are too small. If you are not very experienced with presentations, I recommend making the fonts so big that they look a bit strange on your computer screen.
• Minimize acronyms unless you absolutely need them. Seriously. Even if the acronym is incredibly common in your field. If you need to use acronyms, define them, and keep defining them slide after slide. People will thank you.
• Don’t forget: every presentation should have slide numbers somewhere along the bottom of the slides.
• Make sure that you appropriately reference both your work and that of others, including any schematics and cartoons that you use. References need to be provided throughout the presentation, rather than at the end.
a. There is no single established format, but it is appropriate to attribute credit to either the first author followed by “et al,” or the name of the research group (“Kats group”). Don’t forget to include the journal name, volume, page number, and year.
b. If you are referring to your own paper, underline your name.
c. If most of the content on a slide is from a particular paper, the citation should appear at the bottom of the slide.
d. If you use someone’s plot or schematic, the citation should be directly beneath that image.
PowerPoint presentation slide example, courtesy of Mikhail Kats.
• Have backup slides prepared. These should include additional results, descriptions, and brainstorming details that are not included in your actual talk. Backup slides can be used to help answer any questions or comments that might come up following your presentation.
• Try to give the talk aloud on your own and measure it for time. Your speaking pace should be natural, not hurried. If your talk is too long, remove some content.
• Once you have your initial slides prepared, run them by someone whom you know to be both critical and well-meaning. This could be a more senior grad student, your advisor, mentor, or experienced colleague. Welcome their feedback; apply any improvements to your slides.
After your solid second draft is complete, it’s time to give a real practice talk with a question-and-answer session. This is important, and not a lot of students do this!
• Present your talk to a group of trusted peers and mentors and have them ask questions as they would at a conference. Ideally, you’ll have a mix of people in your field and an adjacent field, all of whom have at least some conference experience. Designate someone to take notes throughout your talk and the Q&A; alternatively, you can record your practice session. The idea is to get a clear picture of how your presentation is coming across. Pro tip: Instead of the 2-3 minutes of questions that you will actually have at the conference, have the audience ask questions until they are done. While you’re answering questions, remember to use your backup slides. The goal here is to have the practice session be more challenging and more comprehensive than at the actual conference.
• Once you’ve gotten through all the practice questions, discuss with the group what you can improve in both your talk and your answers. Use the feedback to revise your talk once again.
• Remember that it can be difficult to receive critical feedback, especially from those who may not know as much as you do about your work. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you want your presentation to be clear and accessible to a wider audience. Your natural inclination may be to argue against the critiques and suggestions or come up with reasons why they don’t apply, but, if the mock audience is giving you feedback, that usually means something is not clear, and, unless you fix it, it is likely that there will be people at your formal talk who feel the same way.
• Prepare for an aggressive questioner. This doesn’t happen often to students, but occasionally during the Q&A period, someone might claim that your work is wrong or uninteresting or that elements of it have been done before and you have not appropriately referenced the literature. If you are comfortable engaging the merits of this type of question or comment, then by all means do so! However, you should also have some answers ready to deflect such a question or comment. One possibility is: “I think it would be better to discuss your concern after the talk.” If you prefer not to engage at all, a polite “Thank you for your comment” will do the trick.
• After you have finished these revisions, get feedback from your advisor on your slides, and maybe go through another practice talk with them. And now, you are ready!
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: These articles were adapted from a thread I wrote on Twitter in response to a request by Manuel Martinez (UT-El Paso). The various conference-prep strategies described here have been honed over the last five years with my research group at UW-Madison, so I want to extend a big thanks to the students and postdocs who have helped develop these tools. Thank you also to Andrea Armani (USC) and Rachel Grange (ETH Zurich) who encouraged me to write this advice up as a proper article, and to Rachel for her editing work. Special thanks to Jennifer Choy (UW-Madison) for key suggestions, use of a sample slide, and critical reading of the draft.
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