Conference presentations are a key part of academic success. And, if done well you can gain additional insight into your work, and perhaps gain new collaborators. And these things are great for the research. And by extension they are great for the career of the people involved. But what if you want more than that? What if you’d like more direct career outcomes? Outcomes that might be job offers, or additional work?
In the first instance, I think too many research presentations show the work as a final piece. Perfect. Not in need of change or guidance. And I understand that some of this comes from the way presentations are called for and assessed.
However, the first way to leverage your conference presentation for career success is to acknowledge the research could be improved. You might not know how or in what way but acknowledging it could be improved will do several things. Firstly, we expect the proverbial reviewer two is going to be in the audience picking the work apart. An approach that acknowledges there are improvements to be made takes the sting out of comments. Now, instead of taking the work down, it is raising it up. It means you don’t need to sit, and defend your approach, you can acknowledge and thank them for their contribution. “Yep, I can see how that could/would enhance the research.” This approach presents the audience as experts (too). And everyone knows academics think they are the best.
Next, we need to make sure the main part of the presentation is what we want to talk about. I’m sure this sounds obvious. But researchers often present their work in the form introduction, aim, methods, results, conclusion, and discussion. And that is definitely a useful way of presenting. But, presuming what we want to show the results, we don’t get there until the fourth item. And if you’ve not planned your talk well – and let’s face it, academics are very poor at time management – then you’ll be rushing to fit it all in. Furthermore, if the conference or the session is a specialist conference, they will understand the context (so don’t really need an introduction) and know what the common tools, and techniques are (so describing methods might be superfluous too). So, skip straight to the results. If they need to know about the methods, the audience will ask.
The next tips are just about good presentations. So:
- Stick to time.
- Practice at least twice beforehand.
- Don’t read.
- Keep text in slides to a minimum.
- Use images wherever you can.
- Don’t hide behind the lectern, and definitely don’t “ride” it (where you grab either side with each hand and talk into the mic).
- Move around the stage if possible (but don’t run or pace up and down).
- Direct your gaze to different parts of the audience.
- Consider using a 3MT-style approach.
The next few tips might seem antithetical to academic talks as they come from the coaching, and consulting world and are aimed at selling from the stage. However, they are useful, and effective at getting new connections and follow-up questions. And there’s nothing worse than delivering a talk that gets no questions. And, remember, you’re selling yourself, and your research – rather than a product or service that you don’t care about or believe in.
So, the first tip from the coaching and consulting world is to set up the end of the talk at the start. In the context of coaching, and consulting talks this is called the call to action. And that’s usually asking the audience to buy. But, as we are interested in other things (job, collaboration, data, and samples) you’d have a different call to action. But the set-up is the same. We want to be able to openly and confidently ask the audience to connect with us, work with us, or work for them. So, an easy way to set that up at the start is to say something like –“Today, I’m covering 15 months of work in 15 minutes. Which is a big task. So, at the end, I’ll give you a chance to ask questions as well as show you how, and where to get more information or how we could work together”. You could even say “Is that okay?”. You’ll get nods from the audience, and you are good to go (and you only need one person to nod, I’ve never seen any head shakes or verbal “noes”).
Make the more of your conference
presentation - Deliver the end – ask
for connections, and collaborations.
The next tip is to deliver the end. Namely, to say “Okay, that’s 15 months in 15 minutes. Now I’m happy to answer questions. Of course, for more information you can.” and this is where you mention things such as:
- Connect with me on social media (I suggest putting all of your channels on your relevant slide but make specific mention of the one channel you want them to connect via. e.g., “I enjoy using LinkedIn, so I’d love if you connect with me there.”).
- Download the article/data from (website).
- Send me an email, and I’ll send you the data/article.
- Email or call me, and we can catch up for coffee during or after the conference.
- Call me, and we can talk me doing [something] for you.
In this call to action section, the clearer you can be about what you want, the better. That means focusing on one thing and being specific. So, if you want to offer your approach as a fee or publication for service – then you’d say something like “I’m keen to help other people do this, call me [mobile number] to arrange a chat.”.
Now, if your contract is due to end in 6 months, and you’re on the lookout for a new role, you can work that into the ask too. Use the same technique. Set it up at the start. Perhaps, “Funding is limited for this work to continue” or just use the “more information” line. Then, at the end say, “Remember I said the funding is limited, my contract ends, and I’m looking to take this work to the next stage somewhere else.” or “As I said at the start, you can get more information by getting in touch, use my [Gmail] address as I’ll be looking for work after December, but I’ll still be able to help you while I do that.”.
If your conference presentation is a poster rather than a talk, there are a bunch of resources out there to make them pop. To make them more appealing to passer’s by. And, at the risk of alienating my audience further than I already have, I’d say most of those guides are poorly followed. Take for example, make it readable from 10 feet. For most people that means typeface of 72 pt., and last time I checked there were no posters like that. If we change 10 feet to 3 feet, you’d need 24 pt. text. Again, very few posters have that either.
So, the first tip for posters is to follow instructions for good poster design. And, if you’re wondering what’s good, try this guide from Inside Higher Ed. And, there are also resources from visualise your science, that are good too. Essentially, you want your message to be clearly identifiable, visible, and readable from a distance (usually 1 metre). You’ll also need your contact details, and an easy way for people to take your research away with them. In this day and age of digital, lots of people are using QR codes. But you could use many things. And that’s the next tip - have stuff you can hand out, and a pen. This does not need to be wasteful or bad for the environment. But, having things like business cards and/or single A4 sheets that are a miniature version of your poster or key messages from your presentation makes it easier for you to connect with people. It also makes the process of asking for people’s contact information easy too. You can say “I have a [card/flyer/mini version of my poster] would you like a copy?”. And then follow-up with “Do you have a [card/flyer]?”. If no, you’ve got the pen to write their details down. Note that there are solutions to the problem of virtual conferences, and poster sessions. You can read some stuff about that in Nature, as well as from organisations who organise these things.
The final tip is to make yourself easy to meet with. To me, that means two things – being human, and making yourself available for meetings throughout the conference. Being human means coming across as someone who is accessible. Not an aloof researcher. It means sharing a personal story (about your research or discovery). It means acknowledging the research may need improvement (see above).
Being available is then easy. Maybe you’ll be "at the coffee cart over lunch” or “outside theatre at 4 during afternoon tea” or “available for Zoom meetings on Mondays from 10 am to 2 pm”. And then you need to try to schedule the meeting for as close as possible to the conference. This will make sure the meeting proceeds. Agreeing to meet, while great, is like saying to a friend “Yeah, we should catch-up.”. Of course we should, but we never do.
Now, if your conference is virtual – those corridor conversations are not possible. So, make them happen. This means jumping online at a specific time to answer questions. Online could be live instances of things like LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. It could be a Reddit-, Facebook- or Twitter-led text-based ask me anything. Or it could be a Zoom, Skype or Hangouts session that you schedule, and hand out connection details too.
So, in summary here are the 8 tips to leverage your conference presentation:
- Acknowledge the work could be improved.
- Spend the most time on the stuff you want to talk about.
- Follow good conference talk design.
- Set up the end of the talk at the start.
- Deliver the end.
- Follow instructions for good poster design.
- Have stuff to hand out, and a pen.
- Make yourself easy to meet with.
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers, and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.
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