When I have the time and resources, conferences are some of my favorite professional opportunities that I attend—and also ones where I present! The process of creating a conference proposal takes time and sometimes a lot of thought to ensure that your presentation will land with your audience. However, when you’re accepted to present at a conference, how do you prepare for the presentation itself? This is a question that I get asked a lot, and although preparation may vary from person to person, it’s always a good idea to have some guidelines to ensure that your presentation goes well.
Regardless of whether it’s a small or larger conference, preparing your presentation requires planning and organization to deliver a successful and engaging session. I personally like to start planning out my conference presentations about two months in advance of when I’m going to present. This gives me enough time to research, plan, and prepare what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it. However, some people might plan six or more months in advance, and others prepare the night before. In any case, here are five effective tips to help you.
1. Tailor Your Presentation to Your Audience
This is a crucial step that all presenters should take. Speaking to educators is different from speaking to school leadership, and speaking to school leadership is different from speaking to a group of students. Regardless of whom you are speaking to, understanding the audience attending the conference and designing your presentation to their interests and needs can help you get your message across. Consider the level of knowledge they might have on the topic that you’ll be presenting, and adjust your content and language accordingly.
More advanced-level sessions can most likely skip some of the entry-level vocabulary and concepts and get straight into more complex topics (for example, a session I give called “Digital Storytelling in the STEM Classroom” is geared toward STEM educators who already utilize books and media in their classrooms but want to learn more about how to integrate technology into that). Also, if you can, address specific concerns and challenges in the field that you are presenting on—it will make your presentation more relevant and impactful.
2. Define Your Key Message
Your key message is the main theme of your presentation, something you’d like for your audience to get out of attending your session. Having a key message is important because it anchors the audience to the core of what you want to say and also ties in your presentation, resources, and potential Q&A to this message. A key message provides the focus of your content and enables your audience to remember the purpose of the presentation.
This can be a theme, a quote, or anything in between. As a suggestion, your key message should be evident in your presentation title and/or abstract. As you build your presentation, keep the key message as a focus of your presentation so that your points come across with clarity.
3. Create a Well-Structured Presentation
Even if you have amazing content that you’d like to share, if your presentation isn’t well-structured, your message could be lost. Organize your content to create a smooth flow of information. A typical structure includes an introduction, an outline of your main points, supporting evidence/action, and a conclusion. Here are some additional considerations:
Keep the text on your presentations large, but not too large. My general rule is that I don’t use anything smaller than 16-point type whenever I’m presenting—anything smaller than that could be too small for viewers to see.
Be mindful of color contrasts. Things like having yellow text on a bright pink or bright blue background can be too confusing for your audience to see, and too much color on a screen is distracting and can make it hard for your audience to follow along with your presentation. It’s best to stick with simple, yet eye-catching, templates that emphasize your key points and message.
Use visuals to enhance understanding and keep the audience interested. Slides, graphs, and videos go a long way to create an engaging presentation. Additionally, avoid too much information or large amounts of text on the slides—it can be overwhelming to the audience and distract from your presenting skills.
If the platform you’re presenting on has accessibility features (such as live captions), use them. People appreciate the ability to have multiple ways to engage in a presentation. There are also some platforms (like Microsoft PowerPoint Live) that allow your attendees to follow along at their own pace and even translate your presentation into different languages as you’re speaking.
4. Practice, Practice, Practice!
Practice absolutely makes perfect when it comes to conference presentations and public speaking. Practice your presentation several times before the conference to become comfortable with your material and delivery. If you’ve got a trusted person to practice in front of, do that—I usually practice in front of my wife and a small group of friends.
Rehearse and time yourself; pay attention to your pacing and ensure that you stay within the allocated time frame. Rehearsing also helps you identify areas that need improvement, such as clarifying explanations, eliminating filler words, or omitting unnecessary details.
Additionally, there are new technology tools that can help you practice your presentation if you’re practicing by yourself or if you’d like to get feedback from people that you are presenting to. Two of my favorites are Speaker Coach (in PowerPoint) and DirectPoll.
5. Think About Ways to Make the Presentation Interactive
An interactive presentation is more likely to leave a lasting impact on your audience, so whenever possible, create opportunities for your audience to engage and participate.
Consider incorporating techniques like asking open-ended questions, conducting polls, or facilitating discussions and breakout groups. In my sessions, I utilize the answer functions in Mentimeter to create word clouds in the beginning and end of my sessions, as well as the polling features in that platform. Activities encourage engaged participation and help maintain the audience’s attention.
Most of all, once it’s time to present, have fun! Presenting in front of audiences is no easy feat, and it is absolutely something to be proud of. Conferences aren’t just all about the preparation and the practice—they’re also about creating engaging presentations and having fun with your audience and peers. Be sure to make time to connect with your audience before or after your presentation and answer any questions they may have.