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Top Tips for First-Time Academic Presenters

Recently, our SASHLab PhD students have been preparing for their PhD progressions. Last week’s UL Psychology colloquium featured two PhD students, Halim Cavus and Niamh O’ Reilly, presenting on their PhD research. With all this activity, we’re considering what advice to give first-time presenters, particularly for research conferences. Here are our nine top tips for first time conference presenters - what’s your top tip?!

  1. Look on the Bright Side: Presenting your study findings is an excellent opportunity to help you streamline your thoughts, identify the most critical aspects of your findings, gather feedback from peers and experts in your field, and suggestions for follow-up analyses or studies that might strengthen the journal manuscript you go on to submit. Presenting your research is also a great way to meet other researchers in your field.

  1. Check the Time Limit: Is your presentation 10 minutes or 15? Running over time can seem disorganised or self-indulgent, and an effective session chair will cut you off at the appropriate time anyway. If the session chair does let you run over time, there won’t be time for questions, and you will have to take your seat feeling a little anti-climactic. So, be mindful of the time allowed.

  1. Keep it Simple: What is the main message you want to convey? Conference talks are not the forum for long expositions about the theories underlying your thesis. The overview of prior research can be kept brief – attendees can get this elsewhere, but they can’t hear about your new data elsewhere! Similarly, if you conducted a series of studies addressing a research question, consider limiting your presentation to one of these studies. You can always allude to other studies if relevant during question time, and sticking to one study will ensure you don’t overload your audience.

  2. A Picture Tells a Thousand Words: Consider presenting your methods and results in graphical form. For example, include a timeline of your study protocol, or a figure illustrating your main findings, while keeping the text on the slides minimal. Most of the attendees won’t want to read it (or even be able to see it from the back of the venue), and this will keep you from regressing to “Powerpoint karaoke” if you’re nervous.

  3. Question Time is Not That Bad: As you might know, it’s usual at the end of the talk to take some questions from the audience. If audience members have questions this means they are interested in your research – this is a good thing! You aren’t expected to have the answer to everything, but you can certainly consider the question, and offer your opinion on the data you have become very familiar with. Finally, a “that’s interesting, I hadn’t really thought about that. That’s certainly something to look into...” is absolutely fine.

  4. Plan your Take Home Message: Be kind to your audience – there are a lot of talks over the course of a day. Have a concluding slide with your take home message (and maybe a link to your twitter handle). Your audience won’t recall every detail of your presentation but they can take a clear message away with them – you get to decide what that should be.

  5. Practice Makes Perfect: Do a run-through with your lab group beforehand. A dry run is helpful for timing, for suggestions about how to communicate key concepts, and is a valuable opportunity to practice answering questions on the spot.

  6. Mind Your Manners: You are most likely presenting as part of a session with 4 or 5 different presenters. It’s usual to remain seated and interested for the rest of the speakers talks. Even if your research hero is presenting next door, don’t make a dash for the other session after your own talk.

  7. And finally… Enjoy it! Presenting your research is part of the bigger world of academia. Enjoy being part of the scientific community and sharing ideas with other researchers in your field.

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