Talk the Talk: 5 Tips for Giving a Killer Conference Presentation
Bad presentations kill good ideas.
We all know that, and we’ve all sat through some truly horrendous presentations. (I wish I could say that I stopped having to listen to boring presentations after high school, but unfortunately, that’s not the case). Yet, many people struggle to identify what exactly makes a presentation good.
Some people can describe to you, in excruciating detail, each drop of paint drying on the side of a house and make it interesting. Yet others can experience something exhilarating, like skydiving or ziplining, and make it sound painfully boring to all their unfortunate friends who got roped into scrolling through the vacation photos.
While it certainly helps, you don’t need to be naturally (or unnaturally) charismatic to give a presentation that won’t put people to sleep. You just need to understand how to structure and frame your topic in a way that keeps the focus on your audience—their reaction, their understanding, and their engagement level.
It’s a simple matter of shifting your perspective away from yourself and toward your viewers. In so many of the presentations I’ve witnessed, the presenter seemed more interested in themselves than their audience. For example, they talk too fast to fully process what they’re saying for the sake of fitting their presentation into the time limit. Or how about when they read their entire presentation word for word off their PowerPoint? It’s all at the expense of the people who have sacrificed their time to, hopefully, learn from and engage with new ideas.
Presenting at a conference is a huge deal, and you should be proud to do it, but you should never forget about the audience that put you there in the first place. That’s why we’re using this article to help you lay the groundwork for a presentation that will not just pad your resumé but also add value for your audience.
1. Follow the Law of the Land
Conferences all have different guidelines for presentation length, audience engagement, discussion time, and so on. At some conferences, you will be asked to share one Q&A session with a few (or all) other presenters. At others, you’ll be explicitly asked to save a few minutes at the end of your presentation for questions. Still other conferences have a much more informal structure and attitude, encouraging presenters to include the audience in small discussions or activities wherever possible. All these variables play into how long you’ll have to actually present your topic and how you’ll want to structure your presentation for maximum impact.
Always have a game plan ready in case the actual presentation takes a bit longer than your practice sessions. For example, structure your presentation so that, if you notice that you’re running short on time, you can skip ahead and hit the main points in your conclusion.
As for structure, try doing some digging into past presentations for the conference at which you’re speaking. Take a look at the conference’s website or reach out to past contributors to get a feel for audience expectations. Then tailor your content to match the level of formality, the audience’s familiarity with your topic, and so on.
2. Outlines Aren’t Just for Essays
Before you break out the slide deck, let’s get down to basics. Outlining the flow and organization of your ideas BEFORE you start designing your PowerPoint forcing you to focus on the actual substance of your presentation without getting caught up in color schemes and image placement.
Without an outline, it’s easy to get carried away, adding slide after slide after slide until you’re left with a confusing mess of disjointed ideas and images.
So, keep your hands off PowerPoint, and start by arranging your ideas a keen eye toward the flow of information. Creating those transitions between main ideas is like leaving little breadcrumbs for your audience to follow. If you change directions mid-presentation, you should have a sentence to explain your divergence and why that detour will ultimately lead to the right destination.
3. Stories Provide Structure and Keep People Interested
Growing up, we’ve all heard our fair share of fables—”The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Scorpion and the Frog,” “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”—but do you know why people tell these types of stories?
Storytelling is a rhetorically effective way to convey a complex idea in a memorable and interesting way. Aesop’s Fables, as a famous example, are all great examples of using stories to frame an important message. We, as humans, created stories, in part, as mnemonic devices. They help us remember. In fact, that we often use refences to these stories as a kind of shorthand (e.g. “He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”)
But storytelling isn’t just for children’s stories. When you’re presenting, try framing your topic through the lens of a personal anecdote. This can help to ground your presentation, taking it out of abstract theory and into the real world, and give your audience a tangible example to remember and latch on to.
4. The PowerPoint Isn’t for You
When designing your slides, remember that the primary audience for your PowerPoint is not you. It’s for your audience. I’ve seen countless people—even speakers at professional conferences—fail to grasp this concept.
A PowerPoint is a visual tool to help focus your audience and lead them through the main points of your presentation. It is NOT a script for you to recite. That’s what note cards are for. (Just make sure not to use them too often during the actual presentation).
Slides should include as little text as is needed to summarize the main points you are explaining. Massive blocks of black text against a simple colored background get real old, real quick. It’s like driving along a stretch of deserted road. After a few miles, you’re nearly crying out for something, anything to break the monotony of the unbroken tree line and bleak stretch of concrete and snap you out of your daze.
Even if it’s just a stock photo, your audience needs a piece of visual media to connect and engage with—something to draw the eye and keep their attention on your presentation.
If you’re feeling ambitious, try adding infographics or diagrams to give your viewers a better visual representation of how the information you’re giving connects and interacts.
Overall, the design should be simple and stylish, stirring attendees’ interest without overwhelming them.
5. It Pays to Keep a Record
When you practice your presentation (which you absolutely must do, no exceptions), record a final version of you speaking and clicking through the slides. (PowerPoint allows you to easily record your presentation in the Slide Show tab.)
This action serves two purposes: 1.) Allows you to watch back and revise your presentation. 2.) Provides you with a tangible copy of your presentation that you can keep and share.
Yes, I know. We all hate listening to ourselves talk. Get over it. Watching your own presentation is essential for picking up on issues that you may not notice when you’re just speaking aloud. Pay attention to where your presentation starts to drag or becomes unclear. Scrutinize your tone. Do you sound bored? Nervous? We don’t often pick up on these subtle differences when we’re speaking aloud, but it can be painfully noticeable to anyone listening.
Beyond using the recording as a practice tool, it can also serve an important function for others. When you present at a conference, it’s a one-and-done thing. There’s no going back in a couple weeks to rewatch it, which isn’t ideal for attendees who may want to share their new understanding on the topic with a colleague or review your ideas to implement them in their own practice later on. Basically, they’re forced to either take copious notes or resign themselves to the fact that they’ll likely forget a good portion of what was discussed.
But there is a third option. If you want to give participants a way to access your presentation at a later date, you can post this recording online. Add captions to the presentation (YouTube can do this automatically), and post it as an accessible alternative for people who couldn’t attend your talk or for attendees who may want to watch it back later. That way, they don’t have to worry about missing anything. (Plus, it’s great marketing to give attendees an opportunity to share your presentation with their colleagues.)
The more presentations you give, the easier it gets. No one comes out of the womb with great presentation skills. However, the first step in presentation mastery is recognizing that you never deliver a speech to an empty room, and that, to give a good presentation, your audience’s response must be one of the first things you consider.