Five reasons my conference presentations are better than the others [Guest post]

[Mike says: As you can see, this is a guest post. Info on the author and some brief thoughts from me are at the bottom.]

I was paid the ultimate compliment after presenting at a conference in Taiwan last fall.  As I was sitting outside a classroom waiting for a session to end, I saw one of the audience members from my presentation walking down the hallway with a friend.  He was talking about how disappointed he was with the presentations he had attended up to that point.  “I only saw one good session,” he was saying as he walked past me.  He looked up, made eye contact with me, and said to his friend, “It was this guy’s.”

I was quite pleased, to say the least, but it made me think about what led him to say that.  I replayed some of the sessions I had attended and identified five things I did that I believe everyone should do when presenting at a conference.  Here are the five reasons I identified that made my presentation better than the others.

 Reason 1: I talk to the audience members like they are my colleagues.

This sounds like common sense but I have attended sessions where it felt like the presenter was lecturing to the audience.  The talks were fairly monotonous and filled with jargon.  I couldn’t imagine being a student in this teacher’s class if his/her lectures are delivered in the same uninspiring manner.

Additionally, sessions where the presenter is modeling an activity do not require that the adult audience members be treated like 7-year-olds.  While it can be useful to model an activity, speakers do not need to put on their sweet teacher voice or refer to the audience as “gang,” “boys and girls,” or “children.”  I prefer presentations where the speaker tells the audience what they do, how they do it, then explain the rationale behind it, but that may simply be a personal preference.

Reason 2: I make the best use of the time I am given.

If I am assigned the first slot of the day, I know it won’t start on time.  Thus, I will only have 35-40 of the 50 minutes I was allotted to give my talk.  I use the first 10 minutes to chat with the early birds and ask about their expectations for my talk.  This shows that I care about their needs and helps create a positive group dynamic.

If I am the last speaker before lunch or near the end of the day, I try to finish a few minutes early so that people can leave and beat the crowds to the best restaurants.  If people want to stay and ask questions, that’s fine since I’m still on the clock and I don’t have to rush out or give up the room right away.  Attendees don’t mind if you finish a little early but they can become angry, and rightly so, if you make them late for whatever comes next.

Reason 3: I give the audience members something to use on Monday.

Giving audience members a takeaway is a win-win for both parties.  The presenter can go into the session with confidence that he/she is sharing something useful with the audience.  This can help the speaker control his/her nerves.  Audience members appreciate being told in the introduction of a talk, and in the summary in the program book, what they can expect to learn (and hopefully use) by attending that presentation.

Reason 4: I make my materials and resources available to the audience members.

Handouts are nice but they can distract attendees from what the presenter is saying.  They also kill trees.  Putting materials online and sharing the link at the end of the presentation is a great way to end the talk on a positive note.  Be sure to tell the audience at the beginning of your talk that you will be making your slides and materials available online and the link will be given at the end.  This keeps the attendees’ butts in the seats and eyes on you instead of feeling like they need to constantly scribble notes or take photos of every slide.

Reason 5: I finally learned how to use PowerPoint more effectively.

In the past two years I have made dramatic changes in the way I use PowerPoint. I used to be guilty of having wordy slides laden with bullet points. Every presentation I attended at the conference in Taiwan had PowerPoint slides filled with text. They all seemed to run together.  For my presentation in Taiwan I decided at the last minute not to use my PowerPoint at all.  Instead, I talked to the audience and wrote a few key words on the board and I feel like that made my presentation stand out.

These days, when I design my slides, I use full-screen images and key words only. While I’m putting my presentation together, I add comments and points that I want to make to the notes section at the bottom of each slide; this way, if I run my slideshow in Presenter Mode, I can refer to my notes if I need them and attendees who request the file can have them.  This being said, I believe a presenter should know enough about their chosen topic that he/she could talk about it for an hour without needing to constantly refer to their notes.  When a speaker knows his/her content, he/she will be able to continue smoothly even if the technology fails and can concentrate on engaging the audience during our presentation.

Concluding Thoughts

Presenting at a conference shouldn’t be a chore or feel like an obligation.  Speaking to a room full of people who do what you do is a fantastic opportunity to share your experiences and help other teachers develop and grow professionally.  Put yourself in the place of the educators who chose your session and deliver the presentation you would enjoy attending.

Working in different roles on the program team for the KOTESOL International Conference has made it clear that good speakers are difficult to identify ahead of time. Some people are very skilled at writing their proposals or have interesting research findings to share but struggle in front of a crowd and ultimately leave the attendees disappointed.  I hope regular conference attendees will work together to build positive word of mouth for speakers they enjoy so conference organizers around the world will be able to identify and invite them.  When you attend an excellent talk, be sure to talk, blog, and post online about it.  This will help to ensure better conference experiences in the future for everyone involved.

It is my hope that the reasons listed above will help readers of this post improve their presentation skills and, after your next presentation, I can buy you a cup of coffee and tell you the five reasons your presentation was better than the others.

Biography: Tim Thompson teaches undergraduate and graduate presentation skills courses at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). He has presented at conferences in Taiwan, Japan, Russia, Cambodia, and all over South Korea. His next presentation will be at TESOL Arabia in March. Tim’s email address is thompson@kaist.ac.kr.

[From Mike: I’d like to share my thanks to Tim for sharing his thoughts here. Thanks Tim! I appreciate you taking the time. It was fun discussing aspects of this piece and I hope it will be helpful for readers. I believe it will be. Readers might also be interested in Tim’s previous guest post in this space, “University Conversation Courses: A Last Chance Effort?” If any one is interested in submitting a guest post, this is something I am always interested in talking about so please let me know. UPDATE: Tim has started a blog (attached to his Weebly site) and you can see it here. There are some very interesting posts. ]

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9 comments

  1. MOIST

    Number One Part Two is spot on. The number of times I’ve been talked down to by a colleague or a trainer is ridiculous. Generally I switch off the moment they do it, so if they have anything interesting to say, which I doubt, I miss it. Those who treat their audience like children generally also think they are “better” and “more experienced/qualified” than the people they are helping which, in my experience, really isn’t true and once again leads me to ignore them.

  2. livinglearning

    One and Five are why I like your presentations, but these are all things I’ll keep in mind. I personally like handouts to scribble on. There’s a difference for me between being in the moment taking notes and having the materials to peruse later. I guess it’s about how I remember things or cement them in my brain. If I’ve scribbled stuff, I’m more likely to use the website and find the materials. Anyway, thanks for the tips. Sure to be useful soon.

  3. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    Spot on, guest poster. #1 grabbed me right away. I presented yesterday at a conference in Toronto and one person came to me after saying basically this, that he liked how I involved the group like it was a story, assuming everyone was on the same page, How personable your presentation approach is makes a huge difference, no matter whether you are the expert or not.

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