The Introvert’s Guide to Conference Presentations (Hidden Curriculum #7)

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had technical difficulties while giving a presentation.

How about if you’ve ever been given the five-minute warning from a session presider? Or if you’ve ever been asked a question in the Q&A that you didn’t have the answer to?

The unfortunate reality is that the possibilities for things to go wrong during a conference presentation are endless. I’m sure any seasoned veteran can confirm that they’ve experienced at least one or two over the years. I’ve been there, too. You know what we all have in common?

We got through it. And you will too. Your chances of getting through it are exponentially better if you do the following seven things.

Me giving a presentation at a small graduate conference in March 2019

For Any Presentation

Practice, practice, practice.

Anyone you ask for advice about giving presentations is going to tell you to practice your talk beforehand. You can read it through a few times on your own. You might also consider signing up for or organizing a practice talk session in your department so that you can get outside feedback. No matter what your practice looks like you should always time yourself.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when talks have no clear structure and inevitably go over time. Anyone who has attended a conference before can probably tell you that precise time management is essential. This is especially true when you need to make it from room A to B (and B is across the conference hall, or in a different Zoom room) in just a few minutes.

I will say that timing can differ a little between practice sessions and the real thing. In my experience, however, I’ve found that I talk faster because I’m more nervous and thus take less time than anticipated.

In general, conference presentations tend to be somewhere between 15-20 minutes in length. A good rule of thumb when writing your paper is to think of every double-spaced page as around 2 minutes. The ideal length of a written conference paper would therefore be around 8-9 pages.

Introvert Tip: Different people prefer different methods of giving a presentation. I find comfort in having all of my thoughts written out in the order that I want to say them (i.e. writing a conference paper). That way, even if I’m super nervous when the time comes to present, I’m never at a loss for what to say. It’s all right there in front of me.

Anticipate the questions that audience members might have.

I talked a little bit about this over on my Instagram, and shared one of the best pieces of advice I got from the Women’s Classical Caucus mentorship pop-up event “Conferencing 101” on December 20.

It was super informative and encouraging! I highly recommend attending future events if you get the chance.

In my experience, it’s pretty rare that people will ask you questions intentionally meant to catch you off guard. This is especially true of presentations by students – the audience is usually more sympathetic to the nerve-wracking experience it is to present at a conference as an undergraduate or graduate student.

Still, it’s always good to think of what the audience might ask. You can either do this on your own or have a friend or colleague read your paper and propose some questions.

Introvert Tip: What I sometimes do is include additional slides in my presentation if I want to illustrate things that didn’t fit in my talk. I actually got this idea from a job talk I attended a few years ago and it has been a great approach to feeling more comfortable in the Q&A.

Always have a backup.

Put your presentation materials on a flashdrive. Email them to yourself. Email them to your session presider (if they ask for them). Print out your notes so that you don’t end up lost when presenter mode isn’t working. The technology in a conference hall has a mind of its own. Don’t trust it. Seriously. You can thank me later.

This also applies to folks using handouts. Include your most important passages in your slideshow and/or in your actual talk. This is crucial if you anticipate that not everyone will have access to the handout. Such a scenario might happen if you run out in person, if you’re unprepared with a link to the handout virtually, or if you forget to distribute it before your talk begins.

Introvert Tip: If you’re anything like me, you are prone to overthinking and imagining the worst that could happen. It’s even worse when you know there are people out there expecting something from you. Do yourself a favor and make sure that you account for anything that could possibly go wrong. Be prepared for anything.

Remember that you deserve to be there.

It’s easy to feel like you aren’t good enough when you’re surrounded by some of the most brilliant scholars in your field. Trust me, I’ve been there. It doesn’t feel good. What’s helped me, though, is remembering that you did the work that led to this presentation. People want to hear about that work, otherwise they wouldn’t have shown up. That’s something to be proud of.

Introvert Tip: I have always really struggled with talking about my research. But when I put those fears and anxieties aside and actually do talk about my research in public venues like conferences, I always feel more confident. It’s kind of like riding a roller coaster and being extra exhilarated when you get off because you defied your expectations of dying in the process. Do the scary thing. I promise you won’t regret it.

For Virtual Presentations

Put someone else in charge of distributing resources.

Unless you are really, really good at remembering things under pressure, I would highly recommend giving this responsibility to someone else. Doing so allows you to focus on more important things: the presentation itself.

A good person to ask to do this is your session presider or tech person.

Similarly, let someone else advance your slides while you talk.

Imagine having to keep your place in your paper and advance your slides at the appropriate moments. In a virtual setting, this would mean having at least three windows (e.g. Powerpoint, Microsoft Word, and Zoom) open at once. But wait! You have to share your screen so people can see your Powerpoint, but oh no! Then you can’t see your paper! What do you do??

I have a second screen, but of course this is not something everyone desires or can afford. If you have navigated all of this successfully on your own (and I’m sure there are ways to do so), kudos to you. But just the thought stresses me out.

As with the previous tip, having someone else advance your slides for you while you talk would help alleviate some of that stress. It’s one less thing you have to worry about!

Introvert Tip: I know, I know. Talking to new people can be scary. It’s even scarier when you’re under pressure and are asking them to do this for you minutes before your presentation. Do yourself a favor and get all of your delegating out of the way well in advance of your presentation. Just send whoever it is you want to be responsible for your resources and/or slides an email ahead of time. I’m sure they would be happy to oblige.

Keep your paper at eye-level.

In some ways, giving a virtual presentation makes it a lot easier to maintain eye contact (actual or perceived) with your audience. I do realize, however, that some people still prefer to print their papers out and read them even for a virtual talk.

If this is you, remember two things. First, no one wants to stare at the top of your head for twenty minutes. Second, no one is going to be able to hear you if you’re talking at your paper.

Making regular eye contact with you audience is definitely a scary idea, but in my experience, it isn’t so bad. It might even be comforting to you if you glimpse a friendly face out there.

Want more posts like this one? Check out others in the hidden curriculum series!

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