Ten Tips for Presenters

As a complement to Rachel’s Do’s and Don’t for Conference, Workshop, and Program Organizers list, I’ve put this list together. Please add your own ideas.

  1. Timeline. When you are initially asked to give a talk for a conference or event, often it’s a very exploratory discussion. An initial conversation should include the conference date (though maybe not a specific date for your presentation), the conference location, the expected audience, what the organizers would like you to do, in rough outline, and what you’ll be expecting and/or what they’ll be offering in terms of honorarium/fees/reimbursement. Usually once you’ve had this discussion, they’ll need to get back to you with specifics like date/time for your talk, contracts to be signed, and the final word on honorarium/expenses/arrangements.

    Sometimes there can be a long lag between the first discussion and the second. Sometimes signing the contracts can come very late in the game. Often the contracts will have you filling out forms that rehash what you’ve already discussed with your contact, this is normal. Sometimes the first person who contacts you may not be the person who follows-up with you. Don’t purchase tickets or reserve a hotel room until you are sure that you’re confirmed to be at the conference. Once you’ve started making purchases for a conference, make sure you save all your receipts. Feel free to follow-up if you haven’t heard from the planning people in a timely manner.

  2. The Talk. Some conference planners may want you to deliver a talk you’ve given before, others will have a topic in mind they’d like you to speak on. Use the preliminary discussions to help agree on a topic. Once you have it, write it down — I keep my discussion topics in the calendar entry for the date of the talk — because it may be hard to remember later. Many conferences have different length speaking slots (45min, 60 min, 75 min) so know how to stretch or shrink a given presentation, or be able to estimate the length of your talk fairly accurately. My rule of thumb is a slide for every 3-5 minutes of speaking, but each of my slides is fairly wordy/dense. Keep in mind that the title and description of your talk are often the only advertisement for your presentation, so try to make them attention getting and catchy.
  3. Checklists. Make sure you know who is paying for and who is arranging
    • transportation to/from the conference city
    • transportation to/from the airport/train/bus station on both ends
    • parking and/or car rental
    • lodging (how many nights?)
    • meals (which meals? are some covered meals at the conference?)
    • conference registration (many conferences make you register even if they don’t make you pay, make sure this is clear)
    • internet access, if not included
    • handout/notes reproduction

    Sometimes you will get reimbursed before the conference (esp for things like plane tickets), but often you will be reimbursed afterwards, sometimes weeks afterwards.

    Make sure that you know that you will have the necessary set-up for your talk. Be sure to discuss whether there will be

    • internet access
    • a laptop/projector
    • a white board/flipchart
    • a screen
    • a microphone (wireless?)
    • audience microphones for Q&A (if there are no audience mics and you are being recorded you may need to repeat everyone’s questions)
    • a podium
    • a tech person on-hand

    Do you have specific needs or preferences? Make sure to let them know if you need

    • special meals/dietary restrictions
    • hotel/airline preferences
    • time preferences for travel and/or giving your talk (I don’t like speaking first thing in the morning, which often means I get the after lunch slot)
    • local information

    You may need to repeat these instructions on your contract as well. When you are on your way to the conference, keep the contact name, phone number and email address for both your contact person as well as anyone else you need to touch base with for reimbursement, airport transportation, etc. Make sure these are in hard copy and not just in your email. If your travel plans change, try to let people know as soon as possible.

  4. Identity. Keep a current headshot (300 dpi, reproducible in B&W, looks OK at tiny sizes) and a few versions of your bio [short, medium, long] ready to be emailed off as needed. I keep a version of the “this is the pertinent information you’ll need from me” email on hand including name, mailing address, contact phone/email, SSN (if they need it for W-2s) and affiliation, and forward it as needed. Depending on the conference, you may be introduced using only the information you provide, so make it as detailed as you want it to be. You may want to have a short author bio for copy/pasting into a brochure, and a longer “information about me” paragraph to be given to the person doing your introduction.
  5. Permissions. Some conferences may want to audiotape or videotape you (streaming or archived), or offer copies of your handouts or presentations in print or on their website. Think ahead of time which of these is okay with you, and whether you need permission from anyone else for use of any of the images or other media in your presentations. If your presentation is in a different format than industry-standard Powerpoint, be sure to let your contact person know that. If you are being videotaped, and particularly if you are being streamed to multiple locations, that may affect how your presentation needs to be tailored.
  6. On Site. Some people are social and some are not. Some people are exhausted by travel and others are not. When you arrive on-site, especially if you get a ride from the airport from your host, you may need to let them know whether you’re a) ready to go out to dinner with a bunch of people, or b) ready to go back to your room and do your own thing until the next day. Either option is fine, but they may not be able to read your mind and know which you would prefer. The people arranging your ground transportation may not know your other schedule information, so make sure you have a copy handy. They also may not be as actutely aware of time differences between your home and your current location, so if you are tired early due to jet lag or the fact that it’s way past your bedtime, just let people know.
  7. Preparedness. It’s always a good idea to have a plan B. If the Internet connection doesn’t work, have screenshots ready. If your USB drive isn’t recognized, have a copy of your talk on CD. While you don’t necessarily have to be able to give your talk during a power failure, be prepared for some divergences from the set plan. Arrive at your talk’s location at least 15 minutes early to make sure all the technology works correctly. Plan to stick around after your talk both to pack up your things, but also to talk to people who may not have spoken up during the Q&A. Be mindful of the fact that there may be another talk happening right after yours, so if people want to schmooze, suggest another venue for further chitchat.
  8. You’re On. Occasionally you may not be introduced. Be prepared to introduce yourself. The less you read directly from your slides, the better. Try to stick within your time limit. If you’re on a panel, this is double-plus important since any extra time you use will take time away from other presenters. If there’s not someone in charge of keeping time make SURE you keep a timepiece with you: on your wrist, your laptop or someplace else. I always write down both the time my talk should end (with time for Q&A afterwards) and the absolute-end-of-session time. If you are going over your time, try to find a way to graciously wrap it up, don’t just speed through the remainder of your presentation.

    Try to keep your eyes moving around to various members of the audience and pick up their cues as to whether you are keeping them interested. Most audiences are very responsive or at least have a few responsive members that you can keep your eye on. I always tell audience members beforehand to let me know if I’m using words they don’t understand (I try not to, but sometimes I slip up) just by waving their hand and I think this encourages people to not tune me out if I get verbose. No matter how interesting and engaging you are, some people will drift off or leave early. Some may even sleep. Do not take this personally. Sometimes people don’t ask questions and sometimes they do. Try to keep answers brief and informative, and channel people who seem to require longer or in-depth answers to talk to you afterwards if their question isn’t of general interest.

  9. While You’re There. It’s up to you, usually, whether you want to attend any of the rest of the conference or not. Most conferences I’ve been to have given presenters at least a day pass, and sometimes complete registration. I’m often pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve learned by dropping in on other talks at conferences that were outside of my specialty. Some of my favorite times at conferences have been having meals with local librarians and talking to them about their jobs and their regions. If you haven’t made plans otherwise though, your time is your own.
  10. A Clean Exit. Make sure you’ve said thank you and goodbye to everyone. Make sure you’ve gotten your receipts in, or know whatever follow-up will be required for reimbursement. Sometimes organizers like you to fill out paperwork for reimbursement at the conference, often there is a form to fill out and return once you get home. Sometimes you will get paid an honorarium at the conference, and other times it’s mailed to you along with or in addition to your reimbursement. Make sure your contact person knows that you’re on your way out when you prepare to leave. If you have a late flight but an early hotel check-out, you can almost always leave your bags at the hotel desk which can free you up to attend more of the conference or sightsee.

13 thoughts on “Ten Tips for Presenters

  1. Holy Crap!
    I was thinking about doing a presentation at RILA next year – looks like I’d better get on that!
    Excellent List!

  2. This is excellent – although aimed at presenters there’s lots of great advice for organisers too.

    Reminds me that I need to prepare a guide to the venue’s tech specs for speakers right about now.

  3. Excellent overview and should be very helpful to everybody who reads it. Much of it rings true from my experience.

    Have you given any presentations lately without slides or using audiovisuals? My personal goal is to give more talks without using any technological aids. I have no desire to watch people read bullet points from the screen of a Powerpoint presentation. Frankly, every Powerpoint presentation I’ve seen has been a boring waste of time. People should put more effort into being interesting speakers than in creating polished multimedia presentations.

  4. Make sure that you are provided with more water than you need. Sip it when necessary, and sometimes when not, to provide a break or pause in what you’re saying. Particularly useful if you’re asked a difficult question and you need a few moments to think.

    I also find it’s helpful to start with a light hearted remark, not particularly for the humour value, but it allows me to establish the level of audience participation right at the start. Absolute silence after an opening joke always means you’re in for a hard ride.

    I would disagree with ‘try and stick to your time limit’. No – *stick* to your time limit. Not to do so is rude and unprofessional. If you end up with less time than was planned, re-work your timings while talking; as a professional you should be able to do this. Ideally get more time from the organiser with agreement for say a shorter lunchbreak, and tell the audience this at the start.

    If possible, have a version of your talk available electronically so that people can download it after the event.

    Finally, *be enthusiastic*. This will overcome any manner of other difficulties – you must want to be there, want to speak, want people to listen to what you have to say, and want their lives to be a tiny bit different after you’ve finished talking.

  5. Excellent suggestions. From my limited experience, I’ve learned you can’t be too prepared. I practice and time my presentations until I can’t stand them and then practice once more.
    If someone asks a difficult question, field an answer from the audience or postpone it to a discussion list or blog entry, but never ignore it. Part of ending on time is leaving enough time for questions and offering a place to continue the discussion if necessary.

    If you don’t have enough handouts, leave a link or signup sheet for those who didn’t obtain one. What I prefer not to do is post any slides as a preview for my topic, but I will do a short summary.

  6. Chuck Munson makes a good point about the dullness of PowerPoint. An alternative I tried recently is MindManager from MindJet. It’s an automated version of mind mapping. This works well for presentations because the visual arrangement of your ideas makes it easier for the audience – people can see where they are in your argument, rather than having to think back through a linear sequence of slides.

  7. Outstanding advice. This checklist is also a really good starter guide for someone who is trying to arrange for a guest speaker. In the past, I assumed that experienced, “Internet-Famous” speakers knew what to ask for and would guide us (the organizers) with the information that we would need to provide them with the stuff they need for a sucessful talk. That doesn’t work so well. (Ask Randal Schwartz if he’ll ever come back to Washington D.C. :))

  8. Again to Chuck’s point: I’ve taken to putting up a graphic / photograph / cartoon on the ppt slide and talking for a while about the slide. Basically, I’m trying to replace a slew of bullet points with one image that illustrates (heh) my point and then elaborate with my notes. It’s hard to do, but when it’s done right, it’s very useful.

    thanks Jessamyn, for the list. It is very handy.

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