12 August 2016

Notes from Speak Up! Presenting at Conferences for the First Time

It was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of the Brisbane panel for the joint ALIA/NLS8 event Speak Up! Presenting at Conferences for the First Time. I thought it would be useful to share some notes.

What makes a good proposal/presentation idea

It’s essential to have a clear idea of who you think the audience is for the presentation is and what they will take away from it. The takeaway could be new information, or a change of attitude, but in the best thing is when your presentation encourages audience members to take some practical action in their own work or professional practice.

Coming up with ideas

Ideas some to me in two main ways.
  • Something has been done in my workplace or professional practice that other people may find useful. Sometimes this can be something good, but often sharing experiences of something that has not gone well can be even more useful. Another panellist Fiona Emberton made the good point that being critical is OK but you should always protect your organisation and turn ‘fails’ into positives by focusing on the learnings.
  • Something that I have read or seen elsewhere has provoked a reaction of some kind in me. Usually the emotion that is aroused in me is curiosity, but sometimes it can be disbelief or anger that will drive me to action!

Collaboration and co-presenting

Collaboration is really rewarding. I personally think it works best when the collaborators aren’t too similar but instead bring something very different to the table. For example, the eResearch Australasia conference seeks to include Point-Counterpoint sessions, where two presenters offer competing perspectives on the same topic, almost like a debate.

People sometimes falsely assume that collaborating will be easier because the same amount of work will be shared out, but actually a successful collaboration requires more effort than working on your own. You not only have to get your own part right, but you need to work together to make sure that the whole thing is coherent. And while it can be tempting to think that you will be less nervous if you have a buddy, the opposite can be true - collaborators can fuel each others’ nerves rather than calm them!

The warning signs for a trainwreck proposal

My personal top three:
  • The proposer hasn’t followed the submission guidelines.
  • The topic is way too large for the requested timeslot.
  • The topic has already been well-covered at previous conferences (unless you are explicitly providing a new perspective, or extending/updating the previous work in some way).

Preparing the presentation

For work-related presentations, I have to use a branded Powerpoint template. Otherwise I use Google Slides which I find very clean and simple. I often find it useful to present from a PDF version - there seems to be less chance of the formatting go bung.

I think a lot about my introduction & conclusion and usually write those out in full because people will remember them the most. I usually have a rough script for the rest but I try to know the content well enough to just glance at my notes if I need to on the day.

The most important thing I do about a week before the conference is to do a full run-through out loud several times with a stopwatch. Despite my best efforts to keep it tight, I usually find that my presentation is 30-50% longer than I thought it was. Doing this a week before means I have time to reduce the content. It can be difficult to get rid of information you think is important but you need to be really ruthless and learn to kill your babies. There is nothing worse for you or the audience than getting the 5-minute warning card when you have 15 minutes of content left!

Feeling nervous

I still feel nervous every time I present. I often have presentation-related dreams or nightmares in the week beforehand and feel quite nauseous on the day. Although I don’t think I will ever not be nervous, the more I have presented the better able I am to regulate those emotions. I can observe how I am feeling with a bit more detachment and know that after the first minute or two I will usually feel better.

At the Brisbane event, the other panellists emphasised that a bit of nerves can be a good thing. Adrenalin can spur you on to deliver a great talk!

On the day

I try to get a good night’s sleep and stick to my normal morning routine. I try not to drink extra coffee as that just adds to the jitters! I arrive at the venue early and if possible I go through the following steps:
  • stand where I’ll be presenting and work out the layout of the room
  • make sure I know how the microphone works
  • quickly skip through my slides to make sure they are working as expected.
Introducing myself to the chair and other speakers helps me feel a bit more at ease. I always wear something that I feel comfortable in and that is suitable for having a lapel mike attached to it. I also often wear my lucky shoes and/or a ring that my partner gave me that has a computer key with the German word for Help on it!

Breathing is really important. Take a few deep breaths before you get started and don’t forget to pause at logical breaks. Sometimes I even write myself a reminder in my notes to stop and have a small rest.
I find it useful to have the stopwatch running on my phone and to have rough timings written in my notes so that I can check at different points whether I need to speed up or slow down or am on track.

Keeping an audience engaged

If it’s possible to introduce an element of interactivity, that is always helpful. This doesn’t need to be complex - a simple poll where people have to raise their hand in response to a question can be really effective.

Storytelling approaches are useful if they are suitable for your content.

You can also build in opportunities, especially at the end, for self-reflection. Ask a question or provide a challenge for people to take away.

Leave enough time for plenty of questions. No-one will be bothered if you go under-time if that means more time for questions! If someone you know will be in the audience, ask them if they are prepared to hit you with a Dorothy Dixer. Asking the first question is also a good thing to do if you are the chair and everyone is being quiet - you can get the ball rolling.

Handling tricky questions

Take a deep breath. Repeat the question back to the person to check that you have it right - this is a good practice anyway for live streaming and recording, as often the questions can’t be well heard by those not in the room.

If you don’t have a good answer, don’t waffle. You can throw it out to the crowd: “That’s a great question. I don’t have a response to that myself right now but I am wondering if anyone else in the audience might like to comment?” It is also OK to say that you don’t know but you would be interested in following up after the presentation.

After your presentation

Stick around in the room for a few minutes at the end in case anyone wants to approach you.

Make sure you are available during the next break so that people can talk to you over tea or coffee.

Share your slides on the web - I use Speakerdeck. Tweet the link to your slides and if you have a blog, embed your slides there along with a search engine friendly summary.

Finally, have a think about whether you can turn your presentation into a newsletter or journal article so that you can get your work out to an even broader audience.

The NLS8 idea I’d like to see

NLS8 could provide a space to open up a really important conversation about volunteering - the good, the bad and the ugly.

A huge number of Australians volunteer every year with organisations whose values they support. For new librarians struggling to get that first foot in the door, it can be a great way to get some experience when paid options aren’t readily available but I’m not sure that all organisations are meeting best practice guidelines. It would be good if new librarians going down the volunteering path knew how to set up their volunteering situation so that it was mutually beneficial and not exploitative.