7 steps to improving Conference Presentations

Went to the big and fascinating conference put on by the Effective States in International Development (ESID) programme last month (see Sam Hickey’s podcast for what it was all about). But the structure didn’t live up to some excellent content. 3 days of plenary-panel-plenary-panel. Some things have got better – the organizers largely avoided manels, for example. But overall, the format was very traditional, and to my mind a bit sterile.

That’s partly down to the nature and incentives of academia, I guess. Over 200 people registered, of whom about 150 were ‘giving papers’ – which basically means you have to give everyone a chance to talk for at least 15 minutes about their research, or they won’t come.

To be fair, this was an end of project showcase for ESID’s highly productive 8 years of research, so a lot of presentations were inevitable. So rather than have another rant about how much I hate manels and panels (nothing much to add to this one from 2016), let’s be more positive. If we have to endure plenary+panel formats, how can we make them better?

Because there is, um, lots of room for improvement.

Plenaries where world-renowned speakers seem astonished when told they have only 5 minutes left, having spent large parts of the previous 25 introducing the topic, saying nice things about their fellow researchers etc etc. They then abruptly change gear and whizz through the substance of their talk in a series of ‘I’d like to talk about X, but I don’t have time’.

Panels with people speed reading from their screens in a monotone, like a British MP trying to get as many words as possible into Hansard. A 2 minute warning should mean just that. But either the chair gives up or the speakers try the old trick of saying ‘and finally’ five times to keep the chair at bay. But if 4 panelists overrun by 5m each, that takes out 20m from a 30m Q&A.

Top tip – don’t start your panel presentation by saying how much you hate panels as I did (got a few baffled looks and didn’t exactly energise the room).

So in a desperate effort to be constructive (Chris Roche asked me ‘why do you get so angry at conferences’ – still pondering that one), here are 7 simple steps to better conferences.

1. Time training: everyone should have training on speaking about the same topic for 5, 10, 20, 30 minutes. Prizes for those that come closest. Mild electric shocks or public humiliation for the rest.

2. Test narratives and elevator pitches. ‘Everything is context-specific’ is not a narrative, it’s a cop out. If you are going to present the same piece of research in multiple events, is it surely worth deliberately honing your overall narrative, seeking the elusive balance between over-simplification and incomprehensibly complicated, trying out some alternatives and testing them with an audience of colleagues before you blow your big chance to communicate it more widely.

credit: www.phdcomix.com

3. Powerpoints are generally getting a bit better, but there are still some 100 words-per-page monstrosities. There is too much powerpoint karaoke (turning to the screen and reading out what’s quoted there). And way too many slides – nothing spoils a presentation more than an out of time speaker skipping through their remaining 20 slides. A 15m talk should have a max of 7 or 8 slides. (ht Peter Evans: it’s called Powerpoint, not PowerLotsOfPoints).

4. Please someone, set up a TripAdvisor for speakers and chairs: Was it interesting, was it well delivered? Over time, regular presenters would track their ratings and make more of an effort to improve. Better communicators could be asked to help struggling colleagues. The rest of us could check whether the big names speak as well as they write, before signing up.

5. Watch yourself: all academics should be filmed giving a short presentation (in real life, not lab conditions) and then forced to watch and critique it with their colleagues. Maybe ask some in the audience to feed back, like they do when testing presidential speeches. I’d volunteer for that.

6. Consciously listen: Sit in a series of panels and plenaries and take notes on the presentation, rather than the content. Be analytical – what engages/bores you? What techniques might you be able to use (we can’t all be MLK orators, but we can learn from colleagues).

7. Learn to chair. A panel stands or falls on the ability of chairs to keep people to time, inject positive energy into the room, keep questioners short and shut down the (invariably male ) ‘more of a comment than a question’ contributions. Good chairs should be recognized as such, and the not so good ones ditto. But they should also be invisible – keep intros and remarks to a minimum to avoid eating into the time; and if you do the right thing and make sure the first question at Q&A goes to a woman, please don’t say so – apart from being yukky virtue signalling, how do you think that makes the women in the audience feel?

Above all, this is about respect – Speakers, it’s not about you, but the people who have come all this way to try and learn something, and the subject matter.

There’s a whole other post to be written about designing better conferences, which are starting to happen, but these kinds of steps could massively improve even the stale old plenary+ panel format.

What have I missed?

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26 Responses to “7 steps to improving Conference Presentations”
  1. Heather Marquette

    Take as given that I agree with everything you say about good chairing, checking timings etc. And that I totally agree with you about announcing that you’re going to ask a woman for a question first is pretty disempowering (though actually asking a woman for a question first is spot on).

    But I’m going to defend the panel/plenary model because it works for what it’s designed to do. The format persists because it does work – assuming good chairing, people keep to time, people present the most interesting parts of their research etc.

    It helps academics know what’s up and coming in their field. It provides an opportunity to get vital feedback from your peers on work in progress while you still have a chance to make changes. It helps to build networks and, potentially, collaborations. It helps you to meet other people working in your field that you wouldn’t otherwise meet. It helps to make you feel part of an academic community rather than just a lone scholar sitting alone *all the time*, even if that community is simply the people sitting in on that panel rather than the conference as a whole.

    I came away from the ESID event feeling really energised and proud to have played a small part in helping to revitalise the study of the politics of development. I had some super feedback on the paper I presented, including people who came up to me or emailed me afterwards. I got to see what lots of people are working on and made notes about people/papers to follow up on or research to include in the Development Politics module I’m in the middle of revising. I noted a few ‘rising stars’ and sent their details to colleagues responsible for future recruitment – people who not just presented well but fielded challenging comments with generosity and openness as well as cleverness.

    Maybe the lesson, beyond ‘quality counts’ (which it absolutely does), is that academics need things out of conferences that policy makers and practitioners don’t, and sometimes that’s ok. If the purpose is primarily to engage with policy makers and practitioners, then I 100% agree that things need to be organised differently than you would to a primarily academic conference. And if you’re a policy maker or practitioner going to a primarily academic conference, expect it to be an academic conference. Maybe being clearer up front about the purpose of a conference is a better way forward than trying to be all things to all people, potentially satisfying none.

    • Duncan Green

      I agree Heather. Panel + plenary has its place as a format, but shouldn’t be a default – and nor should anything else: the choice of format shd absolutely be guided by aud8ience and purpose. But if you do go for P&P, then we need to make sure it’s done well!

      • Heather Marquette

        I’m not convinced the best way to do this is by naming & shaming techniques. My introverted husband read this & wondered if you’d run some of your ideas past your inclusion & neurodiversity leads. A bad Tripadvisor review when you’ve been up all night with crying kids or aging parents? When you’re an early career researcher on a temporary contract lumbered with a high workload & no time to adequately prepare? When reading text on slides could be really helpful if you have ADHD or anxiety?
        More support for helping people present well, absolutely. Name & shame? You’d need to convince me that it comes down to lack of respect and not a million other possible variables playing out on the day.

        • Duncan Green

          See what you’re saying Heather, but isn’t that true of any public accountability/feedback mechanism on anything (including stressed out restaurant or bookshop owners)? Why shd academics expect different treatment?

          • Heather Marquette

            The only effect it would have would be to shut down different voices. I mean, I know it’s not an idea you’re seriously putting forward and are just looking to provoke a debate, but think about it… why would anyone want to risk being publicly humiliated? Naming & shaming individuals is very different to doing it to businesses. Universities have a big enough mental health crisis as it is, and there could be consequences from such an approach that should be taken seriously.

            If the point is to help people improve, surely the best way is to offer private feedback and support. I know I’ve really appreciated this in the past and have learned a lot from it.

          • Duncan Green

            No I actually am serious Heather. Again, why shd academic presenters be exempt from the kind of public feedback mechanisms we routinely advocate in other spheres? And I don’t see why they would be exclusively negative – surely praising a speaker in public is even more confidence-boosting than doing so in private? And of course, we can include safeguards against trolling in any such mechanism. This is about the rights of the audience too – surely the ppl schlepping all that way should be able to get a clearer idea of what to expect, beyond a mere talk/paper title?
            Also I never used the phrase ‘name and shame’, and that wasn’t my intention – do you really have such a low opinion of your academic colleagues that you think they wd use this to humiliate each other? If so (transparency cuts both ways), the feedback mechanisms should not be anonymous – or else they cd go the way of peer review!

          • David Grocott

            I’m with Heather here. Yes restaurants and shops get reviewed, but those reviews don’t typically target individual workers and jeopardise their future careers. As a ‘practitioner’ [shudder] who has sat through a lot of practitioner and academic presentations, I can safely say that bad presenting is not limited to the academic field and communications training would be welcome all-round!

  2. cynan

    Duncan! You missed mentioning the massively parallelized, minute-by-minute adaptive space which creates dozens to hundreds of engagement interactions with intimate small-group discussion opportunities!
    aka poster sessions, poster sessions, poster sessions! 🙂

  3. Love the idea of a Trip Advisor model of getting feedback on my presentations!!
    I wish we would not cram a lot of words into slides – speaking with pictures and diagrams is much more engaging, than trying to read the slides and landing up not listening.
    I think respect is really important and needs to be the foundation of presentation – not just of the audience but fellow speakers and following sessions. It is really frustrating when speakers not keep to time, do not focus on theme, and most important do not allow sufficient time for those following. As an audience this is extremely unfair.

  4. Annette Fisher

    Great round up of the good and the ‘room for improvement’ of ESID Duncan. Agree with what you’ve said above. I do also agree with Heather though that a format that’s good for an academic conference (like this) isn’t good for a practitioner one. I had to remind myself (a practitioner come academic) of this a few times up in Manchester when the format started to drag.
    I’m off to COPASAH in Delhi this week – a global symposium of 400 practitioners and grassroots movement folks from over 40 countries with a very different format – only a sprinkling of academics. Will report back on if the format is as promising as it looks.
    One thing I’m already impressed by is the anti-sexual harassment memo/code of conduct they emailed around in advance.

    More after this week

  5. I’d be interested in the follow up on designing better conferences. I have just run two pilots on digital engagement with the Green Party conference to allow remote participation. The technology worked, but getting people excited about panels and formal plenaries failed.

    Then the week after I took part in the annual Online Facilitation Unconference – small groups in breakout sessions talking to each other from home. Much less boring. There was even an online equivalent of sitting down with strangers at a table.

    • Jamie Pett

      Hi David – We ran an impromptu open space session together at OPEN 2019 about this. Really glad to hear the experiments at the conference went well. I’m starting to use Liberating Structures online to liven up some meetings so would love to see any resources you’ve come across on online facilitation.

  6. The Open Gov Hub’s Guide to Great Events, a crowdsourced guide that has been developed on the basis of the experience of many of the organizations who call the Open Gov Hub in DC (and similar hubs elsewhere) home, is worth a look. As you might expect given the community it comes from, it gives a lot of weight to participation and engagement!


    It’s helped to inform the evolution of the Open Government Partnership global and regional events, and made them some of the liveliest and most engaging events that I’ve been to. (I was at the ESID event too, and the contrast was marked).

    Kudos to Nada Zohdy, the Director of the Open Gov Hub, for creating this!

  7. Well-said Duncan. I share your frustration. We should switch the time available for coffee breaks (where real conversations happen) and panels. 🙂 Also love David Newman’s comment and will check these out. Why are we still flying so much (and I include myself here) if we’re really serious about gender, power and climate change? We could dramatically widen the net bringing in online organizing and networking to our workshops and conferences.

  8. In chairing a panel, I now happily tell panelists they cannot thank the organizers, they have a sentence to describe what their organization does, and they should focus on what it is they truly think would be helpful for the audience to know (often in my space discussing what has not worked) nor does everyone on the panel answer every question – and if they go over time I will fling myself at their microphone and wrestle it to the ground (or, as in your picture, throw myself despairingly onto the desk top)! Seems to help!

    • Duncan Green

      Chris Roche top tip: programme your phone to blast out Abba when speakers’ time is up. The prospect of ‘Waterloo’ terrifies them into keeping to time, apparently……

  9. Rich Ann Baetz

    Two things came to mind in reading the post & comments:
    the American Evaluation Association’s Potent Presentations Initiative: https://www.eval.org/page/p2i-home
    and the Neuroleadership Institute’s Rethinking How We Conference: The Science of Successful Large Events (North America):
    May these resources be helpful. I share the frustration as well and encourage us all to make changes. I was not aware of Open Gov Hub’s resource, but have downloaded it now – thank you, Alan Hudson, for sharing info on it!

  10. On a lighter note. Richard Halbrook was visiting one of the large camps organised to receive millions of IDPs who had moved out because of the war in parts of Pakistan. A lengthy briefing had been arranged for him with power point presentation. The government official started by saying that he had a detailed presentation about the situation but would prefer if Mr Halbrook went out into the camp and let his eyes see it all. He promptly got up saying that is the best presentation he got in his life

    • Duncan Green

      Love it! Alas, field visit powerpoints seem to be proliferating – they’ve become a new part of the protocol. Pay your respects to the relevant local elder, endure the ppt and only then can you go and talk to people…..

  11. On point 3, I fear that people only read the second rule and just reduce the font to comply with the 5 slide limit. I don’t think the number of slides is a problem at all, if they have a purpose and are nice to look at: well-chosen photos, comic strips, gifs, memes, whatever, but never a transcript of your talk. But many academics are not very good at visual storytelling. I’d recommend that presenters get someone to design their slides or even live scribe (digitally or on a poster), but that would be a plug…

  12. Maybe we need more conference organizers to share good practices with their speakers. And be hard-nosed about the maximum number of slides. I am off to a conference next week as a discussant on a 90 minute panel, where allowing 2 minutes per slide, collectively the panelists have planned 150+ minutes of talking time – lots of speed talking! But in the near future we need more practice with online events, and better access to them in low and middle income countries.

  13. Great article Duncan, I agreed with just about all of what you said and enjoyed the humour. A Trip Advisor for speakers would be marvellous, although I’d be very scared of receiving bad reviews.

    I did a comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year called ‘What Are You Talking About?’ which was a rant along similar lines, about my frustrations with fellow speakers.
    It lost money but it was still cheaper than seeing a therapist.