Doing your first conference presentation – Tips and Tricks

By Jitske Both-Nwabuwe | reading time: 5 minutes

At one point in your PhD career you will most likely present some of your work at a conference. The first time can be scary. I know I was! It was pretty scary to fly halfway across the globe to present to people I did not know.

I had my first conference presentation at the 2nd Meaningful Work Symposium in Auckland, New-Zealand. In this blog I share my experiences and give you some tips and tricks on how to prepare and survive your first conference presentation.

Phase 1: Preparations before the conference

You got the acceptance e-mail: you are going to present at a conference!  I do not know about you, but for me – after the initial thrill – I started to worry: How am I going to pull this off? Well just follow these tips:

  • Contact your hero – fellow PhD student (if you have one)

Maybe be you have a fellow PhD student who can present very well. He or she is your hero concerning presentation skills. Well, find this fellow PhD student and ask for help.

  • Choose your key message

Usually your paper, which you are about to present, contains multiple key messages. However, you cannot tell them all! A general rule: for every key message you need 10 minutes. Try to find out how much time you will actually have and choose your key message wisely. I ended up choosing the ‘wrong’ key message. So make sure you know the reason why your article was accepted. Don’t worry if you can’t tell about everything that is important. People will ask you to share more during the round of questions. They did so after my presentation, so be prepared!

  • Use pictures

Ask yourself, what do you like to see: a picture or a sheet full of words? Right, the idiom “a picture is worth more than a thousand words” is also very true for your conference presentation. Try to use pictures instead of words. The slides are there to support your verbal message. Do not write down the whole story on your slides.

  • Make it fun

Your audience members are human beings. Human beings like to be entertained. So present your main message with some fun. This can be a story, an anecdote or a funny picture. In my case I used the anecdote of President Kennedy visiting NASA Space centre.

  • Practice for a variety of audiences

This includes practicing in front of yourself in the mirror.  Then, practice in front of your family. Most likely your family will listen and nod friendly. They will, however, not understand the message. But they can give you great feedback on the speed of your words, pronunciations, jokes etc. Also try to practice in front of your supervisors. And finally, practice in front of yourself in the mirror again. Especially when you are not a native speaker it is good to practice with pronunciations. The general rule is: practice at least three times and one time more than you think is necessary.

Phase 2: During the conference and presentation

So it is your time to present. Whether you are first or last, it does not matter. This is your moment and you should grab it. If you have practiced your presentation, you will do fine.  Here are some tips if:

  • The computer/beamer is failing.

If your presentation does not start (like mine), do not panic. Just ask for help.

  • You get difficult questions

When your presentation is finished and you get a question you cannot answer: do not panic. It is a good sign if you get questions.  People relate to your story and you made them think. Difficult questions are a good sign as well: you made them think deeply! If you do not know the answer, no problem, just ask a question in return. Can you explain?  What do you mean? And make it interactive. You are here to exchange ideas and to get feedback on your work to improve it.

Phase 3: After the presentation

Be proud (no matter how it went). You have survived and made your introduction to the scientific community! Enjoy the rest of the conference and the pub later. Connect with the people who asked questions and the other presenters. In the end this is the main purpose of presenting at conferences; getting to know colleagues in your field of expertise.

Veni, vidi, vici

So I survived my first conference presentation. Although it did not go perfectly, I had fun, got thought-provoking questions, learnt a lot, and met interesting colleagues. I hope my experiences, tips and tricks will help you to prepare and survive your first conference presentation.

For more tips on tricks on presentations you can also read the blog: ‘how to make a successful research poster‘.


Jitske Both-Nwabuwe is a PhD candidate in the Organizational Science department. Her research focuses on ‘The role of meaningful work in the sustainable employability of nurses‘.

N.B. trip was partially funded by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences (VU-GSSS), for which I was really grateful

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