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How to Create and Deliver an Effective Conference Presentation

by Julia Barrett
March 13, 2013

Congratulations! You have been accepted to speak at a conference. Now you have the exciting (and perhaps nerve wracking) task of creating the content for your presentation. Here are a few tips to help you create and deliver a memorable and effective conference presentation.

Review your abstract with two advisors
Perhaps you over promised a little bit in your abstract? That’s OK. Your presentation is an opportunity for you to learn more about your topic, in addition to sharing what you already know. When I started creating content for my recent presentation at IxD13, I spent several weeks spinning my wheels over coffee, trying to fill in the details. This isn’t necessary.

Start off by reviewing your abstract with a couple “presentation advisors” – people in your industry with some experience or expertise on the topic you’re speaking about. I recommend meeting with them together, so that you don’t get conflicting information. When you meet with them, have them read the abstract then take some time to brainstorm a few content ideas, such as: What stories and examples may be interesting? How could you frame your point of view? Also take some time to get clear on what might not be interesting to the audience, so you don’t waste time creating content that may be relevant, but not interesting in the context of your presentation.

Craft an outline and review with one advisor
After the brainstorm with your advisors, take the output and create an outline for your presentation. Look for a story you can tell in the first person that’s relevant to the topic at hand and interesting. For the outline itself, I recommend starting with the main point header, and then a short description of each slide that is relevant to the main point, and what each slide will cover. I also recommend including information that is surprising or may be contrary to common best practices — if possible and relevant. After you craft the outline, review it with one of your advisors, ideally the one whose practice or role is most reflective of the target audience for your talk. In this review you should cover:
- What content is working?
- What content doesn’t make sense?
- What is the value that the audience will get from the talk?
- How is the overall story arch of the talk?
- How could the content be enriched?

After this review, make revisions to your outline. You may want to review it again with this advisor, before you create your slides, just to make sure you have your content dialed in. At one point I shared my presentation with one of my advisors and he said I had too much content and that it lacked direction (ouch, but helpful to hear when I still had time to make changes). He reminded me that people really want to be entertained and informed. That feedback forced me think creatively about how I could get to the point and make the content more entertaining.

Effective conference presentation

Create lots of slides, with photos and memorable text
When creating slides, I try to use one big photo on each slide, and a few words. If you want your content to be shared, I recommend making the words you use “tweetable” (i.e., memorable quotes, or content that challenges prevalent thinking about the topic). I also recommend erring on the side of more slides than fewer slides. Having lots of slides (again, mostly with images) to tell your story is helpful for your audience, all of whom, except for your mom, have attention deficit disorder. If you have multiple slides to tell your story, your audience will stay more engaged.

Also, don’t use stock photography. Either take your own photos or use/buy the rights to use photos from sites like Flickr. These photos will make your presentation feel real and authentic in a way that stock photography never can.

Write down everything you want to say
I know this may sound like overkill, but it’s not, and actually it may save you time. Writing everything down allows you to really think through every point and how you want to frame it. You can still improvise when you speak, but writing it down puts you on the path to make the best use of the audience’s time. When I created content recently, and I finally took the step to write everything out, I felt like the content gained depth. In addition, to make sure I had the right amount of content, I timed myself to see how long it took me to say everything I had written down.

Doing this, you can add some helpful markers to the notes, such as: “At the end of this slide you should be at 17 minutes.” This is helpful when you’re actually giving your presentation, so you know if you need to speed up or slow down.

Conference presentation

Practice, practice, practice
Practice will not only improve the delivery of your presentation, but will help you overcome your fears, such as: What happens if I totally forget what I’m talking about midstream? What happens if I fall off the stage? Practicing will help you put these fears to rest, and to feel more confident and natural. Plus, chances are you’re not going to memorize every line, so practicing also helps ensure you hit the major points on each of your slides.

I found that once I had practiced my talk, all the way through, about six times, I was ready and the work was done. When I presented at the conference, I didn’t feel nervous or like I was struggling to remember my content; I could just enjoy the moment of being on stage and sharing.

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