9 tips to help you rock your first (or next) conference presentation

4 min read
Jennifer Aldrich
  •  Jun 24, 2016
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A few years ago, my design team encouraged me to submit my first ever conference presentation proposal. I carefully put together my submission, spent some time second-guessing myself, and then finally pulled the trigger.

Imagine my surprise a couple of weeks later when I got an email saying they’d accepted my proposal. I was elated. Overjoyed. Mega-pumped! I was going to have the opportunity to share some of the research I’d been working on with the UX and design communities!

45 seconds later, I was panicking and considering moving off the grid to a cabin in the deep woods with no internet access so I could pretend I never got the acceptance letter. I’m an introvert, and public speaking is definitely not my forte.

“Sharing knowledge grows careers and moves industries forward.”

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Photo by #WOCinTech Chat.

Even though it was borderline terrifying, I was really passionate about the topic, so I wound up going for it. As it turns out, even though presenting at a conference was draining, it was also kind of fun. So much fun that I did it again. And then again, and again and again.

I learned some valuable lessons after my first presentation experience and thought some aspiring conference presenters might find them helpful.

1. Make an outline first—don’t touch that deck

When I put together my first presentation, I whipped out PowerPoint and started adding some slides. Then more slides. Then 8 godzillion more slides.

Then I realized that my presentation was out of order, confusing, and had no flow. I got frustrated and slammed my laptop shut. (Sorry, MacBook.)

The second time I put together a presentation, I made my outline first. It made the process about 9000% easier.

“Write an outline of your presentation before you start making slides.”

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2. Once you have an outline, pick graphics to support your points

Seriously: Keep your hands off that deck! Take a look at your outline, then grab graphics to support your points. Don’t be afraid to use amusing graphics and GIFs.

3. Open your deck program and go to town

Alright, you now have permission to open up your deck program and add your slides. Your flow has been defined, so creating the deck will go relatively smoothly from here.

4. Limit the words in your slides

Your audience will view your presentation from a distance, so use large fonts and as few words as possible in your slides.Twitter Logo If you can skip the words and just go with graphics for some slides, even better.

If you’re doing a presentation that requires a bunch of text (I did one on a research method once that required showing tons of equations), sprinkle pictures in between the boring parts to keep people from falling asleep.

To improve accessibility, make sure you describe the images in your deck as you present.Twitter Logo

5. Write a transcript

Writing a transcript is awesome for several reasons. First, if you post your presentation online, people who attended your session will be able to get a refresher on the details.

Secondly, if people didn’t attend your live session, they’ll still be able to learn from your presentation.

Thirdly—and in my opinion most importantly—writing a transcript makes your presentation more accessible.Twitter Logo

“Writing a transcript makes your presentation more accessible.”

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6. Tell stories

After watching a presentation, people remember stories the presenter told far more often than they remember detailed facts or figures. Want to make a lasting impact? Weave stories into your presentation.Twitter Logo

Related: Improving UX with Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling

7. Make sure your presentation works both online and offline

Luckily for me, before I headed to my first presentation, a seasoned presenter told me you should always have a copy of your presentation that could be presented completely offline.Twitter Logo If you’re using an online deck program, download a copy too. If you’re doing a live demo of a product, get screenshots or a screencast of what you’ll be walking through just in case.

The woman who gave me that advice saved me from having an absolutely horrifying first presentation experience. About 10 minutes into my 50-minute presentation, the wifi in our building tanked, booting everybody offline for 15 minutes.

But I just whipped out my thumb drive and carried on.

“Always have a copy of your presentation that could be presented offline.”

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8. Back up your backup

During the same conference, I attended a session in which a presenter’s thumb drive failed. It just straight up flatlined. He didn’t have a backup, and we were using the venue’s laptops, so he was completely out of luck. He got through it by giving a lecture and offered to post his slides once he got back to his personal machine, but it was one of those worst-case scenario situations.

After witnessing that trainwreck, for my next conference presentation I had a copy up on an online deck service, and in case their service went down I uploaded a hard copy of the presentation to Dropbox and emailed myself links to both—and I had a copy on a thumb drive in case of any wifi issues. I took no chances.

Photo by #WOCinTech Chat.

9. Stop editing

My final bit of advice: Leave your presentation alone once it’s complete.Twitter Logo

I spent weeks working on my first presentation. And then I kept tweaking it daily for months leading up to the event. This is a surefire way to drive yourself insane. I was even still editing it the night before the conference.

“Leave your presentation alone once it’s complete.”

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Don’t do that to yourself. Edit what needs to be edited early on, then walk away.Twitter Logo Unless, of course, you’re using stats and they change.

If you’ve uncovered tips and tricks that could help other people in your industry be more productive at work, it’s really not fair to keep them to yourself. Now that you’ve got some presentation tips under your belt, start submitting proposals and get up there and share your knowledge.

I’m looking at you, too, introverts.

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