Preparing for a PGR Conference
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As my fellow blogger Adriana pointed out in her last post, speaking in front of crowds can be intimidating. And presenting at conferences, amongst colleagues and other professionals, is sometimes just downright scary. The first time I presented at a conference, I was 19 and definitely did not know as much as I do now. That being said, as I prepared for my first conference as a PGR (and my first conference in five years) a few weeks ago, I found myself much more nervous and intimidated than I was at 19. Instead of being warped down by this, though, I chose to view my nervousness as something positive that was helping to ensure I was as prepared as possible (especially considering I almost always winged my conference presentations when I was 19). Here are some tips that helped me get through (almost) all of my nerves.
Choose something you like
It’s much easier to give a presentation to a room full of people if what you’re discussing is something you enjoy talking about. Hopefully one of those ‘things’ includes your thesis, but regardless, you don’t have to present on your thesis at every conference you attend. At the conference I recently attended, I met several PGRs who were presenting either on a small aspect of their thesis that they didn’t have space to explore or on something completely different. So if you have the means, don’t feel like you always have to limit yourself to conferences that specifically adhere to your thesis area (especially if there’s a subject you’ve always been keen to learn more about!).
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Actually write the paper, or at least a script
I am a firm believer that writing things down helps us to remember them better. This is why I keep a planner and write To-Do lists every day. It’s also why actually writing down what you want to say for a presentation, and how you plan to say it, might save you from many nerves. And will probably make your presentation sound more polished and prepared. Some conferences require papers to be submitted before the actual conference dates, but just as many don’t. If your conference falls into the latter category, it might be a good idea to write a full paper anyway, or at least a script. As well as making your presentation flow well, it ensures that you’re actually making a point. And despite what others might have told you, unless you’re giving a keynote at a huge conference, it’s OK to need to read from your paper at times to make sure you’re reciting things accurately. No one expects you to have a 15-20 minute presentation completely memorised or trimmed down into flashcards.
Use PowerPoint wisely
PowerPoint can be a helpful, and sometimes necessary, tool for presentations – if you use it wisely. You don’t have to be afraid of creativity with PowerPoint, especially if your presentation is itself on the creative side. Just keep in mind that you don’t want your PowerPoint to distract from the overall presentation but rather accompany and support it. Bullet points are your friend, walls of text are not. Images, graphs and tables are all great to add, as long they are reinforcing or exemplifying what you’re saying.
I also want to point out that you definitely don’t need to use a PowerPoint in your presentation (unless your research is image-based/heavy, then it’s almost necessary). I listened in on several presentations at my last conference where the presenter didn’t use any visual aids but their presentations themselves were well prepared and interesting enough to keep my attention throughout.
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As I mentioned earlier, I used to wing all of my presentations, for both classes and conferences. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure how I did this without making a fool of myself – I certainly wouldn’t be able to now. I spent part of the day before my conference making sure my presentation met the time requirements and that I was actually saying what I needed to. My flatmate even acted as an audience and timed me for one of my run-throughs. I’ve become quite prone to nerves when speaking to a crowd, so all this preparation was necessary for me. It helped me feel confident in what I was presenting and I could work through any hiccoughs before the real deal. Having someone else listen to my presentation first also allowed me to work through any part of it that might not make sense to people who aren’t as familiar with my research as I was. ‘PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE’ really can’t be overstated, especially for nervous PGRs like me.
Don’t drink coffee right before your panel
Listen, conference days are long and tiring and there’s usually unlimited coffee provided to help keep you going. As enticing as taking that second or third cup might sound, you might want to resist until your presentation is over and opt for water instead. Talking for 15-20 minutes straight is practically a workout for your mind, so staying hydrated is necessary to avoid headaches. If you’re anything like me, your nerves will also try to get the best of you by giving you dry cotton-mouth and then you’ll really regret having that last cup of coffee as you try to pronounce some long academic term. So stay hydrated! (And don’t forget about the bathroom!)
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Don’t let your nerves or anxiety or introverted-ness (all of which I have) keep you from enjoying a conference that is meant to bring together all kind of different people and their ideas. Start a conversation with the person you’re awkwardly standing next to during the tea break. Complement the person whose presentation you saw. Enjoy the food and drinks. Conferences are some of the rare times academics get to leave their offices and congregate. Take advantage of that and have fun! Leave the worrying for five minutes before your panel when, I promise, everyone else presenting is just as nervous as you are.