Throughout my years of attending professional conferences, I have been fortunate to encounter many quality paper and poster presentations. However, during that same time I have also been exposed to presenters who lacked preparation, failed to present in an effective manner, and reported taking less from the experience than anticipated. Clearly, few undergraduate students have the type of conference exposure to negate the nerves and provide the information necessary for an effective presentation. Still, in many cases graduate students have the same limited exposure, resulting in the same lackluster results. In order to minimize the negative and maximize the positive, a presenter should consider three areas: preparation, presentation, and opportunity.
After the data has been collected, analyzed, submitted, and accepted by a professional regional or national conference, the work is not done. Several additional steps are still needed to create an effective presentation. Although similar, the steps for paper versus poster presentations differ.
Posters. Conferences generally differ in the amount of space provided for posters. You should check the guidelines for each respective conference. However, most conferences provide a 3' x 5' or 4' x 6' boundary. Your poster should be completely prepared before you ever arrive at the conference. This allows for mistakes to be corrected at the only location where changes can be made, home. When preparing, components of your poster should be seen clearly from 3 feet away. This allows convention participants to walk past looking for research of interest. Do several checks of your type size before printing a final copy. Some conferences provide thumbtacks or tape, but you should come prepared to put up your research without any assistance.
Have friends or family view your poster for issues of clarity, readability, and allurement. As with any presentation, always attempt to be concise. Too much information, in any presentation, can distract from the goal.
The method of scanning the poster components onto a single, large computer-generated sheet is now being seen more often at conventions. This process, which can be completed at most copy centers, allows for the poster to be laminated, rolled up, and placed in a tube for easier transportation. Every aspect of the poster is on this single sheet. This includes the title, authorship, and college/university affiliation found at the top of the poster. Using this method of presentation allows for several color options, including black print on white with any number of accenting colors. Figures and tables usually stand out better when printed in something other than black and white. An area of concern should be how to make your poster stand out, thereby attracting the largest number of viewers possible. If finances are limited, be resourceful. Many colleges and universities have wonderful resources available to students, especially when an institution's name will be prominently displayed.
One method of providing additional information is with a handout. Always bring from 50-100 copies to provide additional information about the study. Typically, 50 copies are sufficient for smaller conferences and 100 for larger conferences. At the top of each handout should be the title of the presentation, authorship, conference, conference year and location, and college/university affiliation(s). The address of the first author should also be provided. This allows for further contact by convention participants concerning the research. Never forget additional paper for those times when you run out of handouts and need to mail participants a copy.
Papers. Some of the best preparation away from the conference is in front of a mirror, friends, or family. Initially, practice in front of the mirror. Practice creates a comfort found with familiarity. Remember that familiarity tends to breed success. Second, practice in front of friends and family, thereby obtaining information about staying within time constraints (12 minutes for most conferences, with 3 minutes for questions), quality speaking (i.e., speaking slowly, clearly, and with enough volume), and answering questions from the audience. Third, take questions and criticism as an opportunity for improvement. This is not only true for practice trials before the conference, but also during or after your presentation. No one improves without experience, questions, and criticism.
Visual extensions of your presentation will help with complicated information. Overheads, slides, or handouts can transform a mediocre presentation into a well-received and -understood informational experience. Copy centers, as well as campus technology services, can prove extremely helpful when developing the above supplements. As with poster sessions, outlines of your paper are often very useful as visual aids. Always practice with each component of the presentation.
The Random House College Dictionary defines experienced as "wise or skillful in a particular field through experience." As mentioned earlier, very few students have the level of experience needed for quality conference presentations. Knowing the above provides you with two pieces of information. First, very few students will be any different than you in their overall level of expertise. Second, after you have prepared and practiced, do your best possible job.
Posters. Poster sessions are designed to allow for a more one-on-one interaction. Never leave your poster during the session, always have your name badge prominently displayed, and be prepared to answer questions or respond to critiques. Poster sessions vary in the amount of allotted time. Some range from 50 minutes up to 2 hours. Again, check the guidelines for each conference. Typically, there is a 10-minute time period at the end of the previous session for presenters to take down their posters and for the next group of presenters to put their posters up. Never show up late to your session or take down your poster early. When giving a poster presentation, always look willing to answer questions and demonstrate an eagerness to have others look at your work. If you do not look interested in your work, why would anyone else?
Papers. One of the main complaints about paper sessions concern those who read their papers rather than talk to the audience. Even if the entire paper is in front of you when presenting, never read the paper to the audience. Consider extended periods of practice or use note cards. Either method will help limit the perception of reading. No matter which method you use, always number your pages. Confounding things tend to happen when preparing for or traveling to a conference. Only present information that is important to the study. Oral presentations should never contain lots of information, because the audience will get lost in the details. Be very careful about giving too many statistics. This tends to overwhelm the audience. Remember to make your major points, wait for questions, and then sit down.
Maximizing the Opportunity
There are several ways to maximize the conference experience. First, when attending the conference, wear professional clothing. It is still true that first impressions impact perceptions. Some students make the mistake of wearing what they might wear to class, thinking this is appropriate. The individuals you meet will not have your grade history, prowess in class, or research qualifications to assist them in a quick evaluation. Self-presentation is always a component. Second, attend a variety of presentations, including those by people outside your college or university. Third, know the reason(s) for attending the conference. Whatever your reason(s) for attending, set your goals and make sure you maximize your experiences.
The presentation experience is one that should not be taken lightly, but it is also not something that should be feared. The best way to maximize without nervousness is to prepare well in advance. By preparing early, the presentation experience should go smoother with less anxiety. During the presentation and the conference, take advantage of the opportunities provided. You can minimize the negative and maximize the positive by considering preparation, presentation, and opportunity.