By: Krysten Blackstone |

Disclaimer: Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, you will find no horror stories here.

Conferences are that non-required requirement of your PhD.  Excellent places to brush up on presentation skills, while simultaneously engaging in academic debate and disseminating your research, but often terrifying prospects. I presented at my first conference this November; this post considers the advice I was given before I went, received on the day, and my own reflections of the whole experience.


Before I left, my supervisor gave me some advice.  Just a passing four-word sentence that while intentionally reassuring, was primarily an attempt to focus my attention more on my thesis and less on the conference.

‘You know this stuff.’ 

It is not an eloquent sentence, and it is not particularly profound or revolutionary, but it is true.  For any conference, this is the best advice I can give.  More than likely, you will know more on the subject of your paper than anyone else in the audience, and if you don’t, you will know enough to hold your own.  This reassurance makes all the difference in preparation and performance.



Undoubtedly, you have all given a presentation before.  When I give one, I normally rely on my seemingly endless ability to talk to get me through, with very little practice.  Don’t do that.  Always practice beforehand.  When practicing, there are a few things to consider that will greatly impact your presentation.

  • Timing: Time is essential; when they say 20 minutes they mean it.  Do not be that person that goes over.  Shorter papers are often better.  If you are meant to be giving a 20-minute paper aim for 17, giving you leeway on both sides.
  • Flow: If you have adapted this paper from something you previously wrote, read it out-loud beforehand. That way you catch anything awkward to say, words you can’t actually pronounce, and sentences that just don’t work.
  • Location: If you practice somewhere you are comfortable in, it will affect the way you talk, so practice somewhere that isn’t your bedroom, and practice standing up.

Tip: Your presentations will be enhanced if you have sections where you don’t read from a script – a nice break that ensures the audience gets your undivided attention.  Having said that, plan when you are going to adlib.  Schedule time into your presentation to do so, that way it doesn’t affect your overall time.



The land of opportunity and the epicentre of awkwardness if you are alone.  Socialise first thing!  I managed to meet the chair of my group and the two other presenters before it even started, making everything much more relaxed.


Even the coffee is cheering you on.

  • Congregate: If there is a refreshment table gravitate there – everyone else will do same, if for no other reason than a lot of academics have a Lorelei Gilmore-esque relationship to coffee. (Someone for which an IV of constant coffee sounds like a dream).
  • Small-talk: Remember you have two sure-fire, small-talk topics: What are you researching? And where are you based?

Tip: After the initial registration, if you are struggling to find people to talk to, chat to the organisers – they are often eager to meet the attendees.



We’ve all seen those presenters who can just talk without notes for 20 minutes.  (I am not one of them.)  If you sit me down in a coffee shop and ask me about Thomas Paine, you would be lucky to make it out in under 20, but during a presentation, there is no way.  Not yet, at least.  If you can’t present off the top of your head, there are any number of ways you can present your paper:  reading a script, notes, or being guided by a powerpoint.  Regardless of what you choose, one of the most important factors here is your comfort. Do what works best for you.


While your comfort is important, keeping the audience attentive is the other half of the battle.  Nothing feels worse than looking onto a bored audience or sitting through a paper where the author isn’t engaging.

  • Eye-contact: You will have heard this before: eye contact is key to keeping an audience engaged.  It is also an elusive skill at times, especially if you are nervous.
  • Power-point: Not all conference papers need to have a Powerpoint attached to them, but they are useful if done correctly.  Powerpoint etiquette is post unto its own (see:, so I’ll keep it brief.  Audiences like pictures, and quotes. Keep it minimal.
  • Speed: The speed at which you speak will directly affect how you are understood. If you are too slow, your presentation will seem to drag; if you are too fast it you will seem rushed and flustered.  Find a speed that is natural for you and easily understandable.

Tip: It isn’t enough to be a good presenter at conferences, you also need to be a good audience member.  Asking questions shows that you are engaged.  It also is a way to promote yourself further, speakers will remember good questions, as will audience members.


My conference finished with a panel discussion, as a lot do.  From that emerged a piece of advice from a senior academic, which also encapsulates one of the chief advantages of conferences.

Fraternize with people who don’t do your thing.’

To some degree you have no idea or control over what you will face on the day, the questions you receive, or the people you meet.  However, conferences give you a chance to network, and engage with people who do not necessarily focus on your subject – something that has a really positive impact on your research. As I said at the beginning, I have no horror stories to tell you; my first conference was a positive experience overall.  Conferences are nerve-wracking, especially if it is your first time presenting, but they don’t have to be.  Take advice from those around you, and relax – with practice and a little luck, hopefully you too will be spared from any horror.


Krysten Blackstone is a first year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and a Pubs and Publications Committee Member.  You can find her on twitter.


Image 1: Wikimedia Commons, Image 2: Pexels, Image 3: Wikimedia Commons