So it doesn’t look like the COVID-19 pandemic is ending anytime soon. And with that comes virtual conferences for the foreseeable future. Whilst not entirely different from in-person presentations (still nervously biting my nails before I speak), there are some additional things to consider to get the most out of the experience.
For this month’s committee post, we’ve asked round for tips and tricks of presenting virtually. From presenting clearly online, to the practicalities of setting up your workspace, we’ve got you covered!
As for in person conferences: engage with the audience. You are not doing a lecture or reading a paper for yourself. You are presenting your work to the use of someone else – which is the main scope of making research: sharing, discussing, improving. Hence try to make your arguments clear and the connections internal to your speech logical. Virtual conferences naturally present additional challenges due to the lack of in person interaction with the audience, hence the difficulty to understand their responses to your presentation and react appropriately (for example, by speaking slower, moving to an other argument, repeating a statement clearer etc.).
I believe that the best way to address this issue is to prevent people from getting too distracted or confused by the talk. Very schematic PowerPoint presentations can help. Share on screen all the relevant information, add pictures and summaries, if needed. With specific regard to the topic presentation, I believe that leaving enough space for discussion is fundamental: you do not want to end your talk and not have questions. What I would suggest is therefore to present the arguments in a way to leave clues for further reflection, in order to encourage discussion and – ultimately – get to actually talk to the people who attended your conference.
Use any conference as an opportunity to showcase your expertise, impress your peers and essentially highlight that you are someone that they may want to consider collaborating with in the future. Be prepared, have your prompt notes ready, make sure your slides are working properly and ensure you are in a place where you are unlikely to get interrupted. Chances are you might be presenting from home but that’s no excuse to be sat in a messy room in PJs with dirty dishes and laundry all around. Scrub up, stick on some clean smart-casual clothes, tidy your room and imagine this is like a job interview.
If your presenting location isn’t the best you may wish to consider applying a background but choose this carefully. Something professional or a plain colour is ideal. No one really needs to see you present from Central Perk – the cafe in Friends- or from a tropical beach. Keep the fun backgrounds for your zoom quizzes and catch-ups with friends. Think about the lighting where you will present. Don’t sit with a sunny window or spot lamp behind you, as that will turn you into a shadow. Equally, don’t have a spotlight in front of you, as you will end up looking like you’re at the dentist or on the operating table ready to have your appendix out.
Ask attendees to leave questions and comments in the text field on the screen that can either be addressed throughout the presentation or referred to at the end, depending on the format of the presentation and its nice to refer to the person asking the question by name prior to answering their question or referring to their comments.
Lastly, conferences are a definite way of promoting yourself so, if you have a website, blog or Twitter handle then you may wish to have these as a footer on your slides as a way of promoting your internet presence – so long as these outlets are showcasing your academic knowledge and expertise and not your love for cats. Enjoy having the chance to display your work and thank your audience for taking time out of their schedules to attend.
I’ve only participated in one virtual conference this pandemic season, but my experience was excellent (this was the Public Health, Private Illness conference). The organisers set the conference up so that we recorded and watched presentations in advance, and then had a live Q&A session for each panel. The combination of synchronous and asynchronous worked really well and I’d recommend it to anyone planning a virtual conference in the coming months.
As a presenter, my biggest tip is to not overthink it, which can be really tempting when there is an asynchronous component. I think I re-recorded my presentation five times for tiny mistakes that only I noticed, when in reality it was probably fine the first time. Don’t let the ability to do things over consume you! I also would emphasise making your presentation as accessible as possible. Things like subtitles and transcripts can go a long way for the audience.
Zoom quizzes, workouts led by Joe Wicks, and a myriad of other online events have become staples of our lives in this new normal. The academic world is no exception, with online conferences proliferating throughout 2020.
I have organised a number of online events, so I have seen first hand the advantages and disadvantages of online conferences. In terms of tips for online presentations, I would encourage presenters to have a PowerPoint or visual aid or some kind. Staring at a screen and listening to a talk can be very draining; innovative and creative visual elements keep an audiences’ attention and help maintain a flow. I would also encourage presenters to push the boundaries, in terms of the presentations they give and the conferences they apply to. Forcing academic conferences online has, in some ways, democratised that corner of academia by opening up events to people usually unable to attend due to location, cost, caring responsibilities or time commitment. I would encourage people to bold in the conferences they submit abstracts to and to be daring in the presentations they give.
The first conference I ever presented at was a virtual conference earlier this year. I was so nervous going into it because a) it was my first conference and b) I was uncertain about the virtual format. But, it was such a great experience and a great introduction to presenting at conferences. The first thing I’d recommend is to practice presenting in front of your computer. This seems intuitive, but we do a lot of things on camera we might not do in person because we subconsciously think no one can see us, so it’s a good idea to watch yourself talk to ensure you don’t have any embarrassing tics.
When I was presenting at this virtual conference on Zoom, I pinned my video while I was speaking during my initial presentation so that I could only see myself. While not everyone might be comfortable with this, I found it helpful because I was worried I’d be distracted by seeing other folks’ faces. Pinning my own video helped me to concentrate and relax, which I think strengthened my presentation delivery. I also made sure I looked directly at the camera the entire time so the audience felt like I was doing my best to connect with them. I received several compliments on my presentation after I finished, so I must have done something right! I’m hoping for some repeat performances when I present at the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies virtual PhD seminar and the British Association for American Studies postgraduate works-in-progress session next month!
Finally, just like with any conference, get a good night’s rest before your presentation, take a deep breath, and relax! You’re going to do great!