Conference Season Special – #1 Presentation Content

This is the first in a 4 part series of posts to help you perfect the art of the academic conference presentation. In #1 we focus on presentation content (broken down into audience, purpose and occasion)…

Targeting the Audience 

Targeting the audience is critical. In general the less technical the more difficult targeting is because you have to anticipate more terms and background information that the audience will need to understand the work.

If you know your audience well (say your research group or your department) then it is straightforward. Ask yourself as you prepare point by point:

  • Will the audience understand these points?
  • Will the audience be interested in these points?
  • A strategy for multiple audiences (such as at a large conference) is shown in the following figure:


Begin at a shallow depth, with something that everyone in the room can relate to. This means telling them why the subject is important to the world in general. And this should be really broad:

…because there are 5 peopled killed by tornadoes in Europe every year.

…because it currently costs the oil industry £10 billions of pounds.

…because there are farmers in rural Africa who’s depend on the rain for their livelihoods.

Then for each new part of the presentation you begin in the shallows where everyone can follow you.

As you go deeper into the detail, you will lose the technical and nontechnical but you bring them back in at the start of each section.

At the end you come back to the shallows and examine the results and implications in the way that everybody can understand similar to the broad statement of importance at the start.

The technical and nontechnical will not understand all the theoretical deviation or analysis of results but everyone will have learned the main points of the presentation.

How does my content relate to the conference agenda?

What is the other content around me? Is it based on my research focus or is it a different agenda? When you get the programme you should think about where you are placed. This is a marker of where the conference chair thinks you fit in; have a look at the others in your session because that gives you an example of the types of dialogue the chair is thinking of facilitating. If the papers are available it is useful to read all the abstracts or even just the title. As you can get a lot out of this, and as you read through always have in your mind ways you can relate to your work.

The Purpose

To Inform:

As when you are demonstrating a procedure to a group – the intro prepares them to comprehend the instruction in the middle. At the end you should summarise the instruction.

To persuade:

How you go about persuading people depends on the initial bias of your audience. If we assume that your audience mostly has a neutral approach to your info it is generally easier to evidence the following:

Design A is not an effective design

Than this:

Design B is an effective design.

Because the first one only requires you to show that Design A doesn’t meet one criterion of the design. Whereas the second one needs a lot more evidence.

Here is an example:


This slide is saying that ‘the current theory is not adequate’. This is a much stronger story than ‘the new theory is really effective’. This is also a strong slide because it links the assertion to a specific real world case (that the diagrams in textbooks are wrong).

To inspire:

You might want to be more creative and to deviate from the usual scientific presentation. Because you aren’t just trying to transfer information you also want to inspire them to go and study the subject further on their own.

Here is an example:


And academic in the school of MACE, Paul Chan uses connection slides to try and get the students interested in the topic.


Most presentations actually have a mixture of purposes; at a conference for example you want to transfer your information but you also want to stimulate conversation about your subject area, you want to persuade them to believe in your results.

The Occasion

  • What are the expectations of the occasion?
  • Is it formal?
  • Informal?
  • How much time do you have?

In any kind of presentation you have to make sure you don’t annoy people by going over your allocated time. It is really critical be aware of the short time that you have.

Talk to the organisers of the presentation to find out key logistical information:

  • Do I need to bring slides?
  • What does the venue look like?
  • When and how long will the question period be?


Finding the correct words

Source Pros Cons
Speaking from



Eye contact

Natural pacing

Ease of adjusting


Wording not exact

Longer prep time


Memorising Credibility

Eye contact



Even Longer prep time

High potential for disaster


Reading Precision

Smooth delivery


Even Longer prep time

Potential for disaster



Lookout for the next post ‘Key Messages‘ later this week…


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