Ace Your Next Conference Presentation

The keys to a stellar presentation? Authenticity, passion, simplicity, and interaction.

by Lea Hart

July 18, 2017

It’s an honor that can be both exciting and nerve-wracking: an invitation to present your knowledge at a conference.

You’ll stand in front of a group, faced with the expectation that you’ll not only share what you know, but that you’ll also engage your audience and send them home with new information they can use.

So how do you present your expertise in an engaging way? These ideas can help you not only ace that next conference presentation, but also put a fresh spin on your classroom presentations:

Use authentic language to reach your audience. To connect with your audience, Allison Shapira, CEO and founder of Global Public Speaking LLC, recommends using language that feels authentic and natural.

“A challenge in a technical field is we tend to rely on technical terms and jargon,” she said. “Even if the audience knows the acronyms, they have to concentrate more to stay engaged. Authentic language—language that is clear and concise—makes it easier for the audience to sit back and absorb the full scope of the presentation.”

Think about how you would speak to your spouse or colleague about the subject of your presentation; it helps you identify ways to make the language more authentic, Shapira said.

Write to be heard. Shapira recommended that you “write for the ear, and not the eye,” meaning making sure your presentation sounds natural when you speak, not just when you read it on paper. It’s important to read your words aloud to ensure they will resonate with your audience, she said.

Show passion for your subject. Ask yourself, “Why me?” Why do you care about the subject? Bring that enthusiasm to your presentation, and your audience will connect and feel energized too, Shapira said.

Or, as Karen Pincus, CPA, Ph.D., professor of accounting at the University of Arkansas, pointed out, “There are no dry topics if you have the right presenter.”

Monte Swain, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., professor of accountancy at Brigham Young University, said it’s important to feel and sound enthusiastic when you begin speaking. Be sincere, truly interested, and energized, he said.

“If you haven’t found your passion for [the subject], then don’t step up,” he said.

Encourage the audience to interact with you and one another. Swain said presenters should not only communicate to the audience, but strive to do three other things as well: They should encourage listeners to communicate with the presenter, communicate with each other, and reflect within themselves. “You don’t have to hit all four of those [points] for it to be successful,” Swain said, but he believes that you must do two out of four for your presentation to work.

A few of the ways Swain promotes interaction during conference presentations are having the audience respond to a question from the speaker, taking time for small group discussion, and pausing to give audience members time to reflect on what they’ve learned.

Open and close powerfully. The opening and closing are the most important parts of any presentation, Shapira said. She suggested opening with a story, quote, or anecdote to capture your audience’s attention. For example, if you begin with the word “Imagine …” they are immediately engaged and invited to visualize.

Your closing serves as your call to action and summary. Think of what you’d want your audience to say if someone asked them what the presentation was about, Shapira said, and then make your closing that takeaway.

Simplify your slides. Less is more when it comes to PowerPoint, Shapira said.

“When you present text-heavy slides and read out loud, we stop listening to you and read the slides instead,” she said.

Presenters often write too much when trying to pull together a presentation at the last minute, Swain said. Instead, start early. In the last days before your presentation, take material away from your slides, rather than adding to them.

Punctuate your presentation with movement. Consider moving not just from one side of the floor or stage to the other, but also moving toward your audience or back toward your presentation screen, Swain said. Walk back toward the screen to talk to a point, he suggested. Or walk toward, or even into, the audience for emphasis.

“Think about a concert where the artist goes into the audience,” he said. “The energy when that takes place, it’s palpable.”

Polish your gestures. Make sure your body language matches your words. If you say, “I’m excited to be here,” but you’re not smiling, the audience is likely to believe your nonverbal cues and not your words, Shapira said.

The key with gestures is to look at your presentation and find places where you can make points come alive with movement, she said.

To improve your gestures, “practice in front of a mirror and see what it looks like,” Shapira said, “or videotape your presentation with your smartphone and watch it back without sound.”

Don’t neglect the Q&A. The question-and-answer section is an important part of any presentation—but it’s one that speakers often overlook when getting ready for their talks. Prepare in advance for questions you may receive, Shapira said. If you’re fumbling for words when asked a question, it can create a disconnect with your audience.

During the Q&A itself, confidently and enthusiastically ask for questions, saying something like, “Now I would love to hear from the audience,” Shapira suggested.

When the time for questions concludes, don’t forget to restate your main point, she said. You want the audience to walk away with that in their mind, rather than the answer to the last question.

Learn from others who excel at presentations. For many years, Pincus attended a class taught by every teacher on campus who had won a teaching award the previous year.

“It was a great way to pick up ideas for improving my presentations,” she said. “I also saw that there is not just one formula for successful presentations, but many ways to creatively communicate complex topics.”

Evaluate afterward how your presentation went. Shapira offers this YouTube video with advice on how to do just that.

As you consider each of these tips and tricks, choose the ones that work with your presentation style and feel natural to you. It may take time to find what works, and that’s OK, Swain said.

“This is all something that evolves over time,” he noted. Don’t try to introduce five or six new elements to your presentations in the same speech: “Pick one thing you want to strengthen in your next presentation and just focus on that.”

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.