How to Prepare for Your First Conference Presentation

Photo:  Adobe Stock

Photo: Adobe Stock


I didn't really learn about academic conferences until I got to grad school. An academic conference is a one-day or multi-day event during which scholars (i.e.- professors, students, independent scholars, etc.) share their research. But it's important to note that there's a wide range of conferences. Some of the bigger ones draw researchers from all over the world. Others are much smaller, and are specifically for grad students to present in front of their peers.


During my first year of grad school, I was advised to attend and present at a couple of conferences each year. That way I'd stay up-to-date with the latest work in my field, get experience speaking in front of academic crowds, and be able to network with researchers who were working on similar things as me. It all sounded good, but I was still like: "Nah." It was just my first year. I didn't really have a formalized research topic. And I barely wanted to talk during classroom discussions, so why would I go ahead and present at a conference? "Nah. I'm good. Y'all can have that." Well, at least that's what I thought.


A few months later, one of my friends approached me and asked me if I'd be willing to present at a conference he was organizing for grad students. Of course, my dumbass replied, "Sure." Mistake number one: I already knew that I had no business presenting at a conference!


I left that conversation hell. I didn't know what to write. I didn't know what I'd say. And on top of all of that, I still had reading and writing that I had to do each week for my classes. How was I supposed to suddenly find time to write up a conference paper?! But instead of working on it in advance, I procrastinated. Mistake number two: I had no idea how hard it would be for me to write that thing.


Fast forward a bit. It was now the day of the conference, and I still didn't have a coherent paper to present. So I just threw something together. I figured, worst comes to worst, I could just quickly refer to some of the readings that I did in my classes, if I needed to fill in any gaps. Mistake number three: I didn't realize how hard it is to suddenly recall essays that you halfway skimmed, and still don't really understand, when you're speaking in front of an audience.


So yeah, let's just say that my first academic conference was bad. I don't want you to go out like me, though.


Things to know before your first conference

  • Your conference paper (in terms of the number of pages) should be about half of your total presentation time. In other words, if you have 15 minutes to talk, your paper needs to be about 7.5 pages. And use 12-point font.

  • A conference paper is different than a research paper, because you gotta read it out loud to people. So only include a few quotations, and certainly no block quotes. Also, get rid of a lot of the jargon.

  • Your presentation should have three parts: one, your introduction/summary of the larger project; two, your case study and your analysis of it; and three, your conclusion. In the intro, be sure to discuss the theories that you're using and your methods (how you conducted the research). In the conclusion, make sure that you bring it all together, and maybe even point to things that you intend to do in the future and/or the other examples in your study.

  • You should only focus on one of your examples/case studies/etc. Remember, this isn't a research paper, and it isn't a thesis. You don't have the time and space to elaborate on a bunch of different things. So limit your focus, and really elaborate on that one example that really proves your point.

  • You need to practice reading your paper out loud........a lot. You don't wanna be out here looking crazy. And now, you got a reputation for looking crazy at conferences. Black academia ain't that big. People talk. Trust me.

  • If you feel yourself rambling on and on, or if you want to say more about a topic but you don't have time, say: "I don't have time to get into all of this right now. But please, ask me during the Q&A. I'd be happy to talk about this some more."

  • During the question & answer portion, if you get asked something wild and you don't know how to answer it, simply respond: "Wow. That is a great question! I don't know. I actually never thought about that before. I'll have to think about that one some more."

  • Remember, it takes time. You might not be where you want to be in terms of your research or your presenting skills, but the only way that you get better is by practicing. If you think the "big" conferences are too much for you right now, search for some specifically for other students.


About the Author

Bennie is a third-year PhD student at Northwestern University, where he is studying African American Studies. He created Just Tryna' Graduate to help Black students get to & through graduate school. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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