Create Your First Professional Conference Presentation

Create Your First Conference PresentationHave you ever wondered how people get on the agenda at professional conferences? Whether your state professional association or an international conference like South by Southwest, the answer is often the same: they submitted an idea. So why haven’t you appeared on one of these agendas? This year, I encourage you to deliver your first professional conference presentation. And here’s how you’ll do it!

Find a conference that matches your expertise

First, think through all of the associations you belong to—if you’re a member, you’re likely to be a good fit. Target a smaller organization (state or regional is a great start) and scour their website for presentation opportunities. This will often be presented as a Call for Programs or Call for Submissions. If you don’t see any conferences or events listed, email a member of the board to find out if there are opportunities for members to present. My first professional presentation was in a room of about 30 people, at a conference of a few hundred, and it was an excellent introduction for me. But, I was already comfortable speaking in front of a group because I’d given over a hundred presentations on campus.

You may also consider finding a conference being hosted near you (low travel expenses) by an association to which you don’t belong. Sometimes, outsiders give the best presentations!

Consider teaming up

It’s very common for two, three, even four professionals to give a presentation together. As long as you’re good at working on a team, this can be a less intimidating way to approach your first presentation. Some of my favorite presentations have been with a team (like my SXSWi presentation with Deb Maue). If you go this route, you need to commit to preparing in advance, and likely rehearsing the presentation a few times.

You don’t need to present with people you work with every day. Before I presented with Deb, I’d only spoken with her on Twitter, and we didn’t meet in person until a few weeks before the conference. I’ve given other successful presentation with colleagues that I met on Twitter, or through purposeful introductions from friends. It’s not uncommon for me to meet my co-presenter(s) for the first time “in real life” at the event where we present!

But, your presentation team should have something in common—maybe you do the same type of work, but in different types of organizations. Or maybe you have completely opposite ideas about how to approach a particular problem. Whatever the common thread, finding something that bonds you together is a bit more strategic than, “We like each other—let’s present!”

Pick an appropriate presentation topic

The only reason this isn’t the first step is because the event you’re targeting may have an influence on your topic. Professional associations—particularly in higher education—sometimes choose a theme for the conference and ask for presentations around that team. Even more often, a list of categories of suggested presentations is offered. The selection committee publishes that list for a reason, so tailor your presentation to it if you can! (Tweet this!) Some topics that you may not have considered, but can be very popular, include:

  • “How To” – teach attendees a particular process that you excel at
  • “Read This” – summarize a book that was particularly valuable to your professional development, and tailor it to your audience
  • “Look at me” – present a case study highlighting a program, process, or event that you were involved in that follows accepted best practices
  • “This is what this means” – if you work in an industry with ever-evolving regulations or policies, cover a recent topic in detail
  • “Hot topics” – summary of recent trends, or a look toward the future—do your research so attendees don’t have to!

If you’ve attended a conference before and left thinking, “I wish there would have been a presentation about _____…” that is what you should cover in your presentation. (Tweet this!)

Create a brief outline

Once you’ve chosen your topic, it’s helpful to create a brief outline to map out what you want to say. If there is a time limit for your presentation, this can also help you estimate how much content can be covered (don’t be the person that goes over!). A good outline will lend itself to a good title and session description.

An important, but often overlooked part of the outline is why you (and your teammates, potentially) are uniquely qualified to present this topic. If a committee receives 5 proposals for the same topic, why should they choose yours?

Submit with care

Read the submission materials carefully. Some conferences just want a title, names of presenters, and a 250-word description. Others want a detailed outline. Some academic associations recommend including relevant research and citations. Whatever the requirements, make sure you meet them all. If there are different formats for presentations (interest session, poster session, group discussion, etc.,) choose the one that best fits your topic and presentation style. If you have questions about what should be included, reach out to someone on the conference committee and ask for clarification. You should never leave areas of the submission form blank.

Recently, I’ve seen larger conferences offer webinars or even in-person sessions that directly address this issue. If an association is willing to tell you exactly what to do to submit a session that gets accepted, it’s your responsibility to listen. You can also review agendas from previous conferences to get an idea of the types of session titles and descriptions that were ultimately accepted.

Celebrate your acceptance, or try again

After submitting, it may be weeks or months before you find out if you’re accepted. It can seem like a long time, but the best thing you can do is wait. Don’t get started on a presentation that you’re not sure will happen. If you get an acceptance—great! Get started on the creation of your presentation. If you didn’t get accepted, submit your session to another event. Note: there’s nothing wrong with submitting the same session to multiple events at the same time, but each submission should be tailored to a specific event.

Be aware of deadlines

Depending on the formality of the conference, there may be deadlines for registration, submitting speaker information, requesting A/V, and providing the final slides or handouts. Be aware of all of these deadlines immediately after you’re accepted, and build a preparation schedule right away. You’ll want to have your outline fleshed out soon, your slides ready before they’re due to the committee, and everything pulled together in time for you to rehearse a few times. It also doesn’t hurt to build in some time for peer review.

Arrive prepared to present

Of course, dress professionally and arrive to the conference in plenty of time to present. But you also want to make sure you’ve got the logistics of the presentation covered. I like to scope out my presentation room as soon as I arrive at the conference (before sessions even start) so I know how everything is arranged. I always bring my laptop, even if the conference said one will be provided (and because I use a Mac, I always bring an adaptor for the projector). I have my presentation saved on my hard drive, in the cloud, and sometimes even on a USB drive. I never count on having internet available when I present, and if I must have sound I bring my own speakers. No matter what, be flexible and have a backup plan for your technology. Projector light bulbs burn out, laptops break … and the show must go on.

Enjoy yourself

When the time comes to give your talk, relax! Everyone expects you’ll deliver an excellent nugget of information, and if you’ve prepared as I’ve suggested, you’ll meet the expectations you set with your session title and description. When the presentation is over, mingle with the attendees and answer any questions you may have. Be sure to connect with them after the conference (LinkedIn and Twitter are great for this)—they could end up being your co-presenters next year!

Repurpose your conference presentation

At the very least, you should upload your slide deck (and potentially some notes) to SlideShare. If you have a blog, you can also write a summary post (and embed your SlideShare deck). If the audience responded well, you may also consider submitting the same (or slightly adapted) presentation to a conference with a larger audience. If you presented at the state level, submit the session to a regional conference. If that’s where you started, submit it to a national conference. Continuing to present and repurpose content will help you develop known expertise on your topic, and increase your professional exposure.

What are you waiting for?

You’re ready to present at a professional conference—you just need to take the first step.

Readers that have presented before—do you have any advice for folks that are new to this?

*Special thanks to TJ Willis for his feedback on this post. He’s served on multiple conference committees, and I appreciate his perspective.

Like this post? Learn more about the Resolve 2015 series.

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2 Comments on “Create Your First Professional Conference Presentation

  1. Great post, Liz. Very comprehensive and it’s all important, in my experience.

    One thing I’d add is try to make your presentation interactive, if your group size and topic makes it possible.

    I think a huge reason people come to conferences is for the networking and connections. But networking doesn’t always come easy. So I build it into my own talk.

    I’ll introduce a concept, and then give the audience a few minutes to discuss how they’ve seen that example work in their experience. I’ve gotten great feedback on that technique in the evals.

    I think it enhances my own topic with other people’s knowledge, it gets people engaged, and it also breaks up the presentation and gives me time to control how things are going. It makes conferences a bit more lively and takes the Twitter backchannel and makes it real.

    Obviously that won’t fit every presentation, but I recommend trying it out with a small group and see if it works for you.

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