I have just returned from the IATEFL Conference in Liverpool. An excellent event as always and a superb venue too. Conferences like this are a great opportunity to catch up with what’s happening in the world of ELT; they also provide many opportunities to reflect on and learn about giving talks (both what to do and what to avoid). So today I am going to post some thoughts about conference presentations.
One trend I noticed this year is that speakers often started their talks (I am not discussing workshops here) with a warmer of some kind – e.g. ‘discuss a good/bad teaching experience you’ve had’ or ‘talk about how would you define this term’. I am not convinced this is always necessary, especially where time is limited, but I sensed that speakers often did this in the belief that they needed to be more participant-centred (applying the logic of teaching to presentations perhaps?). In a short talk it is important to make efficient use of the time available and allowing time for questions and discussion at the end or building in a relevant (but brief) mid-session audience activity may be more appropriate ways to use the time available than a warmer, unless this contributes very clearly to the talk. Also, audiences who choose to attend talks do not always appreciate interactive activities before the speaker has provided any input.
The respective roles of content and delivery in conference presentations are also worth considering. What is less satisfying – an engaging talk where the content is not what we’d hoped for, or one where the content is ‘good’ but which is not delivered effectively? Of course, having something to say is essential, but delivery has an undeniably powerful impact on the audience’s assessment of the quality of a talk. The reflections on giving conference presentations posted by a delegate at IATEFL highlight many aspects of a talk that make it hard for the audience to follow the speaker.
In fact, if I was allowed to give speakers only one piece of advice when they are planning and giving their talks (see my 20 tips on research talks) it would be this: think about your audience and make it as easy as possible for them to follow you. It’s very simple: great ideas and content matter little if the audience cannot follow and understand. Complexity and density are sometimes equated with quality (the harder an idea is to understand the better it must be) but this is a misconception. Our responsibility as speakers is to communicate in a manner that is meaningful to our audience.
There is plenty of advice on-line about giving presentations – see, for example, the guidelines from the American Psychological Association and many books on giving presentations are available too – and (to avoid becoming complacent) I make sure that every year I read a new one.
However, while reading about presentation skills is useful there is no real substitute for actually giving presentations and receiving (and, of course, welcoming and reflecting on) constructive feedback on them. It is also useful to study others’ presentations and to think about what we can learn from them – the video recordings on IATEFL Liverpool Online provide plenty of examples (including my own – feedback very welcome) that can be used for such purposes.
One final point, and this is a reminder to myself too, is that despite our best efforts sometimes a presentation does not work, and that when that happens we should not dwell on it for too long: analyse what went wrong, understand why, and move forward. No one gets it right all the time.
I’d like to hear about your experiences of conference presentations, as audience and/or speaker.