Conference Presentations

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.

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9 Responses to Conference Presentations

  1. Mehrez Aounallah says:

    Hi Simon!

    Thank you very much for the valuable advice on making presentations. While I agree with all your points, I believe that one key factor for a successful presenter is being a dynamic speaker, someone who involves the audience and catches their attention. This not only relates to the content of the presentation, but to the way this content is presented as well. This includes voice, pitch variations, postures and openness towards the audience to cite only a few. If you’re able to impress your public, the chances of them becoming more receptive and engaged certainly increase.

    Thank you, too, for all the links you have provided; they’re truly helpful. I hope to see you either here in Tunisia or why not at an IATEFL convention.

    Warmest regards,
    Mehrez Aounallah
    ELT Inspector
    Ben Arous

  2. Anne Townsend says:

    I agree abt the warmers, Prof. Borg. If your audience comprises colleagues who’ve already demonstrated a more than sufficient desire to learn by attending the conference…well, one would hope that warmers aren’t expected, let alone needed. Your comment now has me wondering to what extent our immersion in participant-centred language teaching environments influences how we understand our role and responsibilities as “expert” or “teacher” in other contexts….

  3. Bushra Ahmed Khurram says:

    Dear Dr. Simon,

    Thanks for your valuable advice on giving presentations. I totally agree with what you have said with respect to warmers in presentations! It gets bothersome at times if the presenter tries to turn a presentation into a workshop.

    Thanks for all the links you have provided.


  4. Gill Philip says:

    Your comments are very sensible! I do have an addition, though – something I have been adding to my presentations since I first saw it about 10 years ago, and which audience members frequently thank me for. It is very simple: after the title slide, provide a “talk overview” slide, which indicates the subtopics of your talk and how they are sequenced. Native speakers sometimes find them superfluous, but non-natives on the whole appreciate them greatly.

  5. Xiaobing Wang says:

    Dear Simon,

    Thank you very much for sharing these tips! ‘ABC (Audience Before Content)’, as you said, is Rule No.1!

    May I also suggest something like ‘housekeeping’? Before your presentation starts, let the audience know the time limit, what is going to happen afterwards, any chance for Q&A, any takeaways (handouts), etc.

    Thanks again for your valuable resources!

    Best wishes

  6. Imdad says:

    Dear Simon,

    Thank you very much for sharing your insights regarding conference presentations. I agree with the points you have raised. I am particularly interested in the relationship between content and delivery. I have had the experience of being in such presentations as an audience where the speaker was very good at delivery but the audience felt that the talk did not have that much information as they had hoped for. Maybe every presenter should think more seriously about the expectations of their audience before the presentation and prepare accordingly.

    Lecturer/Teachers Trainer
    University of Malakand, Pakistan.

  7. Imdad says:

    Dear Simon,

    I hope you are in the best of health. I watched your presentation in IATEFL online. It was fantastic to be immersed in your systematic style of presentation. I am especially fond of two things in your presentations:
    1. the way you break down difficult concepts into simple ideas for the benefit of the audience
    2. the way you are meticulous about diffusing the possibility of your ideas being misinterpreted by the audience. You seem to be so much more aware of how your words are PERCEIVED by the audience, which is, unfortunately, not a usual quality among presenters.

    Apart from many positive and inspiring qualities of your presentation at IATEFL, I also feel that if there had been some joke or humour it would have been even more effective.

    I am giving you this feedback because I felt during your workshops in Pakistan that you liked to receive evaluative comments from workshop participants about your sessions and that you were not particularly fond of receiving vague comments, ‘eulogizing’ your performance.

    Thank you.

    Imdad Khan
    Lecturer/Teachers Trainer
    University of Malakand, Pakistan.

  8. Simon Borg says:

    Thanks Imdad. Yes, I agree my IATEFL talk was a bit on the serious side (apart from the twitter anecdote at the start) and I agree that – when used appropriately (i.e. moderately) – humour can further enhance even a research presentation.

  9. Peter Fenton says:

    Simon, I think you are right to draw attention to the issue of effective use of time during any presentation but which was particularly pertinent to many of the 30 minute talks at the recent IATEFL conference, like you suggested.

    This was the first time that I attended an IATEFL conference but I think I am right in thinking that this was also the first time that presenters were limited to 30 minutes in some of the sessions. My feeling is that quite a few of those presenting were not used to giving a 30 minute talk and struggled to cope with the limited time frame.

    I think the point about using warmers at the beginning of a session is a perfectly valid one but I felt that a more pressing issue was simply that quite a few presenters misjudged how much content they could fit into a 30 minute talk. As such, there was insufficient time for questions at the end, which I felt was a great shame.

    Personally speaking, I thought the best talks were those that referred to theory (especially empirical research) whilst also offering some classroom implications. In this respect, Michael McCarthy and Craig Thaine’s were probably the most successful that I saw at the conference. Both presentations were well structured with a single clear
    strand running through them that was supported with evidence and two or three practical suggestions. Less successful presentations sometimes left me confused as to what the main point the presenter was trying to convey.

    Other weakness I found were that some presenters were a little guilty of overgeneralizing and making claims they couldn’t support in order to justify their point of view where a more balanced approach would have been more welcome. Your own talk (which I have just watched online) was a good example of how to carefully avoid making overblown claims or denigrating another aspect of ELT (in this case, other forms of professional development).

    I think it’s possible to get something out of a presentation with interesting content but poorly delivered, it’s just that it can be quite difficult and you have to be able to see beyond any weaknesses in delivery. On the other hand, if the content does little to stimulate you, then no presentation skills can really make up for that.

    I think it’s also important to note that different styles of delivery can be equally effective and that presenters shouldn’t feel that they have the need to adjust to a style they are not comfortable with. Ken Wilson gave a very effective workshop with lots of energy, humour and enthusiasm but this was not a style that would necessarily come naturally to many people. On the other hand, Craig Thaine spoke in a very calm, relaxed and informative way but I felt his delivery was just as effective. This may also be partly because the first was a workshop and the second was a talk, but also because of the area of interests that were covered. In Ken Wilson’s case this was Young Learners and in Craig Thaine’s talk it was EAP. Perhaps the perceived seriousness of the topics (and in particular the likely audience) also therefore had an impact.

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