Talking the Talk: Tips on Giving a Successful Conference Presentation

By Abby Adler

Conducting and presenting research is a significant focus of graduate training for science-oriented psychology students.  Faculty advisors push students to develop skills in writing and publishing scientific papers.  But another skill of equal importance for disseminating research findings is giving conference presentations.  Although some of us may cringe at the idea of standing in front of an audience of strangers to talk about our research, there are a number of things to keep in mind that can make the experience more bearable and possibly even enjoyable.

Be yourself

Figure out what presentation style is most natural for YOU. Reflect on the talks you've seen and consider which aspects you like or dislike. For example, if you think showing video clips is not your style, avoid using them. Or if you like how people use themes and a common metaphor throughout their talk, you can try to incorporate this into your talk as well.

Preparing slides

When it comes to slides, less is more. Don’t try to rush through 100 slides in 20 minutes. A good rule of thumb is 1 slide per minute.

Here is one way to divide your slides: The first slide should introduce the title of your talk, who you are and where you are from. To get the audience primed for your talk, include a slide introducing the main question and findings to be discussed.   It is also important to include a slide outlining the flow of the talk to provide a sense of predictability. Background can be covered in two slides asserting the problem statement, reason why you are interested in the question, and prior work. Methods can be covered briefly in one slide (additional information can be provided later if requested). The bulk of your talk (4 slides) should be focused on the results. One slide summarizing your hypotheses and findings should follow. Finally, one slide can be dedicated to discussing future work or limitations.

Be clear and concise

Structure your talk around 3-5 "take away" points you want the audience to remember, which can be repeated multiple times. This will help keep unnecessary details to a minimum and allow you to highlight your primary message more clearly. Additionally, avoid using jargon and technical language. You want a broad audience, not just experts in your field, to be able to understand your results.

Engage your audience with illustrations

A picture (or graph) is worth a thousand words. Keep your slides light on text and heavy on figures, but avoid overly complicated figures that are hard to comprehend. The purpose of you giving your talk in person is to explain to the audience what the graph illustratesin an easy-to-understand manner.

Handling the Q&A

For some, the most nerve-wracking part of a presentation is after you have delivered your prepared talk and are awaiting unknown questions. However nervous you may feel (which is completely normal), rest assured that no one is more of an expert on your study than you are. You designed and implemented the study and conducted the analyses. If you still feel nervous about answering questions, prepare additional slides that can answer questions you anticipate. A useful way to deal with questions you are not prepared for is to say you want to think about the insightful question and are willing to discuss it in more detail individually after the presentation.

Practice makes perfect!

As researchers we know this is fact yet we often ignore it.  Allow yourself enough time to practice your talk at least three times before going live on stage, focusing on transitions, eye contact, and rate of speech, which are often problematic when first giving a talk. Practice your talk in front of a diverse audience, including your lab mates who likely know a lot about your research and can give detailed comments, as well as friends or family outside of your research area who can provide a more general perspective. It may also be useful to spend some time toying with any equipment you may use, such as a laser pointer or projector, so that you don't waste time during your presentation figuring out how to use it. The more comfortable you feel during a talk, the clearer your message will be to the audience.


Abby Adler is the clinical science representative on the APASSC and a graduate student at Ohio State University.  Her research interests are focused on how cognitive biases, dysfunctional attitudes, and rumination change across the course of cognitive therapy for depression.