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Conference speaking do’s and don’t’s: a plea from the floor

Conference speakers! Loads of you have talked to me in the last 12 months. And I have (mostly) listened. I’ve been intrigued and inspired by what some of you, elsewhere in research-land, are doing. I’ve enjoyed talking further with many of you afterwards in the queue for coffee. In a couple of cases, the dialogue’s developed and we’ve begun to work together, which is brilliant.

Bear with me while I explain to anyone not already aware, that researchers are natural-born editors. We love correcting each other’s work. We’re always trying to help each other express things ‘better.’ We’re into adjusting, critiquing, re-organising, finessing, up-cycling, triple-checking and nit-picking.

Now, I love being a researcher. And I bloody love editing stuff. So stick me in a conference room with conference speakers and their slides, and I start mentally marking them.  I’ve been keeping a list of conference paper commandments for the last few months, and I thought it was time to share.

So, conference speakers. How can you make us listen when you talk?

Do …

  • Explain to us where you’re going. ‘My aim today is to inspire you about …’ ‘My argument is that …’ We might have been sitting here for 6 hours. We don’t need spoon-feeding, but we’ll like it if you help us to process what you’re saying.
  • Use a theme. It’ll make you look like you sat down and organised yourself and your thoughts. What’s not to like about that?
  • Show us a video. Oh please, show us a video. It’ll wake us up. It’ll stop us reading things off your slides and ignoring you as you speak. It’ll make us feel like we’re at the cinema (OK, that’s an exaggeration, but you get my point).

Don’t …

  • Show us anything wordy. We’ll automatically read text when we see it – we can’t help it. We’ll probably skim-read to the end of the slide faster than you can present it, while half-listening to you, then we’ll switch off.
  • Show us your ‘zany’ English. Statements with question marks at the end, like ‘The future is looking bright?’ Sentences that are so utterly thrilling they end with three exclamation marks!!! Trust me, you have audience members who will write you and your paper off immediately when they see this sort of stuff.
  • Use cartoon images. They look rubbish. End of.

Think carefully about …

  • Showing percentages on charts. Can the audience really see them? Does it matter whether they can see them? Loads better if you know them, and you can tell us what they are, rather than encouraging them to stop listening to you and start reading. You may have detected a theme here.
  • Using transitions in Powerpoint. At best: pretty damn smooth. At worst: reminiscent of the Blankety Blank opening titles.
  • Using stock images. At best: striking, memorable, powerful. At worst: lazy, contrived, plain vanilla nonsense – the same sort of nonsense that everyone else uses, from your competitors to my dentist.

But do you know what we want more than anything else? It’s a conference: help us talk to each other. Tell us to turn to the person to our left and ask a question. Put things on our tables so we wonder aloud what they are, then get us to carry out exercises together. Create some energy. Create some dialogue. Don’t let us think that it’s just about the sound of your voice.

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