Conference presentations: Does your team represent your group the way you think?

Years ago, at a conference, I visited a poster with a promising title. The student who stood by it was visibly uncomfortable and started her poster presentation with the words: “Actually, everything we tried didn’t work, but I can walk you through the poster anyway, if you want.” Mmmmh. No thanks. Until this day, I remember the name of that student’s supervisor. I wonder whether he was aware how his student represented his group?

When one of my students presents her work, her performance falls back on me and my group. I am surprised how often supervisors let their group members present a poster or talk ill prepared.

Prepping for a presentation

There are a number of points that are worth doing before a group member presents at a conference or seminar.

  • Revise the poster or slides yourself.
  • Give the presenter an opportunity to practice the presentation. In my lab, we do this in a group meeting, and everyone gives feedback. I’ve found this to be valuable, because the presenter gets a lot of tips, and those who are listening will take away a lot for their own presentations, too.
  • I’m often surprised how difficult presenters find it to bring across their main point and take home message. Many find it hard to extract the most relevant result, and to frame their contribution in a way that is interesting for a wider audience, one that is not specialized in one’s own topic or methodological approach. Make sure the presenter has decided on his message, and make sure you agree! It’s good to discuss the main message with the group, or at least with the presenter. The presentation should start and end with it, and everything in between should lead towards it. If a part of the talk doesn’t have anything to do with the main message, it can usually be left out.
  • Make the presenter aware of annoying mannerisms. What are their hands doing? Are they doing weird things with their feet? Are they using a lot of filler words (“like”, “uuuuh”, …)?
  • Create and discuss an “elevator pitch”. Whether your student will speak or present a poster, she will mention her presentation many times to colleagues at the conference. Often, people ask: “So what’s your poster about?” Prepare your student to have a short answer ready for that question – it makes her life easier and helps her confidence. By the way, designing a pitch can also help with finding the main message.
  • I’ve found that students are sometimes insecure about what to wear (no joke!). It can help to take initiative and discuss it with them.

With these points, you make sure that your team members will put your group’s work, and ultimately yourself, in a good light. At the same time, you help your team member to be well prepared and feel confident.

How do you prepare your group members for presentations? Do you have tips I didn’t mention? Do you know some good resources about presenting? Leave a comment!


Carmine Gallo’s book, Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds disusses how successful TED presenters give their talks. I’d say it’s mostly geared towards talks to large, non-specialized audiences (like TED), but a lot of the content can be applied to scientific talks as well. Unfortunately, Gallo tries to connect his talk “secrets” to neuroscience. A lot of the neuroscience stuff in the book is either wrong or presented as generalizations from specialized research that is not always justified. Gallo is a communication expert, and that part of the book is good. Skip the neuroscience parts.


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

Leave a comment...