Plan your next talk like you plan your class

It’s not the first time that I decide to write about conference presentations. A few years ago, I wrote some tips for conference presenters, based on my 20+ years of experience attending academic events. This time around, I’ll relate how I believe talks should be structured to how classes should be planned and delivered. It is simpler than a novice presenter may think.


  • Have a clear objective and make it explicit

Just as you should have a clear objective for your classes and should also make this objective clear to your students, especially adults, your talk should have a clear objective that is shared with the audience as well. I really appreciate talks in which the presenter clearly states what the structure of the presentation is going to be like and what they hope participants will gain by the end. This way, attendees know, for example, if and when there will be time for questions. They will also know where the presenter is going with each part of the session.


  • Don’t, please don’t spend too much time on your lead-in

This is a problem not only with the classes I observe but also with many talks I attend. Presenters get carried away with their introductions or lead-ins, end up spending too much time preparing the audience for the main part of the talk, and then find themselves having to rush towards the end, many times not managing to fully achieve their goals. I attended two talks on the topic of giving feedback in an international conference recently. In both 45-minute talks, the presenters spent from 15 to 20 minutes asking the participants to define feedback, share their definitions with a partner, and then share with the whole group of attendees. This may sound like the right thing to do, a way to engage the audience, but if you examine it closely, it is a waste of time for those of us who, like me,  are more interested in spending more time learning about the new idea or strategy that the presenter wants to share than talking about such a common-sense definition! In a recent BRELT Chat on Facebook on the topic of lead-ins and wrap-ups, Luiz Otávio Barros brought up the fact that today’s adult seems to prefer a more no-nonsense approach to the beginning of a class. People are busier and want to make sure all their time is spent productively. The same goes for educators attending conferences.


  • Tailor your talk to your audience and their needs

We all know that a good class is one that is personalized, that is, adapted to students’ needs and context, rather than one that could be taught to any random group of students anywhere. This is also true of a good talk. I know that when we present in large events, we don’t know our audience too well, and many times it is a very heterogeneous one. Even so, it is possible to do at least a little bit of customization by chatting with the participants a few minutes before the talk to know what their context is, or beginning the talk asking for a show of hands regarding how many are teachers, coordinators, directors of studies, etc. This way, you can acknowledge your audience during the talk and give examples that will relate to the variety you’ll find. For example, if you realize that your audience consists mostly of teachers in training rather than experienced ones, you might have to unpack certain theories or definitions that you had previously taken for granted that everyone would know. Conversely, if your audience consists of a good number of directors of studies and/or teacher trainers, you might want to add some examples that relate to the job they do and avoid talking down to them. I went to a conference last year that was mostly for program coordinators and directors of studies. Two international presenters made the mistake of thinking that the audience consisted mostly of teachers, and probably inexperienced ones, and went over definitions of the communicative approach and of what reading strategies are. I’m sure that everyone in the room had advanced degrees in teaching English as a second/foreign language and knew all too well those definitions. In other words, these two presenters did not do their homework and did not ask about the profile of the audience. This happens when international presenters go on conference-speaking tours from country to country, giving the same talk everywhere. It is easy to notice when they don’t even know who they are talking to. I understand that they have busy schedules and go to many places in a few weeks, but just as each class should be a unique learning experience for every student, no matter how many times the teacher has taught that class, each talk should be a unique experience for participants, some of whom travel long distances and spend a good amount of money to attend conferences.


  • Don’t just talk about something; give concrete examples

This may seem obvious, but it doesn’t always happen.  Many speakers tend to speak about ideas in general, without giving specific examples of how to put them into practice in real life. The more practical, down-to earth examples we give, the more participants will go home with a tangible take-away. I attended a great talk a couple of years ago about tech tools that can be used in the ELT classroom. The presenter had excellent suggestions of tools that I had never heard about. However, they just mentioned the tools, where you can find them, and how they work. There weren’t examples of how each, or at least some, of the tools were used to teach a specific lesson. The impression I had was that the speaker had not really used all of them. I also attended a very nice presentation on project-based learning, but it only touched upon the topic theoretically, focusing on what it is and why it should be used in the classroom. The presenter did not share with the audience examples of projects that have been implemented to reach a specific objective, that is, a step-to-step guide. It is easy to find articles, blog posts, etc. on the topic of project-based learning. What is difficult to find are practical examples. Effective projects that integrate skills and have a clear objective and assessment criteria are not easy to design and anyone attending a talk on this subject is eager to see a real example, preferably with students’ final projects as tangible artifacts.


  • Only use resources that will really add value to your talk

In this multi-modal, tech-rich world, we sometimes get too carried away by tech tools and multimedia and think using them in class, or in our talk, is a must. This is not always true. I recently attended a class in which the teacher used augmented reality to have students access a paragraph with an i-Pad app and read it. They had to keep moving the i-Pad to be able to read the paragraph shown in 3D. How did this change the learning experience? In my opinion, very little. It was still a reading activity, and reading from a piece of paper or from an electronic text, without the AR fuss, would have made students’ lives easier. Likewise, I once attended a talk in which participants had to use their smartphones to read a bar code in order to access a short text to read individually. The presenter probably wanted to add a special touch to the talk. However, the text was the same for everyone, so why not just project it and have everyone read it silently? The time spent on the bar-code reading and helping the ones who had more difficulty with this tool could have been spent more wisely. Presenters are too eager to use videos, memes, tech tools, and effects that, in the end, only complicate their lives, especially when they are presenting in a venue they are not familiar with. Of course, these resources can add a special touch and many times they do add value to the talk. You just need to judge whether this will be the case in your talk.


  • Make sure you address everything you purported to address and use your time wisely

A good class is one in which the presenter manages to reach the intended objectives in the given time. I call this a well-rounded class. The same goes for talks. I have attended many talks in which the presenter was not able to go through all the slides and had to finish abruptly. This happens a lot in classes, too, although, in this case, it is less problematic because the teacher can always pick up from where they left the next class. There is no “next talk”, so make sure what you plan fits your time frame comfortably. It is better to finish a few minutes earlier and leave time for questions than to have to skip a few slides to get to the end. I have attended talks in which the presenter offered to share the presentation so that the participants could look at the parts that had to be skipped. This looks like bad planning to me.


Summing it all up, the main advice I give is this: adopt the KISS principle. Keep it short and simple!

Isabela Villas Boas

Isabela Villas Boas holds a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in Education from Universidade de Brasília. She has been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for 33 years, where she is currently the Corporate Academic Manager . Her main academic interests are second language writing, teacher development, ELT methodology, and assessment. She also supervises MA dissertations for the University of Birmingham. She has recently published the book “Teaching EFL Writing - A Practical Approach for Skills-Integrated Contexts.

  • Michelle Hudson Daniel
    Posted at 16:57h, 02 junho Responder

    Thank you very much for your guidance, Isabela!

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 19:25h, 02 junho Responder

      Thank you for reading it and for your feedback!

  • Michelle Hudson Daniel
    Posted at 19:11h, 02 junho Responder

    Thank you very much for your guidance, Isabela.

  • Eneida Coaracy
    Posted at 11:38h, 08 junho Responder

    Thank you for sharing these precious tips, Isabela!

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