Seven tips for a successful conference presentation


As the 15th Braz-TESOL International Conference approaches, I’m sure my colleagues have begun or are about to begin working on their presentations. My goal here then is to help them out by providing some tips on how to prepare and deliver an effective talk or workshop, from the standpoint of someone with almost 30 years of experience in ELT and who has attended almost, if not more than, 100 in-house,  local, national and international conferences. I am not writing as an experienced presenter, but rather, as a participant in hundreds of talks, workshops, panels, round-tables, etc.  I know we are not short of official presentation guidelines and blog posts providing tips for presenters. However, I hope these suggestions from a knowingly picky person may add to what is already available or remind people of what they already know.


  • Customize the presentation

One thing that annoys me immensely is when I see that a presenter is giving the exact same talk delivered in other places, without any sort of customization. Conversely, I really admire those who go to the trouble of adding the conference logo to their slides and adapting their talk to the given context, even incorporating information from the plenaries and talks already delivered in the event. I frown upon presentations that I saw some months before in another event and that have nothing new. I can’t believe that the presenter has not gained any insights since they last gave the talk. I’m not talking about major changes, but rather, one or two changes that show constant learning and recycling.


  • Stick to the time limit

Effective presentations should begin and finish at the established time, not before and not later. In order to plan effectively according to the time allotted, it is crucial that the presenter know exactly how long each of the topics addressed will take so as not to find themselves with too much time left at the end or pressed for time. Inexperienced presenters should definitely rehearse their talks and time themselves. Just like in a lesson plan, think of different ways that the same topic can be expanded or reduced based on how the timing of the presentation goes. However, don’t add more slides that you can use just in case. At least to me, it doesn’t look good when the presenter starts skipping slides. I feel that I’m missing important information that the presenter had planned to show but didn’t have time to. It’s like a teacher giving a three-page worksheet to students but then working on just the first page due to lack of time. Even worse, it can look like you have that talk on a shelf and you pick it up and adapt it in loco according to the presentation length.


  • Make sure your slides are well designed

You don’t have to be an expert in design to know that red letters on a yellow background don’t work.  Make sure you choose colors that work together effectively. If you don’t think you can do this, keep it simple then and use black in a white background or vice-versa. Also make sure your slides maintain the same visual coherence from beginning to end. Don’t keep changing colors and fonts randomly. Images are always welcome because they help stimulate different parts of the brain. Also, don’t overload each slide with too much written information and don’t use more slides and words than you really need. Needless to say, don’t only read from your slides! Use key words that will help you remember what you have to say, rather than everything you have to say.  It is always a good idea to show the slides to a colleague.


  • Don’t count on the Internet

We know that Internet is provided and it is supposed to work. However, something may always go wrong. Don’t base your presentation only on an online source such as google slides or online Prezi, for example. Always have a backup on a flash drive or, in the case of Prezi, an offline version. If you are going to show Internet sources or pages, always have screenshots ready just in case. If you are using a Youtube video, make sure you also have it offline.  It is very embarrassing when presenters can’t open what they planned to show and keep trying and trying while the audience is in that awkward silence.


  • Use videos with a clear purpose and keep them short

Someone once said that an effective presentation should use different media, especially videos. Now everyone wants to use a video in their presentation. However, sometimes the videos don’t have much to add to what is being said or they are too long. Yes, videos add liveliness and can make your talk more dynamic, but they have to be used purposefully and they must be short. Show only the segment that demonstrates the point you want to make. Also, avoid videos that have become too popular and that most of your audience will probably have already seen. Needless to say, only use videos if you are sure you have the technological skills to handle them. It’s best to already embed them in your presentation, but make sure it works beforehand!


  • Research your topic and cite your sources

Presenters must be relatively knowledgeable about their topic. That’s why they are presenting! It’s important to show the audience that you have researched your topic and know who the key references are. It doesn’t mean you need a reference for everything you say like in an academic literature review, but you need to use at least a few sources, especially for people who want to learn more about the topic. Make sure you also cite your sources and that you don’t present others’ ideas as if they were your own.  As an example from my field of interest, I can’t imagine someone presenting something on genre-based second language writing and not citing Hyland.


  • Balance theory and practice

In an event like Braz-TESOL, unless you are presenting a research report, people want practical examples of what you are presenting. Once I attended a presentation on a blended course in which the presenter spent a long time discussing the definitions of blended learning, the types of blended learning that one can adopt, and the steps in developing the blended course in her institution. However, we never got to see the course itself and examples of activities that were created for the online component. In other words, we learned what was done and why but never saw how it was done. For me it was frustrating because it was exactly the how that I was interested in. In other words, the practical aspect was left aside and too much focus was given to the theory. It’s like a lesson in which the lead-in is so long that there’s little or no time left for the lesson itself.


I’m sure there are many more useful tips for presenters. These are the ones that came immediately to mind. Further contributions are more than welcome!


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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.

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