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Get out of your comfort zone with a different presentation style

Carmel Hobbs

Attending an international conference as an early career researcher (ECR) can be daunting. In September, 2018 I had the opportunity to attend, and present at, the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), in Bolzano, Italy. I’ve presented my research in Australia before, but I’ll admit that travelling to the other side of the world (and to Europe for the first time) was both exciting and frightening. In addition to wanting to hear of research developments in my field, challenge myself intellectually, and expand my network, I was also there to share findings from my PhD research.

Before leaving Australia, I armed myself with Raewyn Connell’s blog posts, ‘Survive and thrive at an academic conference: A guide for beginners in five outbursts and a cough’. This series of posts covers the following.

  1. Arriving at the conference
  2. How to be an audience
  3. How to give a conference paper
  4. Why go at all?
  5. Democratising conferences

In preparing to attend the conference, I found each of these posts informative and enjoyed the practical tips and insights provided by Connell. I attempted to apply many of her suggestions, and was mindful of the critiques and considerations that also featured in the posts. The post that focussed on ‘How to give a conference paper’ was especially helpful, and provided a presentation structure that was different to what I normally would do.

‘I wanted to be more engaging, to generate interesting conversation, to receive feedback and to leave with some new ideas to pursue.’

My typical presentation structure mirrors my thesis – background, methods, setting, findings, discussion, and conclusion. I know it is kind of boring – and I know that if I’m feeling that, the audience probably is as well. It is also safe. And safe is in the comfort zone. I wanted to be more engaging, to generate interesting conversation, to receive feedback and to leave with some new ideas to pursue. I wasn’t entirely sure how to do that beyond including quotes from and stories of the young people who participated in my research.

In her post, ‘How to give a conference paper’, Connell recommends getting your findings up front and centre and not leaving this until late in the presentation. With trepidation, I prepared my presentation based on her structure. The nerves I had about trying something new intensified over the first day of the conference as I recognised a very common structure in the presentations of other ECRs. They were so consistently similar in structure that I went back to my accommodation at night and checked my emails to make sure I hadn’t missed a template that we were supposed to use. I couldn’t find one, but wondered if I should restructure my presentation to be more like the others. I decided to be brave and stick with what I had.

Putting the findings upfront, and really cutting back on the background, literature and methods was a good choice. My presentation was more engaging than usual, and there were so many questions that we used up the whole 10 minute question time allocated. I’ll definitely follow the same structure for future presentations – it helped to keep focussed, and to not try to say everything about my research (which is a big temptation when presenting something from your PhD). Using this new structure also made me look at other presentation styles differently. It reminded me that I go to conferences to learn about the new developments in my field, and so the presentations that focus most on findings are the most interesting to me.

When attending an international conference as an ECR, remember that you’ve travelled a long way, spent a lot of money, and worked hard to be there. Try to put your nerves aside, reach out and introduce yourself to people, enjoy presenting and what you can learn from it, and enjoy the learning process. In a busy academic life, having multiple days to listen to others, create new opportunities, and to hear about research findings (and methods) is a treat! Attending the ECER conference has reinforced my intentions to attend international conferences when possible in future, and I urge all early career researchers to do the same. I imagine other ECRs will enjoy and benefit from reading Connell’s series of posts on surviving and thriving at academic conferences. I know I did!