Tips on giving a conference talk from Oli Herd

Oli Herd is a final year PhD student at the University of York characterising haematopoietic and immunological changes using a mouse model of chronic immune thrombocytopenia (ITP) under the supervision of Ian Hitchcock and Paul Genever. In December 2019 he presented a talk at the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida (USA) on his research in defining changes in haematopoietic stem cell populations and the bone marrow microenvironment during ITP progression. We asked Oli for his top tips for preparing to give a talk at a conference, read below for a first-hand account of his experience!

Oli Herd at ASH
Here is a picture of Oli presenting his talk!

Academics are constantly presenting their work and PhD students are no different. If you are fortunate enough, this may occasionally exceed the relative comfort of the lab meeting and will take the form of a conference. A highlight of my PhD was giving a talk at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) in Orlando in December 2019. In this short blog I will pass on some advice which will hopefully be of some help when preparing to speak at a conference.

Firstly, practice. And then practice some more. You want to be at the stage where your presentation is second nature to you, having practiced to as many people as possible. Time yourself to make sure your presentation is of the requested duration.

Find out the format of the technology you’ll be using in advance to avoid any nasty surprises on the day. You should be able to find this out by contacting the organisers if they have not already made it clear to you. Prepare your presentation in the format that will look best on the screens and projectors you’ll be using – are they optimised for 16:9 or 4:3 ratio? Will PowerPoint presenter mode be enabled? Whilst I definitely do not recommend reading your presentation word for word as you should be making eye contact with your audience, if you are one of those people that need to ‘learn’ a presentation, then it may be reassuring for you to have your ‘script’ there on the screen as a backup, even if you do not need it and do not plan on using it.

The questions at the end are often seen as the most daunting aspect to a presentation as here lies the part that is out of your control. What if they ask me something I cannot answer? The truth of the matter is that this is very unlikely to happen. Nobody knows your work better than you do and you’ll find you will be able to answer them with ease. Additionally, you are unlikely to be grilled as much as you might if you were more senior. Your audience will know you are a PhD student and are likely to bear that in mind when formatting their questions. If you do need some time to think of the answer, then play for time by repeating their question back to them. If you really can’t answer the question, then flatter them (academics like to be flattered!) by remarking to them about how good their question is and that you will find out the answer and get back to them.

On the day, try to reduce your stress as much as possible. I found familiarising myself with the presenting process as much as possible prior to giving the talk helpful. For example, to ensure the quality of the presentation I used the ‘Speaker Ready Room,’ which contained several booths equipped with computers configured with the same hardware and software as the presenter computers in the session rooms. I knew the time and place of my presentation (as will you), so I visited the room where my session was held in advance to familiarise myself with its location and the room layout.

Ultimately, enjoy it! This may be easier said than done, but at the end of the day your abstract was chosen as a result of the hard work you have put in. To present at a conference is a reward; treat it as such.