Five tips for first-time presenters

I gave my first ever ELT presentation this weekend at the Business English Special Interest Group conference, commonly known as BESIG. I was asked to fill in for someone who dropped out just when the programme was about to be printed so it all happened very quickly, but I would never have applied myself so I tried to make the most of the opportunity. The slot I inherited was (thankfully!) a 30-minute at the end of the day on Saturday. The girl who dropped out was due to talk about something to do with writing in the digital age, so I decided to keep a similar theme and talk about the transition from print to digital in ELT publishing. My title was almost exactly that: ‘Print to digital: the publisher’s perspective.’ I was incredibly nervous beforehand, but was very grateful that lots of friends from my time in Berlin came along to support me, as well as the lovely MaWSIG Committee members, as that made it considerably less overwhelming. The room was almost full and I got a nice round of applause at the end, so I’d like to think it was a success.

However, in the process of planning and then giving this presentation, I learnt a lot of things which I share here in the hope that they are useful to other first-time presenters in the future:

  • It will ALWAYS take more time to go through your presentation in real life than it does when you rehearse on your own. I rehearsed once to my colleagues at OUP, but that almost doesn’t count as I used some of their feedback to change my presentation quite a lot. I then rehearsed three more times over the course of the weekend in my hotel room, using the fake fire on my flat-screen TV as my audience. On none of these occasions did the presentation take longer than 25 minutes, even though I always included time for audience interaction. For the real thing, I started almost bang on time and yet still managed to talk for the full 30 minutes. I didn’t run over, but I had really wanted to have enough time for questions because I know it’s a popular topic. So my tip would be to always over-allocate: if it takes you 30 minutes in private, it’s probably a 40-minute talk!
  • Despite this timing conundrum I discovered (which I later discussed at length with many seasoned presenters who agreed it’s a well-known presenting phenomenon!), I would still recommend practicing your presentation. Ideally, do it to other real human beings, but in the absence of those, aim your talk at something (like my TV fire). I found it really helped for scribbling notes on my notes, for example if I wanted to add a quick reference to the fact that my talk had a lot of commonalities with someone else’s talk who spoke the day before.
  • Beg, borrow or steal a clicker from someone. These are so much better for moving your slides along than the mouse or trackpad from your laptop. The latter is almost certain to have you trapped behind a desk or lectern, whereas the former allows freedom of movement which, for someone nervous like me, really helps to hide the nerves from the audience.
  • Learn your presentation more or less off-by-heart. I didn’t, and although I know that’s because I didn’t have time amidst a full-time job, being poorly and playing too many badminton matches, I still regret it. All the other presenters I watched did their presentations without notes and I do think it holds the audience’s attention much better. Lots of kind people said to me that it didn’t matter; that it was my first presentation and I’ll get better, but now I really think they were subtly saying: try not to use your notes!
  • Keep an eye on the time. This sounds like an obvious tip, but in all my rehearsals, I started my phone’s timer as soon as I started to speak, and always had it in my sight as I paced around my hotel room. I forgot to do this when I did it for real, and it threw me briefly at the point where I let everyone have a few minutes to discuss what digital publishing actually is. I couldn’t work out how much time was left on the clock quickly enough, so it did send me into a temporary panic. In the future, I’ll definitely use the timer trick for the real one.

All that remains is for me to wish you good luck! It’s not as scary as you first think, and it’s just a great professional development experience, so I do really recommend doing it. If you have any other tips, feel free to add them in the comments!

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