After what seemed like an eternity, finally, his gaze rested with me again. He posed an intriguing question that didn’t seem to require an answer. He paused. Smiled sincerely, and moved on. In that brief interaction, I wanted to know all there was to know about language testing rubrics.
The vignette above describes how I felt as a graduate student watching my Professor, Tim McNamara, deliver a presentation to a full lecture theatre every week. The subject was language testing and assessment, which could have been mundane, but every lecture felt like we were engaged in an intriguing conversation. The secret?
Purposeful pauses. Rhetorical questions. And smiles.
These embodied actions were skillful presentation techniques and some I’ve never forgotten. Ever since, I’ve consciously made an effort to pause and smile frequently in my own classroom. These days, I employ the same practice when I present at TESOL conferences too. You’d be surprised what a difference it makes.
So, when was the last time you watched a truly engaging presenter? What did they do? What did they say? What makes for a ‘great’ presentation? And, what if the presenter was YOU?
From Teacher to Presenter
While I have always been an avid conference attendee, I have been privileged to extend my experience to presenting at international TESOL conferences in recent years.
But, how do you know if you’re ready to take the plunge into the conference arena?
Well, have you:
- Been teaching for a few years now?
- Engaged in further studies in TESOL?
- Had success with an innovative approach to teaching in your classroom?
- Conducted an inquiry or research project at your school?
- Presented professional development workshops for your school?
- Written a paper for publication?
- Attended TESOL conferences in the past?
If you answered ‘YES’ to at least two of these questions, then presenting might be for you!
Challenges and Opportunities
The benefits of presenting at TESOL conferences have been beautifully described by my RMIT colleagues (see posts from Catherine Peck, Robert Ongcoy, Clare Magee, Heather Swenddal and Rheanne Anderson). However, one recurring theme exists -- the transition from communicating with learners to presenting to an audience of teaching peers is daunting for most of us.
While many of the principles of good teaching can be applied to conference presenting, the conference circuit is a new arena and audience for many teachers. I believe conference presenting is a skill that can be developed and offers a tremendous professional development opportunity for teachers. It challenges you, forces you to analyse, synthesise and develop your arguments. You learn to test ideas, evidence your claims, gain feedback from other educators in the industry and engage in scholarly activities.
But mostly, for me, conference presenting is about swapping stories with a community of peers who are just as eager to engage in conversations about teaching and learning as you are.
Top 10 Tips for New Presenters
As my colleagues and I prepare to present at CamTESOL, I am reminded of my own professional learning in the practice of presenting. This post seeks to describe my learning so far and offer some practical tips for new presenters on:
- Choosing the right TESOL conference
- Preparing an abstract and presentation
- Delivering a successful conference presentation
While the list represents a work in progress - yes, I am still learning too - I hope it will offer guidance for those of you new to the conference arena.
1. Choosing a TESOL Conference
So you’ve got something you’d like to share but how do you know which conference to target? This is where the journey begins and it can be as simple as asking yourself:
- Where do you teach?
My advice to new presenters is to always start local, before going global. Ideally, this means developing your skills as a presenter in-house with your own colleagues (e.g. PD workshops), before venturing further afield. However, when you are ready, choose a conference in your region - somewhere you are most familiar with the audience and teaching and learning context.
For example, ask yourself things like, what could I share from my research or classroom experience with University Vietnamese learners with an audience of Vietnamese High School teachers (e.g. SEAMEO)?
There will be things to share - that’s why we go to conferences, to learn from others outside our own context - but starting at home will often make the transition easier.
You can find an up-to-date list of international TESOL conferences HERE.
Test out ideas with colleagues who have worked in these contexts, attended or presented at the conference before. Review past conference booklets on their website and social media outlets to get a sense for the audience and previous presentations accepted.
These conferences typically ‘call for papers’ 8-12 months out from the conference date. This will usually require submission of a short abstract: a 150-250 word summary that describes your work and intended presentation of either: a poster (a visual aid/poster, that you present in an exhibition hall with other presenters), a workshop (30-60 minute practice-based, interactive presentation) or a paper (30 minute research-based presentation).
Workshops are the most common type of presentation for new presenters as they are often focused on sharing practical ideas from the classroom.
But how do you write an abstract?
2. It’s all about the audience.
The three main things to consider when preparing an abstract are: audience, audience, and audience. In other words, you need to consider who your audience might be, why they might be interested in your work and how relevant your story will be to their learning and teaching context.
Abstracts for TESOL Conferences are a genre all their own so it is a good idea to become familiar with the style and register that is appropriate for each conference audience. For example, writing for an audience of language teachers at a conference like CamTESOL will be different from the style expected at AAAL.
Remember, your abstract will not only determine your acceptance to the conference but it is also what the audience will use to decide whether they join your presentation or not. In many ways, your title is like a newspaper headline but importantly must include a clear and concise summary of your main themes.
Read more advice on this topic from authors, Jeremy Harmer and Scott Thornbury here.
3. Good presentations are just good stories.
Your abstract is in and you’ve been accepted. Congratulations! Now it’s time to prepare your presentation.
As a new presenter, the temptation to retell every detail of what you did in your classroom or research project is very tempting. But in fact, a good presentation is not about you, it’s about the audience (noticing a theme here?).
And plus, you’ve only got 30 minutes (well, 20 if you include the shuffling of people in and out of the room and question time at the end!). So where to begin?
Start with your teaching colleagues.
My organisation has an established culture of supporting and mentoring teachers interested in conference presenting. I am often engaged by new presenters to help them prepare and run-through their presentations. I love working with these teachers as while they may be new to presenting, their ideas and enthusiasm are always truly inspiring.
I usually begin by key-wording their abstract before asking the following questions:
What are the three key themes of your presentation?
Who is your intended audience?
What do others in the field have to say on this topic?
What is your story?
For me, the best presentations always tell a story. I’m interested in why a teacher began their journey of investigation. What was the challenge they identified in their classroom? What did they do to overcome it and how did learners or other teachers respond?
"In a sense, all research is a kind of narrative: it presupposes a quest (or research question), a journey (or investigation), typically involving a sequence of steps (the methodology), and concluding with an ending (the findings).”
These points help the audience evaluate how applicable this activity or research may be for my own context. Hearing a presenter’s honest account of their journey - warts and all - can also inspire and generate empathy from the audience.
4. Planning your presentation.
Just like writing a paper, a presentation requires you to synthesise your research and ideas in a clear and concise way.
In practical terms, you might begin by structuring your talk into stages. For example, a presentation based on classroom research might include the following stages:
Title slide - Who are you? Where are you from? What are you here to present?
Agenda - Outline the stages of your presentation or talk
Context - Where is this research or investigation based?
Challenge - What inspired your investigation? What do others in the field say about it?
Rationale - Why is it important to you? Your context? The TESOL community?
Intervention - What did you do? What tools did you use? How did you employ them?
Key Findings - How did it go? How did learners, teachers or your institution respond?
Key Messages - What are the key implications or ideas for future research?
I still tend to use PowerPoint as my tool of choice to visually represent my talking points. Prezi and Google Presentation are two other freely available online tools that I’ve seen others employ successfully. However, when planning my presentation, I begin by building slides and a script around the themes above.
For me, the ‘title’ of each slide serves the same function as a topic sentence in writing, and the bullet points that follow are my supporting ideas. This way, my slides can serve as my cue cards and give me just enough information to remind me of my segues.
Once my text is done, I often review my slides and try to minimise text and replace 80% of the text with images or diagrams. Then it is time to make room for the audience again.
5. Build in interaction points.
Rarely would we walk into a classroom and begin telling students what we think about a topic. In my opinion, the best presenters always ‘ask before they tell.’
This is where the principles of good teaching can also apply to presenting as we elicit the audiences’ prior knowledge/activate schema and scaffold the delivery of content. If we view presentations as a an opportunity to engage in dialogue with peers then this necessitates opportunities for information exchange.
When identifying points for possible interaction, I review my slides and look for statements or claims that might be better posed as a question. For example, posing 1-2 discussion questions at the beginning of your presentation followed by a quick quiz activity in the middle are typical interaction points I employ. Of course, if you are demonstrating a teaching activity, then participants can take on the role of learners.
These interaction points help me to stay true to the dialogue principle but also serve a practical purpose too. They give me a chance to catch my breath and take a sip of water because yes, I still get nervous.
6. Interrogate your arguments, before someone else does.
Delivering a monologue is much safer than a dialogue as you limit the opportunities for the audience to interrogate your claims. However, this approach also limits your development as a presenter. If we consider conferences to be place to test ideas and share our stories, then a dialogue is by far the best approach.
This is where your preparation is key. Good presenters will conduct a literature review and evaluate the ideas they come across in their reading, interrogate their own claims and ensure they are evidence based.
If you are presenting a newly developed idea, be sure to employ hedging language like, In my experience, This suggests that, What I’ve drawn from this experience is, etc. Be explicit about stating what is fact or opinion.
As you gain more experience as a presenter, you learn to embrace feedback. You learn that it is okay to make a claim, as long as it is grounded in evidence. Preferably from multiple sources. For example, when presenting classroom-based research, snippets from your literature review, examples from your own classroom plus reflections from other teachers and learners are all credible sources of evidence for a conference presentation.
If someone does interrogate your claim, really listen and resist the urge to defend. Argue your case calmly or acknowledge that it is a point you would like to explore with them more. Preferably during the morning tea break!
For classroom activity-based presentations, it is important to keep in mind that you are not there to sell an activity as a product. You are there to share how your activity promotes learning, as that’s what teachers will value most and can use to evaluate the fit for their own context.
7. Run through it, and run it again.
At this stage, you might be thinking you’re ready to pack your bags and head off on your journey! However, you’ll likely want to rehearse what it is you’re going to say.
At our institution, we encourage all of our presenters to engage in multiple run-throughs. The first step is talking through your slide set with a partner before engaging a few colleagues (appox. 2-3), to act as a live audience for your presentation.
Having that ‘second set of eyes’ helps you to evaluate timing, identify slides that need segues or changes to design, interrogate your claims, or simply see how your message resonates with someone less familiar with your work.
Video-recording your run-through can also be an enlightening experience as you get to observe your own voice, mannerisms and slides from a whole new perspective. I have never walked away from a run-through without making at least 5 or 6 changes to my talking points or slides!
8. Teach yourself the ‘tech’ for talks.
Part of the live run-through process is also about making sure you are familiar with the equipment needed for your presentation. Just as good teachers do before their classes, good presenters get to know their equipment too.
Do your PowerPoint transitions work? Do you know how to use the pointer/clicker? Do you have the right laptop cable for the LCD projector? Do you need an internet connection?
Some helpful tips for tech in presentations include:
- Using Screenr.com to record any ‘how to’ demonstrations of your PC screen or websites - in case the internet fails.
- Taking extra batteries for your pointer/clicker, or simply using a wireless mouse.
- Storing your presentation in multiple locations, such as a USB stick, Dropbox or Google Drive.
- Using iPad apps like Slideshark to review and access your presentation on the go.
9. It’s important to look the part.
Establishing your credibility comes from having a well-informed presentation, a confident delivery style and dressing professionally on your presentation day.
While you do want to be comfortable, the old adage of ‘look good, feel good’ definitely applies here. For this reason, my conference packing list always includes my attire for my presentation day first as no one really wants to listen to me talking if I’m scuffing around in my hotel slippers.
10. Enjoy the journey!
At the end of the day, developing a conference presentation is a very personal and professionally challenging journey. One that can be initially daunting but ultimately rewarding.
My overall advice to new presenters is really just to make sure you try to enjoy the journey. Relish the opportunity to investigate your classroom practice, delve into the literature in our field, give yourself time to process your ideas and test them out with others. Get excited about interrogating your arguments and inviting others to do the same. Investigate slide design and test out different styles of delivery and tech tools to help convey your message.
With these tips in mind, I hope you’ll emerge from the journey a confident presenter. But just remember, if all else fails, you can always just:
Pause. Pose a question. And smile.
I look forward to seeing you on the conference circuit soon!
This blog post represents the views and reflections of the author only and are not intended to represent the views of RMIT University.