• Michaela Selway

Tips for speaking at a conference!

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

It is getting into conference season at the University of Auckland and if you are a postgraduate student in any field, you will most likely be asked to speak on your research! However, while writing this post we realised that tips on how to speak are relevant to all year levels, especially in undergrad where you are not always told how to write a presentation. Thus, we have compiled a list of things we wish we knew before we presented at our first conference. We also have some tips for the actual presentation side of the conference from one of our own PhD students at Auckland University - Tess Mazey-Richardson.

Michaela Selway presenting at the 2019 New Historians Conference at Victoria University

Writing your conference paper

For my first conference paper, I condensed my entire dissertation into a twenty minute presentation. This was problematic considering I only realised two days before the presentation that it had been changed to fifteen minutes due to the increase in submissions. I had also written my dissertation on medieval history but I was presenting at a humanities conference - this means that my audience were not specialists in my field. My biggest suggestions when starting the writing process of the paper is to know who you audience is going to be. Are they specialists in your field or have they never heard of your niche topic? This determines the depth you need to go into - whether for your context or your argument. My second conference was at a general history conference where the majority of the audience studied modern history. Therefore, the majority of my paper was spent on explaining who the historians I was studying were and the specific context they were writing in. Only the last five minutes were spent discussing examples from the text in order to explain my argument.

It can also be helpful to restrict your initial writing process to a certain number of words. For example, a typical twenty-minute presentation generally has around 2000 words. If you are like me, however, and you speak quite quickly, my presentations can range from 2500-2750. Practicing it can also help you to determine how quickly you speak. You should also highlight certain paragraphs that can be cut out if you are running out of time but it also gives you space to ad lib certain sections if you have more time than you expected. If you are someone who prefers to ad lib the entire thing, it can still be helpful to write a script. This way, you can ensure you cover all of the points you want and you can still practice keeping to the time limit - it can be quite disrespectful to the other speakers if you go overtime and it also reduces the question time you have afterwards, which in many cases is the most valuable time.

Remember, the purpose of your presentation is not the show off how much knowledge you know. The purpose is to show that you can condense a certain amount of knowledge, draw connections between different readings, and reproduce it in your own words in a comprehensible manner.

Powerpoint or handout?

Depending on your topic, it may be helpful to have either a powerpoint, a handout, or both. The majority of my presentations have only used a powerpoint and this was mostly to summarise my key points and give the audience something to look at - especially if it has pictures. It can be difficult sometimes to pay attention or fully understand someone’s point if they have not made a slide - but remember not to write your slides out in full otherwise nobody will pay attention to what you are saying. They will just be reading what is on the screen! This is why some people prefer handouts - powerpoints can be distracting. The handout can be helpful if you have done your own translation or if you have a section of a text that is key for your audience to read. You can also put an outline of your presentation so people can annotate any questions they may have for each section.

I have only used both once. At the 2019 ANZASA conference, Dr. Sara Buttsworth, Kathryn and I presented on a Reacting to the Past game we had created for the Treaty of Waitangi. The presentation summarised our points and showed pictures from the game however the handout linked to this blog where we had published some students’ reflections on the game. This allowed our audience to hear our presentation, see how the actual game went and then read in their own time how the students found the game. In some presentations, this can be extremely helpful.

Attending and Presenting at the Conference - Tess Mazey-Richardson

Conferences are great but can also be a little intimidating – even if you aren’t presenting. Nonetheless, the benefits (networking, expanding your knowledge, getting new ideas, free food etc.) definitely outweigh any apprehension you may have. With that in mind, here are some things that might be helpful to keep in mind when attending a conference.

Let’s start with the part that everyone finds most daunting: presenting. For some people, speaking in front of a crowd is a doddle, but others get incredibly nervous and experience serious anxiety. The best way to stop your nerves getting the best of you is to be prepared. By this I mean not only writing the speech in advance, but also practicing it in front of friends/whānau several times. It also helps to know your topic well, as this way you will feel more confident about putting forward an argument. That brings me to the presentation itself. No lie, conferences are long and surprisingly tiring. This means that it pays to be enthusiastic, include some interesting photos if you can, and incorporate humour where possible. Lastly, be mindful that when presenting you’re likely to talk faster than when you’re practicing. Aim to speak clearly and slowly.

The other core component of attending a conference is listening to other presentations from peers and/or prominent figures within your discipline. As tempting as it may be to head home early, or sneak off for a cheeky coffee and miss one of the sessions, it’s important to commit to going to the sessions. Even if a presentation itself isn’t specifically relevant to your topic, you may pick up useful ideas when it comes to how to approach your topic from a different angle. During question time, try to get in early. Have a couple of questions prepared so that should someone else ask one of yours, you have another up your sleeve to keep the discussion flowing.

Key take-aways are to be prepared, actively listen, and most importantly, have fun.


Over on the podcast we have uploaded my presentation at the 2019 New Historians conference at Victoria University. This is by no means a perfect presentation - but for those of you who have never presented before, it might be a good example to listen to!

If you have any questions about your first presentation or conference paper, please feel free to get in touch! We would love to help you out. You should also speak to your lecturer or supervisor to see if there are any specific details your should include in your presentation.


Michaela Selway is the co-founder of Tāhuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying how biblical ideas on Origin Myths, Morality, Prophecies and Gender Roles were projected into Chronicles throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.

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