1. Define the purpose of your presentation

Why did you pick this topic? What do you want others to learn from your session? Knowing what you intend to communicate sets the stage for all other steps in planning.

 2. Know your audience

List all of the different individuals who will benefit from your session and how they will benefit. Consider not only profession but level of experience, geographic location, urban vs. rural, cultural background, age, etc. If your session focuses on one particular audience and may not be helpful for all conference participants or experience levels, make sure your description reflects this.

3. Choose your format

Research tells us that adult learners like to be actively involved. They prefer content that is directly related to real-life challenges, and they enjoy opportunities to manipulate materials, engage in activities, or participate in discussions that draw on their previous experience and knowledge. Keep these criteria in mind as you plan your session, and look for ways to actively engage your audience.

Here are some session formats commonly used at our Conferences:

  • Keynote speaker (a formal lecture, often using audiovisuals, followed by a question-and-answer period if time allows)
  • Panel (Short talks by three or four presenters, including a session leader, followed by discussion among the participants)
  • Workshop (an intensive, interactive educational program)
  • Facilitated Roundtable (a guided discussion of specific issues or common concerns)
  • Showcase (a collection of exhibits, programs, or activities on a common theme)
  • Case Study Discussion (a peer discussion group)

Sometimes a combination of formats works well too. If none of the above fits your needs, consider creating a new format for your presentation and plan accordingly.

4. Pick your session title

People’s first impression of your session is obtained from the title in the conference brochure. It must catch the reader’s attention and create a mental picture of what will happen in the session. Some presenters take a two-part approach, using a short, vivid phrase followed by an explanatory subtitle (Speak Up!: Talking with Children About Abuse and Violence). Others go with a more direct description (“The Multiple Faces of Professional Ethics”). Either way, test your title on friends and colleagues to be sure they understand what you are promising to deliver.

5. Write your program description

The role of the program description is not merely to attract an audience, but to attract an audience interested in what you have to offer. A room of 200 people that expect one thing but gets another can turn hostile rather quickly, but 10 folks eager to learn what you have to impart will make your session a huge success. To attract the correct audience, your description must be clear, concise and accurate. Many program descriptions are rewritten in the months before the conference, so don’t be concerned if the planning committee asks you to revise your first attempt.

6. Create an outline

Although you may think you know exactly what you plan to say and do, it can be easy to lose sight of your purpose once you’re conducting your session. That’s why an outline is paramount. Take the time to consider what to include—and, more importantly, what to exclude. Refer back to your purpose and audience to make sure your presentation aligns.

7. Choose your audiovisual aids

Well thought out audiovisuals not only present information, they also add color and drama to your session and help you stick to your outline. Here are a few tips for choosing your aids:

  • You do not HAVE to do a PowerPoint; there is no law!
  • Keep it simple. Audiovisual elements should enhance your presentation, not be your presentation.
  • Design each audiovisual element for the back row. Make sure all elements can be seen or heard clearly in every part of the room.
  • Consider all of the senses. You can create a positive mood just by having music play when people enter the room.

Read more about creating PowerPoint presentations.

8. Identify supporting materials

The best way to reinforce your key points and encourage ongoing learning is to send your audience home with supporting materials. In the old days we called this a handout, but the new standard is to post materials online or provide them to attendees on a flash drive. A printout of your PowerPoint presentation is NOT a handout. If you feel you have to do this, it may mean that your PowerPoint has more information on the slides than it should, which requires the attendee to be reading when they should be listening. Effective supporting material summarizes the main points of your session, lists applicable resources, provides deeper information and suggests ways that participants can follow up on what they’ve learned.

9. Practice, practice, practice

Every conference session, even a hands-on workshop, requires some form of verbal presentation. If this aspect of the process makes you nervous, you’re not alone. Very few people are natural public speakers. It takes practice to put thoughts into clear, concise phrases without stumbling over the words, and to coordinate a presentation with audiovisual aids to produce a professional result.

Here are some pointers to help you get over those on-stage butterflies:

    • Practice out loud. Imagine you are speaking to a live audience. Saying the words out loud helps to coordinate the brain and the mouth, a task that is more difficult than people realize.
    • Practice often. The twentieth time you give a presentation will be much better than the first. Why subject your audience to your first effort?
    • Practice with your audiovisuals. Don’t wait until the last minute to introduce them. Coordinating their use from the start will help you make smooth transitions, and your overall session will look and sound professional.
    • Don’t read your speech. Talk to your listeners as if you were speaking to each person individually. They are much more likely to pay attention. Make eye contact as much as possible.
    • Use cheat sheets. An outline, flash cards, or graphics can help you keep your place without spoiling the spontaneity of your presentation.


10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If after following the previous nine tips, you still don’t feel comfortable in front of an audience, get help. Find a colleague who is used to speaking in public, and ask that person to lead the session while you remain available as the “expert” to answer the tough questions.

Ten Tips for a Successful Session is adapted from materials originally developed by Don Salvatore, educator, Museum of Science, Boston, and Lynn Parrucci, program coordinator, Theaters, Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh.


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