On Professional Presentations: Lessons Learned

This spring, I presented a paper and a poster at two conferences: The Care and Conservation of Manuscripts Conference in Copenhagen, and the AIC/CAC Joint Annual Meeting. (If you are curious, the poster is available on my digital portfolio, and Noah Smutz posted a great review of my talk on the AIC blog). After the fact, I wrote some brief notes on what I learned from the experiences for New York University’s Conservation Center. They might be of interest to others, so I am sharing them here. I have divided my experiences according to the linear process of writing and submitting abstracts, fundraising, preparing talks, preparing (in my case PowerPoint) presentations, preparing posters, and other miscellaneous points.


  1. This is intended to be a brief introduction to your research. It is not a summary and you don’t need to mention your conclusion, since oftentimes you may not know your conclusion yet. Describe why your research is important. Why should the audience be interested?
  2. In general, the shorter, the better. You definitely want to be within the word limit!


  1. Never be afraid to apply for grants. There are a ton of websites on grant-writing. Another great resource (to hold in reserve your entire career) is foundationcenter.org, which has regional offices where you can go in and use their resources for free.
  2. Be concise.
  3. Be honest.
  4. It never hurts to ask for a little bit more than you think you will get.
  5. Remember that you will have to write a grant report afterwards. You will need to submit your actual budget (as opposed to the estimate you sent earlier) in this final report, so keep all your receipts, food included! Always end the report with a thank you, and always submit this in time. This will increase your chances of getting funding from the same sources later.


  1. Begin working on your talk before you think you need to. It will take time to hammer your talk into something coherent, particularly if you are working from a paper you have already written.
  2. Aim to have your talk end a couple minutes before it should. This will endear you to everyone!
  3. This goes for all talks, but is particularly important if presenting on an international level:
    1. Speak more slowly than you think is necessary
    2. Simplify your language. Don’t use convoluted sentences, or words like “convoluted.”
  4. Have a talk written out, just in case you freeze or blank out at the podium. Note your slide changes on this. Also, format the talk so that there are no sentences that cross pages. If you end each page with a complete sentence, there is no awkward pause as you move from one page to another. Similarly, print your talk out so that it is single sided. That way, you can simply slide the pages, rather than turning them and having them rustle.
  5. Look up at your audience frequently. If you’re nervous, talk to the back wall. Nobody can tell.
  6. Practice the talk. Make sure you don’t sound monotone; vary tempo, pitch, etc.
  7. If you don’t feel confident, pretend you are. If anything goes wrong with your speech, fake confidence and carry on. If you don’t appear upset, nobody will realize that anything untoward even happened.
  8. People are always rooting for you as a young presenter; it’s usually a friendly audience.
  9. During the Q&A session, don’t be afraid of saying, “I don’t know, but that’s a great question!” You don’t have to have all the answers.

Slide Presentation

  1. As soon as you’re done with the talk, make your presentation. Or do it concurrently. Either way, leave plenty of time for this because it will take much longer than you think.
  2. Go heavy on pictures, light on text.
  3. It’s always good to include an ‘outline slide’ and explain how your presentation will proceed.
  4. If you will have text (for instance, quotations) that you do not plan on reading or explicitly discussing, keep it very short. You don’t want people focusing on that instead of what you’re saying.
  5. Remember to thank everyone in the final slide.
  6. Save as a pdf as well as in other formats. You should be able to open the pdf if your other version fails to cooperate.


  1. Less is more, at least when it comes to text.
  2. Emphasize results and conclusions over everything else. In other words, these sections can be in larger font.
  3. Remember to include the cost of printing in your budget if applying for grants. (I didn’t!)
  4. If it makes sense to do so, include a picture of yourself so that conference goers who have questions about the poster can easily identify you. I couldn’t figure out a way to do this without upsetting my poster design, but I would have liked to do it.
  5. Everything else that I could possibly say is summarized at NYU Libraries’ poster basics.


  1. Have someone else read over your writing if possible, especially if it will eventually be published.
  2. It’s a difficult and largely thankless process, so it’s normal to be discouraged now and then, but it will ultimately be worth it. I cannot adequately express how much I learned.



About Saira

Saira is a newly fledged book conservator currently working in Saint Paul, MN.
This entry was posted in advice, AIC Annual Meeting, conference, presentation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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