If you’ve never presented at a user experience conference, the thought of doing so can seem daunting. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the main reasons people don’t present at conferences are
their inability to think of a topic
lack of time
doubt about being accepted
the perceived difficulty of creating a proposal and presentation
fear of public speaking
I also discussed the many rewarding benefits of presenting at a UX conference, as follows:
It feels good to share your knowledge and experience with others in the field of user experience.
Presenting brings you professional recognition and advances your career.
Presenting is a great way to network.
Presenting helps you attend conferences by reducing your registration fees and giving your employer greater incentive to pay for your travel.
In this part of my series on publishing and presenting, I’ll discuss how to generate ideas for conference topics, find the right conference at which to present, submit a proposal, and create a presentation, and what to do during a conference where you’re presenting.
How I Got Started Presenting at Conferences
Before I gave my first conference presentation, I made the same excuses and had the same doubts that I’ve described. It took a pushy manager, who encouraged me to present at a conference, to finally get me to overcome my excuses and submit a proposal. I was nervous, but I figured that I probably wouldn’t get accepted anyway. So, all I had to do was to submit a proposal, and that would get my manager off my back.
Months later, I received notice that my presentation had been accepted. It felt like a great honor, but it was also scary. I was filled with self-doubt. Can I do this? Who am I to present about this topic? What if no one shows up? The notion that calmed me was that the reviewers and conference organizers wouldn’t have accepted my topic if they didn’t think it would be a good session. So, I accepted the situation and got ready to give my presentation.
Putting the presentation together was a lot of work, and presenting did seem scary at first, but once I got up to present, it actually felt great to be sharing my perspectives and experiences with an appreciative audience. I found that just being at the conference as a presenter conferred a kind of expert status upon me, which was a big ego boost. People came up to me after my presentation with questions and compliments. This made the whole experience very worthwhile and gave me the desire to present again the next year, which started the cycle of submitting and presenting all over again.
Submitting a Proposal to a Conference
Although each conference has a slightly different process for submitting proposals and the types of sessions they include can vary, I’ll now describe a general process for submitting a proposal to a conference. For my example, I’ll focus on the most common type of session: a presentation at a practitioner-oriented conference. But the same process applies to submitting a proposal for most types of sessions.
Generate Ideas for Topics
Each year, it seems like there is only a short time between your first hearing about a call for proposals and a conference’s submission deadline. For most conferences, it’s only about a month, which isn’t much time unless you’ve already thought of an idea. So it’s best to generate ideas for conference presentations throughout each year instead of waiting for a conference’s call for proposals.
List Ideas as They Occur to You
Start a list of possible presentation ideas and add to it as ideas come to you throughout the year. Don’t censor or judge the ideas in this list initially, just capture them as they occur to you. Ideas could come from your work or your personal life, including
new methods that you’ve tried
difficulties and problems you’ve faced
questions that you have
In addition to noting your ideas as they occur to you, it’s also helpful to sit down and brainstorm ideas for topics. Add these ideas to the same list.
Get Ideas from What Others Have Already Presented
Of course, you won’t want to copy what others have already done, but it is helpful to find out what types of topics people have recently presented at the conferences you’re considering. Reviewing those topics can show you what the conference specializes in, what topics people are interested in, and which topics have gotten overexposed. Doing this can spark new ideas to add to your list.
Evaluate Your Ideas
At some point, you’ll need to choose one or more ideas to develop further. Look through the ideas on your list and evaluate them. Not every idea will be appropriate for a presentation by itself. You may find that several ideas combine together into a theme. So, organizing your ideas into groups of related ideas may help you to form a larger theme. And sometimes, simply looking through your ideas may spark new ideas. Roughly rank the ideas in your list by putting the most promising ones at the top of the list. Don’t delete your less promising ideas. Just put them at the bottom of your list. Later on, you may find that they’ll help you to generate additional ideas or move up in priority, or that you can combine them with other ideas.
Find Appropriate Conferences
Next, you’ll need to find the right conference for your topic. UX conferences vary across several dimensions:
academic oriented versus practitioner oriented
design focused versus user-research focused
covering a wide range of topics versus having a narrow focus on a particular subject
the ease or difficulty of getting a proposal accepted
Look at the schedule from the previous year’s conference to determine where a particular conference sits across these dimensions. Also, look at the types of submissions they accept to see the variety of available formats for presenting your topic—such as presentations, papers, posters, videos, panels, workshops, or tutorials.
Consider the Major UX Conferences
I’ve collected the major conferences of UX organizations into Table 1, but things change over time, so you might also want to do a general search for user experience conferences.
Human factors, ergonomics, human-computer interaction
Academics and practitioners
Look for Other Conferences and Events
In addition to the major UX conferences, every year seems to bring new ones. Many of these are local UX events or conferences that focus on a specialty topic. It’s difficult to keep track of all them without some help. The following resources are great places to find out about upcoming events:
Conferences aren’t the only places to speak about user experience topics. Many organizations have local chapters that are in constant need of speakers for their monthly events. Speaking at such events is a great way to make connections with local people in our industry. The following are links to the local chapters of the major UX organizations:
Once you find some conferences that you’re interested in, get on their email lists or follow them on Twitter to make sure you don’t miss their call for proposals or other important deadlines.
Submit Your Proposals
When a conference’s call for proposals goes out, submit as many high-quality proposals as you can. The more you submit, the greater the chance that you’ll get one accepted. The reviewers—often different reviewers—will evaluate each proposal separately and often review submissions blindly, so they won’t know about your other proposals.
The more traditional, academic-oriented conferences usually require you to submit a formal paper, but most of the practitioner-oriented UX conferences require only that you submit a proposal that includes a summary of your topic. Creating a proposal is a lot less work than writing a paper, but you should still give it a lot of thought and be sure to that you have enough material to create an interesting presentation.
A great way to learn how to create an effective proposal is to volunteer to review conference proposals. Looking at others’ proposals from the viewpoint of a reviewer gives you a good perspective on what works well and what leads to rejection.
If your proposal gets rejected, don’t feel bad. You’re in good company because most proposals do get rejected. Try submitting your rejected proposals to another conference. Just because they didn’t get accepted at one conference doesn’t mean that they might not be appropriate for another. But pay close attention to reviewers’ feedback. Good reviewers provide constructive criticism that can help you to refine your proposal and make it even stronger. On the positive side, once you’ve created a proposal for one conference, you’ve done most of the hard work. Adapting it to the submission requirements of another conference is easy in comparison.
Confirm Your Acceptance
If your proposal gets accepted, congratulations! Now you have to confirm your acceptance of their invitation to speak at the conference. A lot of doubt and fear can creep in at this point, but try to push that fear out of your mind for the time being and confirm your acceptance. If necessary, think about this as scheduling your fear for another time—several months from now, at a date that’s closer to the conference.
Creating Your Presentation
Although there are many different types of conference sessions—for example, presentations, papers, posters, workshops, tutorials, and panels—I’ll refer to all of them as presentations here. Presentations are the most common type of session, and the steps to creating any presentation are similar.
Write Notes on Your Topic
In a Word document, list all the subtopics that you want to cover in your presentation. Then, write notes about each of these subtopics—brainstorming by writing whatever comes to mind and creating bullet points under each subtopic. Once you’ve written all that you can on each of these subtopics, look through your notes document and organize it. Move content around to group related topics into categories and subcategories, add headings and subheadings, and organize the sections into a logical order.
Create Your First Draft
In your draft, focus on the information that you want to convey on each slide, without worrying about visuals or the amount of text on a slide. Put one key idea on each slide, with supporting bullet points. This usually results in a first draft that’s overly wordy, with far too much text, as shown in Figure 1, but that’s okay for now. The point is to define the structure of your presentation. Later, you can remove most or even all of the text, putting it in the speaker’s notes that your audience doesn’t see. It’s much easier to start out wordy, then cut back.
Don’t even consider the length of the first draft of your presentation. You won’t know exactly how long your presentation would be until you rehearse it. That’s when you’ll realize what material is essential and what you can cut.
Once your first draft is complete, review the presentation, then revise and reorganize it as necessary to ensure that it has a logical flow.
Remove Text and Add Visuals
Once you’ve established your presentation’s structure, remove most of its text. I usually keep a brief, key point on each slide and put the supporting bullet points in the speaker’s notes in PowerPoint.
Then, add visuals to illustrate each point. Visuals do add interest, but they should always relate to your topic and provide value rather than distracting people from what you’re talking about. Obviously, you should avoid clip art and overly staged stock photos. Also, be careful about avoiding copyright issues. You can’t legally download any image you like from the Web and use it your presentation. Maybe it’s unlikely that you’d get sued, but why take the chance? Creative Commons is a great site on which you can find images that you can use for free with proper attribution.
Figure 2 shows the transformation from the overly wordy, first draft shown in Figure 1 to the final version. I’ve broken the text on the slide in the first draft into content for several slides, each with a brief statement and visual example.
Add Audience Participation
Conference sessions are always more interesting for an audience when there is some form of audience participation. However, by their nature, presentations are the least participatory format. To prevent your session from becoming a one-way lecture, add opportunities to engage with your audience. The longer your presentation, the more participation you’ll need to have.
Consider using the following audience-participation techniques:
Ask the audience questions.
Ask the audience to share their own stories and experiences.
Ask the audience to vote or guess by a show of hands.
Do a demonstration with volunteers from the audience.
Provide an exercise for the audience to complete.
Answer questions at the end of the session.
Review and Revise Your Presentation
After spending some time away from your presentation, review it and make any necessary revisions. Also, get an editor or content professional to review your presentation—checking for logical organization, strength of message, consistency, and typographical errors. Then, make the necessary revisions.
Once you’ve finished your presentation, it’s time to rehearse. There are several types of rehearsal.
Rehearse to Determine What You’ll Say
The purpose of the first few rehearsals is to nail down what you’ll talk about with each slide. So don’t worry about timing the length of your presentation yet. Everything up to this point has involved sitting at your desk creating a presentation. When you start rehearsing out loud, you’ll often find that you need to make additional changes to make it flow more smoothly.
Rehearse to Determine Timing
Once you’ve become comfortable with what you’ll say, you should rehearse your presentation several times to time the average length of your delivery. Factor in some additional time for questions and interruptions and prepare for the fact that you may not start immediately on time, so may have to shorten your presentation.
If your presentation is too long, but you think it’s good, save the long version and use it as the official version of the presentation to include in the conference proceedings or post on SlideShare. Think of the long version as the director’s cut.
Rehearse to Get Feedback
Next, rehearse your presentation in front of people who represent your audience—such as your fellow UX colleagues. Ask for their feedback on the content, their level of interest, the pacing, and their understanding of the material. Then make revisions as necessary.
Rehearse for Practice
Continue to practice your presentation periodically from the time you complete it until just before you present it at the conference. I even practice it the night before and early in the morning on the same day of my conference time slot.
The goal of rehearsing isn’t to memorize a strict recitation of a formal speech. Instead, you want to get to a point where you know the material so well that you just naturally know what to say and feel confident.
Add Your Connection Information
On the title slide and your last slide, provide the connection information that you want to share with your audience. This may include your email address, Web site address, Twitter name, and the Twitter hashtag that you want people to use when tweeting about your presentation. Since people often tweet during a presentation, it’s also helpful to put your Twitter name and hashtag in the footer of every slide.
Create Supplementary Materials
For some topics and types of sessions, it’s helpful to provide the audience with handouts or other supplementary materials. Handouts are usually one-to-two page summaries that list the main points and useful takeaways from a presentation.
Submit Your Presentation
Some conferences require you to submit your complete presentation by a deadline before a conference. In the past, most conferences required presenters to submit their presentations a few months in advance of a conference to include them in the conference proceedings. However, over the years, proceedings have morphed from thick books to CDs, to password-protected Web sites, to no proceedings at all. These days, many presenters simply post their presentations on SlideShare, then the conference Web sites link to them there.
Presenting at the Conference
Finally, all your hard work comes to fruition at the conference. What should you do before, during, and after your session?
Before Your Presentation
You won’t usually have any choice about the date and time of your session, but in my opinion, the best time slot is the morning of the second day. This allows you to observe other presenters during the first day to get a sense of how they handle their sessions. It also lets you relax for the remainder of the conference.
It’s natural to be a little nervous as your presentation time nears, but there are some steps you can take to minimize your fear and feel more confident:
Check out the room where you’ll be presenting. When no one is in the room, go in and stand on stage, looking out at the room to get a feel for it.
Attend other sessions in the same room that you’ll be speaking in, to see what other presenters do.
Continue to rehearse your presentation to keep it fresh in your mind.
Arrive early to your presentation to set up and give yourself some time to try to relax.
During Your Presentation
Once your presentation begins, you’ll usually find that your nervousness fades away, and it’s actually a relief that the anticipation is over. If you’ve rehearsed enough, you’ll be confident and know your material.
Try not to get distracted by any bad audience members, and instead focus on the good audience members who are attentive, smiling, nodding along with your points, and taking notes. The bad audience members may seem to stand out most prominently, but remember that most of the audience is on your side and listening politely.
After Your Presentation
Once you’ve delivered your presentation, you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment and relief that it’s finally over. Take some time to congratulate yourself and feel proud of what you’ve achieved. Usually, audience members come up to you afterward to thank you, compliment you on your presentation, and ask you questions. You may want to exchange business cards and follow up with them later, during a coffee break.
Promote Your Presentation
The audience for your presentation isn’t limited to the people who attend the conference. Put your presentation on SlideShare and share it with the world by linking to it on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and even Facebook. Add it to your resume and your LinkedIn profile.
The conference isn’t the last time you can give your presentation. If it was well received, you may want to present it at additional events such as other UX conferences and local chapters of UX associations and to fellow employees at work. You may also want to repurpose some of the content that you developed when creating your presentation and publish it as an article. See Part 2 of this column for advice on publishing.
Presenting at a conference is very satisfying. It feels good to share your knowledge with others in the field of user experience and to be regarded as an expert on your topic. The endorphin rush and ego boost that you get from presenting makes all your effort seem worthwhile. Plus, giving a successful presentation motivates you to do it again at another conference, so you’ll begin the cycle of submitting and presenting all over again.
I hope this series has convinced you that you should not consider publishing and presenting to be the realm of only UX gurus. You can do it, too. It just takes some time and hard work. So, what are you waiting for? Get started presenting!
Jim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University. Read More