Kylie Hutchinson (@EvaluationMaven) with 23 tips for a better conference presentation #eval11

This is Fresh Spectrum’s first guest post.   A big thank you to Kylie for accepting my invitation 🙂

My name is Kylie Hutchinson.  I am an independent evaluation consultant and trainer with Community Solutions Planning & Evaluation.  I frequently teach workshops for both the AEA and CES and try to Twitter weekly at @EvaluationMaven.  Chris Lysy has graciously invited me to contribute a post this week on Better Conference Presentation Skills.

As they say, “Once an evaluator, always an evaluator.”  So like many of you, I spent last week sitting in many #eval11 sessions, well…evaluating them.

I get so frustrated seeing good content lost in lackluster presentations.  And maybe I also have a bit of adult ADHD.  Either way, I decided to start my own list on what makes a good conference presentation.  Right now I’m at 23 tips and counting.

If you’d like to contribute more, please use Chris’ Comments option below.  I’ll be happy to credit you in my proposal that I’m submitting for next year’s AEA conference.

  1. Don’t read directly from your slides.
  2. Don’t read from a prepared speech.
  3. If public speaking terrifies you to death, join the club. Most of us dislike it to some degree.  So join another club, Toastmasters!  If you haven’t been to a Toastmasters meeting, you’ll probably be surprised.  They’re fun, supportive, and likely have a lunchtime meeting close to where you work.
  4. Bad slides can really kill your presentation.  Attend one of the AEA conference sessions on designing better slides. There are usually several sponsored by the Data Visualization and Reporting TIG.
  5. As much as possible, try to get out from behind the lectern or table and move around the room.
  6. Try not to walk in front of the projector screen, it’s very distracting for your audience.  If necessary, use masking tape to map yourself out a “safe area” on the carpet.
  7. Using a wireless presenter (~$30) will allow you more freedom to move around the room and makes you look like a pro.
  8. Open and close your session with learning objectives.  Correctly-written learning objectives are statements of what participants will be able to do at the end of the session.  For example, “At the end of this session you will all be able to: a) list three techniques for increasing audience engagement and b) explain two ways to deal with audience members who monopolize the discussion. “  Note that “understand” is NOT a learning objective, try to use a more observable indicator of learning.  Open your session by stating the learning objectives, and repeat them again at the end to close the loop.
  9. It’s said we can only remember three points after a presentation.  Further, we need to be exposed to these points five to seven times in order to fully integrate them.  So decide what are your three key points and reinforce them several times during your presentation.  One technique is to quiz participants what the three points are at least once during the session.
  10. Seek to engage your audience through more interaction.  Adult learners already get much of what you are saying, they just need to be reminded of it.  Furthermore, if they are respected for their own experience, their engagement in what you are saying increases significantly.  Interaction techniques can range from the simple (e.g. ask a question to the large group or give them a short quiz to individually do in their seats) to the complex (e.g. put them in groups and give them a task).
  11. Timing, timing, timing!  If you want to thoroughly frustrate your audience, take 75% of your allotted time to cover 20% of your presentation and rush through the last 5 minutes.  If you’re afraid you can’t speak and watch the clock at the same time, ask a co-presenter to give you a 10 minute, 5  minute, and 2 minute warning, etc.  Even better, practice it before hand.  Most people don’t bother to practice beforehand, even me.  I’m not sure why this is.  Living dangerously perhaps.
  12. Decrease the amount of time you spend on describing the program evaluated.  As conference goers we hear about dozens of programs being evaluated and overly-detailed program descriptions can take up valuable time that is better spent telling us the actual results and lessons learned.  As audience members we will never ever be as invested in the program details as you are.
  13. Wherever possible, weave your own personal stories and examples into your talk.  Storytelling immediately engages people and brings their attention back into the room.
  14. Offer lots of resource “take-aways” in terms of handouts, tools, links, etc. that give the impression of good value for the time spent.
  15. If you’re going to distribute a hard copy handout, make sure you make more than enough copies.  This prevents fights between evaluators snatching scarce copies from one another.
  16. There are two schools of thought regarding when to pass out your handouts.  Some say you want people to pay full attention to you speaking rather than reading and scribbling notes.  Others advise that people like to make notes on a relevant handout.  I’ll let you decide this one yourselves.  But keep in mind, as I learned recently from AEA’s Stephanie Evergreen, that people read seven times faster than you can speak, so if they have a handout they’re likely reading way ahead of what you are speaking to.
  17. If you don’t have hard copies, ensure your handouts and slides are uploaded to the AEA eLibrary before your presentation so people can immediately download them and reinforce their learning.
  18. If you have an audience member who is monopolizing the discussion, you can do three things:  a) quickly paraphrase what they’ve said so they feel heard, b) slowly and subtly walk towards them, or c) say, “Hmm, let’s see what someone else has to say.”
  19. Think hard about the title for your presentation as it will either entice or turn people away.  The more you get it right, the less people you’ll have leaving half-way through. If you have points that you think would be of value to a generic evaluation audience, consider minimizing references to the specific sector (e.g. HIV/AIDS education programs vs. California State Health’s HIV Initiative) so people don’t discount it as something out of their area of interest.  However, if you believe the context is particularly important, ensure that is included in your title.
  20. If you’re switching between several different software programs on a PC, use Alt-Tab-Tab to toggle smoothly between programs.
  21. Don’t discount the power of using novelty in your presentation.  I still remember dozing off in a certain evaluation guru’s talk until he suddenly put on a Cat In The Hat-type hat.  Bing!  I was suddenly wide-awake.
  22. I think we all need to advocate for more affordable Internet access in hotel conference centers.  It’s 2011 for goodness sake, and most of our work revolves around the Internet.  It’s ridiculous to think that we can suddenly suspend this and move back to 1985 when we’re in conference meeting rooms.
  23. Finally, remember that a good presentation is all about the uptake and learning of your audience, not about showcasing you and your work.  As an instructional designer told me once, “It’s not about the teaching silly, it’s about the learning.”


  1. Josh Joseph on November 11, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Thx for the good insights. This is not a snide comment but 23 tips is too many if your point #9 says we can probably only remember 3 takeaways. Maybe you could organize the tips into bigger themes, such as “slides,” “props” and “presenting.” Cheers.

  2. Stuart Henderson on November 12, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    Two recent good books on presenting are “Confessions of a Public Speaker” (2009) by Scott Berkun and “Resonate” by Nancy Duarte. Thanks for the tips.

  3. Kylie Hutchinson on November 13, 2011 at 12:15 am

    Good point Josh. This is my first attempt so I’ll organize them a bit better for v.2.0.


  4. Sam Grant on November 16, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    I had a very wise college professor who taught me a valuable lesson about presentation. He said, “The mind can only learn but the butt can endure.” His point being- let your audience move around and make opportunities for this to happen.

  5. Juan Paulo Ramirez on December 27, 2011 at 10:25 am

    These are great tips! I’d select the last one (#23) as the most important. It’s not about me-me-me-, it’s about the audience, sxxxxd! I’d also recommend to prepare your presentation with colleagues of you before you give the real presentation in a conference. That will provide helpful insights and great ideas of what it’s working and what needs improvements. Also, do not add slides that look 10 years old when you did your master or Ph.D. Those look very bad and the audience will notice! If you need to show them, redo them with proper and current visual designs.

  6. Penny Black on December 27, 2011 at 10:38 am

    Great tips and I heartily concur! #11 is SO important! We’re all busy, but taking a few minutes to practice your presentation (out loud) can really help reduce or eliminate the need for some of the other tips. I also think #22 is important, but not a great fit for this list of tips. Thanks Kylie!