Presenting at conferences – my experience
I used to think that presenting at conferences was for big names in ELT or for very academically inclined teachers. I am so glad that my colleague and friend CeAnn Myers disabused me of this notion when she offered to guide me through the process of applying to participate in a conference as well as co-present at one. After working together on our proposal and sending out a few applications, we were accepted to present at the 36th annual TESOL Greece convention where we talked about PBI (project-based instruction) by showcasing a Projects Class CeAnn designed and we both taught at a preparation program at a private university in Turkey.
Conferences are great for your career (and your mood) for a number of reasons. First, there is the obvious benefit of learning new things and walking away armed with new ideas and tools. Secondly, it’s an excellent opportunity to network and meet new friends, potential employers and future research partners. Finally, you get to go to a new place! Even if it’s only for a few days and even if the conference schedule if super full, you can always get away during lunch or arrive a bit early to do a bit of sightseeing. Some conference will include some sort of sightseeing element – for example,at the last TESOL Greece conference we attended, the conference participants were taken on a guided tour of the Athens Archaeological museum and it was the highlight of our trip!
Now, I am by no means an expert or even a veteran of conference presenting, but I thought I would share my experience and outline some steps for presenting at an ELT conference in the hopes that it will inspire fellow English teachers to go to conferences and share their fabulous ideas! I would also like to pay forward CeAnn’s good deed – going through the process of drafting and submitting a proposal and co-presenting with such a supportive person gave me the confidence to present on my own the very same year -my husband and I both (but separately) presented at the International Conference on English Language, British and American Studies in University, Skopje, Macedonia.Since then I`ve presented at a few other conferences and I want you, dear reader, to go and draft a conference proposal as soon as you read this.
So here is how you can go from wanting to present at a conference to actually doing it!
A guide to becoming a conference presenter
Step 1: Pick a topic
If there is one thing I learned from attending conferences is that all of us have something we can offer to our peers! Is there a particular technique you have developed for teaching? Have you found a way to exploit a non-teaching piece of technology in your classroom? Is there a new learning game platform you have successfully used and adapted in your classroom? The possibilities are endless! A lot of useful presentations/workshops I attended were centered around a single technique/device/app or even activity and ways it could be used and adapted in different teaching contexts. It doesn’t have to be something brand-new either – you might want to talk about a new use for something that has been in use for a while, investigate whether something works within a particular teaching context or find out students’ and teachers’ perceptions of something.
Here is a link to the conference program from TESOL Greece 37th Annual Convention, from which you can get an idea of a range of topics and ideas teachers presented on. And here is a link to a publication called Teachers Engaging in Research published by IATEFL Research Special Interest Group which will also give you an idea of some research and presentation subjects (this publication followed an action research conference in Izmir, Turkey).
Step 2: Develop your conference proposal
Once you have your topic, it’s time to put your thoughts on paper. For now, don’t worry about the word limit or about having a complete paper – you won’t need that until after a conference, if at all. What you want to have is a clear and succinct presentation proposal, explaining what you will talk about, why your topic is important, relevant and interesting and how it will benefit the people who attend your presentation.
When you are writing up your ideas, you might want to think about the following:
- What research/literature is there to support your ideas?
You don’t need to do an extensive literature review nor do you need to pepper your talk with names and dates. Find one or two sources that are relevant to your topic and use a quote or two to support and lend credence to your ideas (remember to reference your sources using a conventional reference system such as APA).
The quotes might support your choice of an area (e.g. a quote about why listening practice is important or how many curricula don’t include enough fluency practice), your choice of methodology (e.g. a summary of an argument saying that the DOGME approach is better than using textbooks), or your choice of tools (e.g. a quote about how MALL is becoming more and more popular)
- What issues/problems can your idea help solve, or what research question(s) do you want to answer?
Here you might want to think about what prompted you to start thinking about this topic in the fist place. Is it that you were finding it hard to engage your students’ attention? Were you looking for ways to make vocabulary more memorable? Were you wondering if your students enjoy and benefit from a certain activity as much as you think they do?
- How will the audience benefit from your presentation?
Think about why you are presenting at a conference – you want to share your experience and enable other teachers to use it. So, instead of saying ‘I did this cool thing and now I`ll tell you about it’, you want to say ‘I did this cool thing and here’s how you can do this cool thing with your students’. In other words, how will your audience benefit from your presentation? What will they know/be able to do that they didn’t before your talk?
You might also want to think about providing your audience with a handout – it might include a list of useful resources related to your topic, a sample lesson plan, a how-to guide, etc. The handout might be a printout with several pages or a small slip of paper with a link to a website or a QR code (think of all the trees you can save!).
Here is an example of a handout I provided at one of my presentations: example-activities-handout-yuliya-speroff-skopje-2015
Step 3. Choose a conference!
There are lots of ways to find a conference. Below are some links to various conference listings:
Additionally, joining an international organization such as IATEFL or TESOL or their regional/national affiliates such as BETA (Bulgarian English Teachers’ Association) and signing up for their newsletters will give you access to their international and regional events.
If presenting at a big conference seems scary at first, see if you can try your hand at presenting at a smaller event – if your institution offers professional development workshops, you could volunteer to teach one. In the absence of formal training sessions, you could suggest getting together and exchange ideas by giving short presentations.
Step 5. Apply to present at a conference
Once you have found a conference you are interested in attending, submit your proposal.
Make sure to observe the deadlines stated on the website, although sometimes conferences will extend the call for proposals if they are not getting enough applicants.
A typical conference proposal is a web-page based form. I recommend composing your proposal in a Word document – this way you can edit, proof-read and keep an eye on the word count. In addition, some pages will have a time limit, so copying and pasting from a Word document will help you avoid the situation where all the data you already put in disappears as the connection to the page times out.
Below are some possible fields you might have to fill out, but bear in mind that this is a general idea and details will vary from conference to conference.
- You contact details
- A short bio (typically 100-150 words)
- Title of your presentation (typically no more than 10 words)
- Summary/presentation outline (typically around 200-300 words – this is your main conference proposal)
- Abstract (50-100 words – this is what will appear in the conference brochure and what will help your potential audience members to decide to attend your presentation)
Here is an example of a speaker proposal form (from the 25th Annual HUPE Conference in Croatia website).
An important issue to consider when you are applying is the conference theme and how your topic fits with the theme. You might have to alter your proposal to make sure it’s right for a particular conference theme.
Conference organizers use various methods to evaluate proposals. For example, TESOL uses a rubric which they publish along with their call for proposals. The deadline to submit proposals for the 2017 convention is over but you can still have a look at the rubric as well as this handy proposal checklist and this PowerPoint presentation giving advice on writing a successful conference proposal. Don’t be daunted by what you read there – TESOL conventions are these very serious and very big conferences in the USA – there are many smaller and less formal/academic conferences.
Other types of information you might have to provide:
- Intended audience
Depending on the conference, audience can include pre-service teachers, experienced teachers, TESOL students, primary school teachers, university teachers, EAP teachers, etc.
This is an easy one – will you need a computer, a projector, speakers, a stand for handouts, etc.?
- Presentation type.
These might range from a hand-on workshop to a poster presentation. Don’t dismiss poster presentations at a lesser type of presentation! At the last conference my husband Michael and I presented, we were both accepted to give poster presentations and we were a bit discouraged at first but it turned out to be great! With a regular presentation, your audience is limited to the people who have decided to come see your talk and might not be as big as you were hoping because you are competing with so many other interesting presentations. With poster presentations, there is an unlimited number of people who will come and talk to you during your time slot. In addition, your posters stay up for a while so people will get a chance to come and look at your posters at other times (make sure to include your contact details in the poster(s) and leave a few copies of handouts near the posters).
Step 6. Attend the conference
Your actual presentation
Here the advice is the same as for all public speaking:
- make lots of eye contact
- DO NOT read the whole thing – talk to your audienc and do not overload your PowerPoint if you have one – you might think this is obvious but I did sit through a presentation where the whole thing was written down in the PowerPoint… in a tiny script… on a dark background… in bright red color… And the presenter read the whole thing with her back to us.
- have contingency plans – back up your presentation on a USB stick, a second USB stick, a laptop, a tablet, a printout… What will you do if the speakers don’t work – can you play the sound on your smart phone? What if you forget your posters somewhere (true story!!!) – did you bring the digital version with you so that you can print them out again?
- Some conferences will give you an option of publishing a paper based on your presentation in the conference proceedings. While this is not obligatory it’s a great way to get your work published!
The conference itself
- Read all the communications from the conference organizers so that you know what other events are there and don’t miss the deadlines to RSVP/register for a welcome dinner/a guided tour/an all-day excursion and whatever else the organizers might have prepared to welcome the attendees.Similarly, there might be requests for interviews, photo shoots etc.
- Meet new people! Don’t just hang around with your colleagues/friends – talk to other attendees! Here is your chance to meet wonderful people from all over the world. At the very least, you`ll learn lots of things you didn’t know about teaching in other countries. You might also get lucky and get a lead for a job! Finally, it’s a great way to get more people attend your presentation – I always make sure to go and listen to my new friends’ talks. Return the favor and go to their talks! And be a good listener – pay attention and ask questions!
- You might also get a chance to meet some ELT ‘celebrities’. My friend CeAnn thought I was a big nerd for wanting to have my photo taken with Stephen Krashen but I couldn’t believe I was standing next to the person whose hypothesis I was memorising for my DELTA Module 1 exam just days earlier.
- If you need a visa for the country the conference is taking place in, the conference organizers will typically issue you with a letter which you can take to a consulate/visa centre along with other documents.
- Be adventurous! Join in when the locals do their national dance! Try new foods! Be a volunteer during a workshop!
- Funding and taking time off: this is a main deterrent for many to attend international conferences. Don’t despair! If your institution is unable to sponsor you, there are grants you can apply for (such information is available on conference and organization’s websites). Or you could time your holiday around a conference and saunter off to a beach once the last plenary speech is made.
Haven’t had enough? Here are some more tips from the TESOL website.
I hope this helps and if you have any questions, contact me or leave a comment below.
Experienced presenters: have I missed anything? Would you like to add something? Leave a comment below!