Research hacks #16: 20 tips on timekeeping and technology for your conference presentation

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

This is the third post in a mini-series on presenting at conferences. Previous posts covered planning and writing a conference paper and delivering a paper. In this post I offer some tips and advice in relation to two aspects of giving a conference paper that can often sneak up and ambush unwitting presenters: timekeeping and technology.


  • Know how long you’ve got before you start writing the paper. Your time limit dictates how much you can say, not the other way round.
  • Rough rule of thumb (depending on how fast you speak and how much you extemporise): 20 minutes: 2400 words. 25 minutes: 2900 words.
  • You will probably take more time (if you extemporise) or less time (if you speak fast through nervousness) to deliver the talk on the day than you do in private beforehand. Be ready to adapt to that difference in the ways outlined below.
  • When people are in a situation of high stimulation like giving a paper they tend to speak more quickly. If you know this is an issue for you, practice slowing yourself down a bit. Perhaps even write in coloured pen at the top of every page of your paper “SLOW DOWN?”
  • Keep your own time. Don’t rely on the panel chair or on a clock on the wall. Put your watch on the desk or make sure that your phone is visible in front of you, so you how you are travelling time-wise and so that you are not surprised by the “one minute to go” sign being waved in your face when you are only half way through.
  • If you are particularly concerned about timekeeping, write time notes in the margin of your talk (for example: put a “10” in the margin at the point in the talk you had reached by the 10 minute mark in rehearsal). As you go through the talk “for real” you will know whether you are ahead of schedule, behind, or about right.
  • Don’t go over time. Just don’t do it. It’s stealing time from the other presenters on your panel and from the audience, it’s rude, and it creates an impression of self-important incompetence. There’s no excuse. You might think your paper is the most important item of the day or that your argument simply makes no sense unless you go through every point you were intending to make, but if you can’t say what you want to say in the time given to you to say it, then that’s your problem and no-one else’s. Wear it, and plan better next time.
  • Confirm with the panel chair before the beginning of the session how long she/he wants each speaker to go for, and how long is being left for questions (some people will want 20 minutes + 10 for questions, others will allow 25 + 5, for example). If they tell you something different from the original conference CFP, let them know.
  • It will almost certainly be better to cut some of your paper in order to keep to time rather than go over time. If you know what your main point is, you can always sum things up relatively quickly if you run out of time by just coming back to your central argument. If one or more presenters in your panel have gone over time already, leaving you with a truncated allotment, check with the panel chair before you begin whether you still have the full time. If they are a good chair they should have stopped the other presenters before they ate too much into your precious minutes.
  • In concrete terms, if you are one of three speakers in a 90 minute panel it can be a good idea to go in with a 25 minute version of your paper and a 20 minute version (with some unnecessary paragraphs in grey or in boxes that you can skip if you need to keep it to 20 minutes).
  • Be prepared for one of the speakers on your panel not to turn up, with the result that you more time than you had envisaged.
  • Equally, be prepared for someone joining your panel at the last minute, with a consequent diminution in the time you have available (it has happened!).

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

If you are planning to use any sort of technology…

  • Test all your tech and set it up before the session begins. Don’t try to do so at the start of your paper. If your presentation contains a video, play the video before the session starts to check 1) that it works and 2) that the sound is loud enough.
  • If you have a large presentation, consider copying it to the desktop of the computer you are running it from. Presentations usually run more quickly from the hard drive than from a USB stick.
  • Embed fonts in your PowerPoint presentations to prevent your slides from appearing like one of Apollinaire’s calligrams.
  • Embed any video files directly in your PowerPoint, rather than linking to YouTube or a similar site. Don’t rely on the conference room having a fast enough (or working!) internet connection, whatever reassurances the organisers have given you.
  • If you are worried about the layout of your PowerPoint slides being messed about by the computer in the room where you are presenting, you can bullet-proof them by going to “Save As”, saving the slides as a series of images (jpegs are usually fine), opening a new presentation and importing the images as a photo album. That way, all your formatting and fonts will appear exactly as it looks on your home computer. You will lose any in-slide animation (which you can’t re-introduce) and any animation between slides (which you can). You can re-embed any videos over the jpegs.
  • Consider using a clicker to transition between slides. You don’t know where the keyboard and mouse will be in the room relative to your position as speaker, you don’t know how reliable the keyboard and/or mouse they will be (especially if wireless) and you don’t want to have to march across the floor every time you need to change slides. I use a Logitech R800 and it has proven reliable over the years.
  • Make sure that you have a ‘plan B’ in case the tech in the room simply won’t work. Don’t spend half your paper time trying to get it to work.
  • Can you use a paper handout instead/as well? It won’t break down or fail to load, and people can take it away with them.

This is an expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of Jeremy Osterhouse on Flickr.

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