Conference presentations are a form of interaction. In a sense, your presentation is the product, and we, the other conference participants, are the users of that product; we interact with you on the basis of that presentation. Today I had to sit for two hours and listen to four bad presentations in a row, so I decided to explain how to apply some usability principles to conference presentations.

Speak the user’s language

Be sure to speak in the conference’s language. We all want to understand you, we take it for granted that your work is interesting and important. I swear we do. But if your pronunciation and intonation is difficult to understand, we have to decode your words and understand your message at the same time, and that’s too much. Consider taking pronunciation classes, or letting someone else do the presentation.

Respect the response time limits

If a system responds within 0.1 seconds of input, users don’t notice the delay. Within 1 second, users notice the delay but don’t mind it. 10 seconds is the maximum limit for keeping the user’s attention focused. (Jakob Nielsen explains the response time limits in detail). When you “uuuuhhhh” during the presentation, you are introducing a delay. Small, rare “uuuuhhhhh”s are acceptable (you’re not a TV anchor after all, and we’ll be fine within the 1 second limit). Big “uuuuhhhs” are not. “Uuuhhhs” after every word are NOT. When you speak, our mental machinery moves to match your speed. When you “uuuuhhhhh” it has to brake. It unfocuses us, and it’s mentally painful. Try driving like that, stop and go, and you’ll see what I mean. Luckily, this is easy to fix: repeat the presentation in your room as often as it takes to do it on autopilot, without “uuuuhs”.

Help users to become better

Your presentation is a unique chance to make us interested in your work. Don’t simply repeat the paper in PowerPoint format. Make an elevator pitch. Make it fun! Be the one that is remembered. Make us interested to go read your paper straight after the session. We listen to you in the session because we want “the inside scoop”, the “insider information” on that paper, as opposed to reading it off a PDF.

Observe the users’ context and its technical limitations

Check the computer where you’ll be presenting. Run the presentation beforehand on it, check that all software is there, test the display setup and know how to make it work. Blog posts like this one are written exactly in those 10 minutes it took you to fix your display drivers and find out that the conference computer does not have PowerPoint.

When you are ready to learn more

Head over to Zach Holman has authored a comprehensive set of well-written articles on the topic.