My First Time Presenting at a Conference

Sophie Playle

Every year, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders hosts a conference. Editorial professionals gather to chat, think and learn. This year, I’d be asked to present a session on ‘Making the Most of Your Website’ …

The day before my presentation, I took the time to go over my notes. All the speakers I had seen so far had seemed confident and in control; I was terrified I wouldn’t live up to the standard they’d set.

I had written out everything I was going to say like a long essay. I know, it’s the cardinal sin of presenting, but I was legitimately concerned that I would lose the power of speech through fear if I didn’t have every word written down. But now I was adamant that I wasn’t going to just read from my print-offs. So I spent an hour going through my writing and highlighting what would have been written on my note cards, had I had note cards.

By that evening, though, I was struggling to speak. My voice was feeling incredibly strained from all the loud talking. I hoped a sleep would revive my vocal cords. I drifted off to sleep that night, trying my hardest to not think of what was ahead of me.

On the day of my presentation, I woke up feeling a strong sense of what I can only describe as resignation mixed with apprehension. I was going to have to present in a few hours, and nothing was going to change that. Now, I just wanted to get it over with. But I was also keen to face the challenge and give it everything I had.

Technical difficulties

I arrived half an hour early to set up the room for my session, ‘Making the Most of Your Website’. I was very happy to find several people already in the room moving tables around. I had a panic when my MacBook wouldn’t connect to the projector, even though I’d spent good money on a converter …! Kindly, the conference organiser, Christine, let me borrow her laptop, and we managed to get the projector working just as people started filing in.

The session was completely full, and I stood before a wall of faces in a windowless room. It was time to start. So I jumped straight in. I found myself floundering a little with the tiny lectern on which I was balancing Christine’s laptop, a 30-page print out of my presentation and a print-out of the slides (so I could keep track and not click ahead too early). Note to self: next time, less paper!

Also, because I’d designed my slides on a Mac, the fonts didn’t translate to Christine’s Windows laptop. Not only did this mean my slides weren’t as pretty as I’d made them (sigh) but a few points I was trying to make about fonts didn’t work! Then … the slideshow froze. Not the end of the world, but still not great.

Time, content and audience experience … a balancing act

I used my notes a lot less than I expected I would, which I was pleased about. But the time was flying! I hadn’t expected that. I was barely through half of my presentation by the time there was fifteen minutes left of my hour slot. I thought I’d given time for questions, but I’d underestimated how much time this would actually use.

When I’d read through my presentation from start to finish, it only took me forty-five minutes. But now I wasn’t reading it, and I hadn’t taken into account the slower conversational style of not reading from a paper, and the fact that more needs to be said about a point to allow people to get their heads around it.

I quickly realised I’d crammed in far too much material. I was also acutely aware that there was a big difference in knowledge and experience in the group, which made me worried that I wasn’t given enough value to some and too much information to others.

I managed to skip a few super-detailed sections and wrap up just in time. I promised to email participants the sections I’d missed, and did this a few days after I got home. The benefit of already having written all my material out was that this didn’t take long at all.

A few people stayed behind at the end to ask me some more detailed questions, and I think I handled those quite well. A new friend I’d made at the conference came up to congratulate me, and when I said it was the first time I’d ever presented, he said in that case I did very well, considering. Ha! I wasn’t quite sure how to take that, though I know he was being genuinely kind.

Anonymous session rating

Each session is rated anonymously by the participants, and the rating cards are handed into the conference organisers. I wasn’t sure whether or not this was information they shared with the session leaders, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what I’d been rated, either. But just last week, a few weeks after the conference, I received a letter in the post. It was from the conference organisers. They thanked me for my contribution (which was lovely) and then outlined my feedback.

Two thirds of the session attendants had voted. I’d scored 4.2 out of 5 for content. And 4 out of 5 as a speaker. Win! I’m very pleased with that, though there’s a little voice in my heading saying: The people who didn’t vote clearly hated it, and the rest were just being kind. I have to remind myself that’s unlikely.

Someone had commented that the content was good, but there was just too much of it. Duly noted. If I ever do anything like this again, I feel I’ll have a much better idea on how to prepare. No matter what I read about presenting, some things you can only really learn from experience.

Would I do it again?

Would I do another speaking event like this? I don’t think so. It was too much out of my comfort zone for me, though I also know that the more I do it, the easier it should get. The fear and stress it caused me leading up to it just didn’t feel worth it. Why put myself through it? Saying that, I’m so grateful and honoured to have been asked to present, and I truly value the experience I had.

This year’s conference was a totally different experience for me, compared to the last once I’d attended two years previous. It was just as inspiring, just as informative, just as exhausting. But I learned very different lessons and I felt I navigated it differently; I was more in control and more assured of what I wanted, feeling less sparkly eyed. Presenting a session was a huge achievement for me, and I learned so much by doing it.

I’ll definitely attend more SfEP conferences in the future. I wonder what lessons I’ll learn!

By the way, if you’re an editorial profession and are interested in developing your brand and website, check out my self-study online course, The Visible Editor.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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