Spoken Presentations

Presenting your research through a spoken presentation is a common part of the research student experience. Whether your presentation is to the rest of your research group, a seminar with students, or an academic conference, it is an opportunity for you to practice and develop your skills at communicating clearly and effectively and to raise your profile as a researcher.

Before the Presentation

The advice below is aimed primarily at students who will be giving a spoken presentation on their research to an academic seminar or conference, but the advice should be of help in preparing for spoken presentations more generally and will help you make these as effective as possible.

Step One - Check the Requirements

A good place to start is by checking whether the event at which you will give your presentation has any specific requirements.

If you have not already received guidance from the event organisers, it might be worth contacting them to confirm whether your presentation should:

  • address a specific theme/cover a specific subject
  • have a specific duration - most presentations are 15-30 minutes long
  • include supporting materials such as an MS PowerPoint slide show or handouts

You should also try to find out who will be the audience for your presentation - students or fellow researchers? Academics or non-specialists? This information will help you decide what type of tone to give your presentation.

Step Two - Plan Your Presentation

Your audience needs to be able to quickly grasp your presentation's key points, so you need to think about what the key points are and how you can communicate these as effectively as possible.

It might be useful to start by jotting down your key points as an ordered list so that you can see how these fit together from start to finish. If you are giving your presentation to a conference, you should think of it as being a concise narrative which gives the audience:

  • a description of the theoretical basis for the research
  • a description of what was done
  • an explanation as to what has been discovered and why that is important
  • an idea of the next steps that are suggested by the findings

Next you might want to think about your audience - will they be familiar with the concepts you are describing? Are there sections which will need more explanation/background information? Also, keep in mind that who your audience is should influence the tone and language that you use. If your audience will mainly be fellow researchers, it is more appropriate to use discipline specific terms/conventions than if your presentation is for a non-specialist audience.

Finally, take each section and break it down - again, noting what each one will cover. This will give you a base from which you can develop your content making sure that your key points stand out while your overall structure remains clear.

Step Three - Prepare Your Supporting Notes and Materials

It is probably not a good idea to write a full script for your presentation - reading from a script tends to reduce your engagement with the audience and reduces their interest in what you have to say. You will though need some notes to help you stick to your plan for the presentation and also to help you find your place should there be an unexpected interruption.

Put your notes together as a list of the key points that you want to cover - maybe taking each of your sections and for each one listing the main points of what you want to say, perhaps with a little more detail for any sections that are particularly complicated.

You may also want to annotate these in a way that tells you when to refer to your supporting materials, when is a good place to take a pause, etc. Find a style that works for you and helps you feel more confident about your speaking.

If you plan to use supporting materials, make time in your preparations to think about any practical issues associated with this. If you are using handouts, how and when will you distribute these to your audience? If you are using MS PowerPoint, who will be setting up the equipment for this and how will you store your slide show?

Handouts

You may decide that you want your audience to take away some part of your presentation. This might be:

  • a specific part of your presentation that is of particular interest
  • a full list of supporting references

Only use a handout if you know it will be valued by your audience. They will be able to take notes on your presentation if there is anything they want to refer back to later; handouts should only really be used for those bits of information that they would possibly need but could not get from taking notes.

If you do provide a handout, make sure to include your name, the title of your presentation, and your contact details. This will help your audience file it with the right part of their notes, but also will help make sure your name and contact information is known to anyone who may want to get in touch afterwards.

MS PowerPoint Templates

You may want to use MS PowerPoint to display illustrative material in support of your presentation. Do check first with the event organisers that this is acceptable and also whether they have any specific format or other requirements that you will need to follow.

If you are using MS PowerPoint, do not let it dominate your presentation - it should be used primarily for content that is better communicated through an illustration (a graphic or a chart) than through words. Keep the text in your slides to a minimum - maybe just to the key points for each section and perhaps relevant references.

You may find it useful to keep to a "rule of three" in your presentation - your slideshow should have three key messages for the audience to take away and each page should have three key sub-messages.

To give your presentation a more professional look, Design Services have created several University MS PowerPoint Templates.

If you are new to using MS PowerPoint, you may want to consult the Using MS PowerPoint for Presentations Study Guide.

Step Four - Practice Your Presentation

Practicing your presentation may take you just as long as preparing it - so leave yourself plenty of time. You will need to rehearse carefully, thinking about:

  • how you will pace yourself
  • how you relate what you are saying to any supporting materials
  • whether your notes have enough content to help you keep to your plan and cover everything you want to in sufficient detail
  • whether your presentation is the right length - not too long and not too short

Rehearse several times and try to identify anything that does not work as well as it might or something in your presentation's structure that might be better in a different place. Think too about your key points - are these sufficiently emphasised and will they be clear to your audience?

Once you feel that you have got to grips with your presentation, try rehearsing it in front of others - your friends, colleagues, or your supervisors. This will help you feel more comfortable delivering your presentation to others. More importantly, they will be able to help you identify anything that does not work and offer suggestions for improvements.

During the Presentation

Try to look forward to the challenge and the opportunity to share your research with others. Maintaining a positive attitude will help you feel in control of the situation - giving you greater confidence and helping you present your work as effectively as possible.

Your audience is much more likely to pay attention to what you have to say if you make an effort to engage them. Think about what you can do to engage your audience - you may like to consider some of the following techniques:

Welcome Your Audience

At the start of your presentation, introduce yourself and your presentation. Phrase this in a way that involves your audience - for example, "Today I would like to talk to you about...". At the end of your presentation include a closing statement that thanks the audience for their attention.

Involve Your Audience

Use phrases that involve your audience in what you are saying - for example:

  • "If we look at this slide, we can see..."
  • "If we now consider..."
  • "What can we learn from this?"

You may want to add these phrases at appropriate points in your notes so that you remember to use them.

You can also involve your audience through making eye contact and using gestures to welcome them and to emphasise and key points. And do not be afraid to move around if this helps. Remember though to control your gestures and movements so they do not distract from what you are saying.

Use Your Voice

Experiment with the volume, pitch, and pace of your voice in your rehearsals and find an approach that you feel comfortable with, that will keep your audience interested, and helps you emphasise your key points. Do not be afraid to take pauses at appropriate intervals - it will help you pace what you are saying and keep your volume and pitch in control.

Manage Audience Questions

At the end of your presentation, the audience may be given the opportunity to ask you questions. If you are unsure whether this will be the case, check with the event organisers. If there will be questions, try to prepare for these - again, think about who your audience is and what questions they might have. Remember as well that your presentation will have strengths and weaknesses. Being able to respond to questions regarding any areas of weakness is an opportunity to demonstrate your skill at critical appraisal.

If you are challenged on anything in your presentation:

  • take time to consider before replying
  • remember to breathe and speak reasonably slowly
  • do not take the criticism personally
  • do not take offence
  • do not get angry
  • enjoy the opportunity to talk about your research

And do not be afraid to admit if you do not know the answer or if the question raises something you had not previously considered - thank them for their question and say that you will be looking to investigate it further in the future

After the Presentation

Remember that giving any sort of presentation is a learning activity. Once it is over, get some feedback from your colleagues and supervisors. Think about things that you could do better and how you can make your next presentation more effective.

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