Preparing an oral presentation for an academic audience
“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech” (Mark Twain).
This resource provides a series of tips for delivering a successful oral presentation in an academic forum like a conference or seminar. The main elements of a successful oral presentation are adequate preparation, plenty of practice, a good delivery style, and a well-managed question time.
Prepare the presentation
All presentations need to be tailored to match the audience, the context, and the outcomes and responses you seek, as well as the message you are sending. Knowing your audience will enable you to tailor your talk to your context. Knowing your audience will also help you to manage your expectations, and assist in making decisions about how much information to provide about your topic.
It is helpful to attend similar events to the one in which you will present, and to ask people about their experiences of them to get a feel for what is expected, what works and does not work, and the kinds of questions that are asked (you might write these down). It is also helpful to actively participate in similar events if possible. You can do this both informally, by chatting with participants before and after presentations, and more formally, by asking questions and offering comments during a session. This will give you more confidence when your turn comes to present.
Visual aids can help by keeping you on task (and time), allowing the audience to follow your presentation, and illustrating particular points. PowerPoint is not compulsory, but is used widely in academic research speaking contexts. In some academic conferences, it is acceptable to give your talk without the use of visual aids. Some tips for using PowerPoint are provided below.
Presenters use visual aids for displaying:
- key concepts and points
- an outline of the talk
- key terms and definitions
- drawings and diagrams
- tables, charts and graphs.
Tips for creating good visuals:
- Do not try to get across too many main ideas (keep it focussed, but simple).
- Try not to write extremely complex and dense slides. Avoid adding too much detail to graphs and charts.
- Use no more than 2 font styles.
- Double space between lines.
- Avoid using more than five bullet points per slide.
- Use consistent formatting throughout.
- Avoid over use of colour and some of the wizardry (fade-outs, animation, transitions).
- Keep the background simple and light (consider visually impaired).
- Read the words on the slide out loud, add additional information to complement what is written on the slide.
- Write your additional comments into your presentation outline. Don’t try to write everything you will say on the slide.
- Try to write the slides so that the words make sense on their own.
- Avoid repetition.
- Avoid abbreviations, even when they are introduced at the beginning. Your audience may still forget them.
- Do not add anything you are not confident is true.
- Try to have your slides finished about three days before the presentation. (This will give you time to rehearse the talk and to make any minor changes).
- If you are not confident the technology will work in your context, bring paper copies or have another back up plan in the case of technology failure.
- As a rough guide, it usually takes about two minutes per slide, or six to eight slides for a 20 minute talk.
Preparing a presentation on proposed research
In the first year of candidature, as part of the proposal review process you may be required to formally introduce your research at your research proposal panel meeting, and/or to introduce your research at a seminar within your local area.
For the research proposal, the audience will be academics and fellow research students in your local area. While some of your audience will be expert in some aspect of your topic area, others will know very little. Your aim is to introduce your research and to persuade your audience that it is 'significant'. Significant research is important, new within the discipline, and methodologically sound. Hence, it is important to explain why the research will be conducted, what 'gap' in the literature it is designed to address, and how you will go about meeting the research objectives. In other words, you can structure your talk in the same order that you have structured your research proposal. Indeed, if your proposal is well written, most of the key information you will need to write your talk will be in the introduction of the research proposal.
You can structure your talk to include:
- a beginning (title, topic, outline of the talk)
- research justification
- 'gap' in the literature
- research design
- summary, or statement of proposed outcomes.
PowerPoint slide order and content for research proposal
1. Title/topic (1 slides)
To ensure that your title and topic point directly to the focus of your research, check to see that key terms in the statement of the gap in the literature and the research aim are reproduced in the title.
2. Research ‘problem’ or justification (1/2 slides)
Explains why the research needs to be done, what issue, problem, controversy or important matter has led to research on the topic.
3. ‘Gap’ in the literature (1-4 slides)
Outlines the field of literature and the ‘gap’, the main findings to date, theories, debates, and remaining questions within the literature, and explains how the research will contribute to the gap.
4. Research aim, objective, question or hypothesis (1 slide)
Outlines the focus or names the specific knowledge the research methodology aims to generate.
5. Research method and methodology (1-5 slides)
Explains what you will do to achieve the research aim or reach your conclusions.
Research design overview slide 1—Summary outline of research design in its entirety, including, where relevant, methodological or theoretical approach, research phases, methods, participants and approach to data analysis. Keep this brief. If you have a diagramatic representation of your research design insert it here.
If you have more than one phase or stage introduce these one at a time. Include information about the methods used in each phase, and the sample, selection process and data analysis approach that will be used for each method or method type within each phase before moving on to the next.
Introduce the research design in chronological order. Start with the theory or rationale underpinning the research design, then move to sample and selection process, process for the method (where relevant) and finally to the approach that will be taken in data analysis.
Details within the slides following the overview slide may include information about:
- tools used
- description of experiment or design tool
- the population or sample from which participants will be selected
- location of the sample
- the sample size
- how the sample will be selected
- surveys, questionnaires, and tests used
- how the data generated will be analysed.
6. Summary or statement of proposed outcomes of the research (1 slide)
This step is optional. Bear in mind that outcomes are not aims. Aims refer to the knowledge that will be produced; outcomes are projections about how the research can or might be used.
Practice the presentation
Practice the talk:
- in the venue if possible,
- with notes—extemporaneous delivery,
- with the equipment,
- make the relationship between the visual and what you are discussing clear,
- switch off visuals when you are not referring to them,
- time yourself,
- tape yourself (is your voice flat, dull, monotone, thin, pleasant, harsh, throaty, clear, blurred, rhythmic),
- consider speed of delivery,
- consider verbal behaviour (stance, gestures),
- get feedback from friends, peers, family,
- indicate to the audience when the end of the talk is approaching.
Deliver the presentation
Before the talk:
- Give the conference organisers or the Chair your slides.
- Arrive early.
- Make yourself familiar with the room and the surroundings. This will give you confidence as it will feel familiar and less intimidating.
- Introduce yourself to the chair and let them know how to pronounce your name and what information they should include when introducing you.
- Check how to open your slide show for your talk, and check that the slides are clear.
- Ask the chair about anything you are unsure of, such as the length of time for questions, the order of speakers.
- Sit where everyone can see you, such as the front row.
- You might talk with other presenters or people who have arrived early. Listen to what they say. This will help you to feel more relaxed, and to see that they are not waiting for you to make a mistake!
- Consider taking a water bottle if it is not provided in case your mouth gets dry.
- Have your notes handy, but do not refer to them too often during your talk. They are there as a precautionary measure only, to refer to if you forget your train of thought during the talk.
During the talk
- Show confidence and enthusiasm.
- Remember to smile.
- Establish a relationship with the audience—greet them, show empathy, be friendly.
- Speak to the audience, maintain eye contact with the whole audience. Do not focus on one face, or speak to the middle.
- When speaking, consider your audibility, speed, fluency and clarity.
- Avoid ums and ahs or monotone speech.
- Maintain good body language. Avoid overly dramatic gestures, do not fidget, try not to freeze up.
- Keep to the time limit. Time your speech to run 1-2 minutes under.
- Never apologise for being unprepared, or not as good as you want to be.
- If you stumble on your words or miss a slide during the presentation do not panic. Simply repeat, or go back to where you need to be and move on. This kind of thing happens all the time.
- Breath normally. Do not rush through the talk.
- Most importantly—smile and be friendly.
Feeling nervous is not unusual—everyone gets nervous. Speaking in front of a group is the most commonly cited fear followed respectively by heights, insects and bugs, financial problems, deep water, sickness, and death!
Strategies for success
- Be prepared.
- Practice, practice and practice by reading your paper out loud or going through your slide show multiple times.
- Think realistically. Don’t over estimate the negatives.
- Visualise giving your (successful) presentation to an interested audience.
- Be focused.
- Be yourself.
- Feel comfortable about yourself—wear something you like, look the part.
- If you are using audio visual technology, ensure the technology is in the room or is definitely booked.
- Save your presentation on a USB or where you can access a copy quickly.
- Use cue cards rather than pages—they don’t show trembling so much.
- Avoid using a laser pointer if your hands shake. Use words like ‘In the upper left corner you can see…’. If you have to use a pointer steady the hand holding the pointer with your other hand to reduce shaking.
- Use relaxation strategies.
- Do some stretches.
- Go for a walk.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
You can reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety by relaxing your muscles and slowing down your breathing. Don’t try to be less nervous; aim instead for a positive feeling of ease by relaxing your muscles.
Step 1: Muscular ease
- On your own learn how good it feels to be relaxed.
- Sit with all your weight on a chair.
- Let your arms, hands and waist go floppy.
- Drop your shoulders.
- Move the head from side to side to relax the neck.
- Slowly register the ease in your mind.
- Relax the facial muscles.
- Have a half smile.
- Let the good feeling register in your mind.
- Practice these steps so you can use them in tense situations.
Step 2: Breathing
- Ignore advice to ‘take deep breaths’. This will only oversupply the body with oxygen. Try instead to relax the muscles and let go with one breath.
- Quietly notice your natural breathing rhythm.
- Notice that muscular ease leads to tranquil breathing.
- Take a sigh type breath and exhale the stale air, then return to normal breathing.
- You are ready for action without the hampering effects of nervousness.
Step 3: Thought control
- Use positive thoughts only.
- Immediately reject thoughts like ‘I’m so nervous’, ‘it’s not going to go well’, ‘I’m not as good as the others’, ‘I wish this wasn’t happening’. Recognise these thoughts for what they are—nonsense.
- Return to muscular ease. Take a sigh type breath. Return to relaxed breathing.
- Notice the audience. Think about what they are feeling and what they need to know to understand your message.
- Use positive thoughts like ‘they seem interested’, ‘they seem normal and friendly’, ‘this is a positive opportunity to share my ideas and get feedback on my work’, ‘I have my notes in order, nothing can go wrong’, ‘I’ll enjoy myself and make the most of this opportunity’.
Step 4: Positive imagery
Having prepared what you are going to say visualise yourself giving your talk. See yourself:
- experiencing tranquil breathing and muscular ease right up to the moment of the presentation,
- calmly facing the audience and conveying a sense of ease,
- delivering the talk in a clear, loud voice,
- pausing at the end of thoughts to allow the audience to let the information sink in.
Asking constructive questions of presenters
- Have empathy for what the person is saying.
- Differentiate between analysing from your perspective and analysing the research.
- Start with something positive.
- Locate your question within the context you are thinking about.
- Don’t use the speaker to score points for yourself.
- If criticism is warranted, consider talking to the person after the presentation.
- Be supportive (body language, attending).
Managing question time
- Identify the kind of question being asked (constructive, intimidating, comment, irrelevant).
- If you do not understand a question, ask for clarification. Say ‘Do you mean….'?
- Consider repeating the question to ensure that everyone heard it.
- In general, aim to answer the question directly and concisely. This gives more people in the audience a chance to ask a question or to offer a comment.
- For intimidating questions, acknowledge, you might say ‘that’s something I’d like to think more about’, or restate your point of view.
- If you have not investigated a particular angle raised by a questioner say ‘I haven’t looked into that yet, this is something I would like to explore in future‘.
- If the questioner is being particularly pushy or tricky, you might say: 'I could look that data up and speak to you later if you could spare some time’, or 'I'd be happy to discuss this with you in more detail after the talk'. This says that you welcome the contribution, but you wish to allow time for the rest of the audience to ask questions.
- For irrelevant questions, you might say ‘that’s outside the scope of my study, I can’t comment on that’.
- Do not be drawn into argument, or assume a defensive position.
- Remember you can accept or reject criticism, but whatever you do, be diplomatic.
- Buy time by reframing the question or deferring. Say, ‘I’ll need to think about that, can I come back to that one’.
- Don’t panic if you cannot answer a question. This is not unusual.
- It is ok to say ‘I don’t know’. You can also invite the panel, if there is one, to comment.
- Reinterpret ‘loaded’ questions in less controversial terms.
- Say ‘thank you’ when given a compliment.
- Try to become aware of your reactions. Stay calm. Be polite.
- Try not to take yourself too seriously.
- Do not take questions personally.
- Anticipate questions and plan your answers.
- Ask your own questions. This is good practice if there is a silence at the end of your presentation, which is not in itself necessarily a bad thing.
- Select how much time and thought you will give to a question.
- Use your body language appropriately.
- Try to talk to interested people after the presentation.
After the presentation
- Relax. Enjoy. Feel proud.
- Welcome additional questions from people after the talk or during the conference.
- Network. Exchange contact details. Bring business cards.
- Think about what you might do better next time.
- Ask a colleague for feedback.
- Do not be too critical of your performance, or take criticism too much to heart. There are different types of presentations, you can ignore unhelpful feedback.
- Remember, no one is perfect, even the most experienced presenters make mistakes.
Day, J. 1995. How to perform under pressure by control of voice and nerves. Daybreak Publishing: Melbourne.
Drott, C. 1995. 'Reexamining the Role of Conference Papers in Scholarly Communication'. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 46(4), pp. 299-305.
Dwyer, J. 2005. Communication in business: Strategies and skills. 3rd edition Prentice Hall: French's Forest.
Kearns, H. 2003. Giving a great conference presentation. Staff Development and Training Unit, Flinders University.
This resource was developed by Wendy Bastalich, Deborah Churchman, Debra King and Cassandra Loeser.