Oral Presentations

Since there can be many excellent but quite different talks on the same subject, staff don't all agree on the best advice to give. The points below are mainly my personal guidance notes, drawn up after hearing various disastrous talks at a variety of meetings. I've expanded my points with some additional comments made by other staff members.

Oral presentations should get easier the more you give. A frequent reaction after giving your first one is 'that wasn't so bad but I'd make a better job if I gave it again'. This hints that the key to a good talk is preparation. Be well prepared, practice your talk beforehand, right the way through, and try to imagine that the only knowledge the audience has about the topic is what you tell them.

Transforming what you did or what you have found out into a presentation involves hard work. Preparation isn't just practice. Before you draft what you will say, remember to

The following points refer mainly to the mechanics of the presentation itself.

  1. Plan the structure of your talk, - say intro 1 min, body of talk 7 mins and conclusion 2 mins for a 10 min talk.

  2. Plan the detail in your talk, preparing themes for ~6 slides (say title, intro, 3 for body and conclusion).

  3. Make the content of your talk coherent. Use the right technical language but remember that you are explaining something to your audience, who should end up with more knowledge and a greater understanding of the subject. Don't talk about something you don't understand yourself.

  4. Leave your audience something to think about along the way, so they not only feel enlightened but drawn into the subject.

  5. Don't attempt the impossible in a 10 minute talk. Concentrate on getting across a small number of ideas. You may have to be highly selective on your topics (for example if you are talking in 10 minutes about a project that's taken you many days work). Make it clear that you are being selective and spell out what your talk aims to cover.

  6. Normally keep diagrams to one per slide, making them as large as possible. Consider adding colour to B/W acetates if you are using old technology, or your own annotation to photocopied material, or consider drawing simple coloured diagrams yourself for simple points.

  7. Use slides to present numerical information. Numbers reeled off orally are difficult to digest. However, try to avoid putting up tables of numbers.

  8. Make the writing on the slides large enough to be completely clear from the back of the room.

  9. Keep the slides simple, using short headings and brief sentences.

  10. Leave the slides up long enough so they can be digested by the slowest reader or the person who's thinking about what you're saying.

  11. It's not essential but it's a good idea to begin the presentation with a slide showing a clear title, the author(s) names and, either on the slide or accompanying it, a few sentence summary saying why the audience will find the topic interesting.

  12. Good advice is to rehearse very well the first few sentences; stand up when you're introduced and take a deep breath, look at the audience and put up your opening slide or produce something else for them to look at while you relax and deliver your opening at a pace that's not hurried. It's perhaps the one time that you do want attention to be diverted elsewhere, while you get over your initial nervousness.

  13. While on the subject of presentation style, remember that you are trying to persuade the examiners that you know something about the topic. Take a leaf out of the practice of professional persuaders like politicians and lawyers. Try to make your presentation fluent. Avoid salting your delivery with 'er' or 'ummm', or peppering the argument with phrases like 'I mean', 'something like', 'you know', all of which reduce the confidence of the listener in your message. Do, however, put in deliberate pauses to allow the audience to assimiliate what you have just said or give them time to think about a question of the moment. The assessment that you get for your talk is going to be decided almost immediately after your talk so 'style' is going to have a larger impact on the outcome than in other forms of assessment where content is paramount.

  14. Keep a very close eye on the remit of the talk and stick to it.

  15. Talk to the audience, making eye contact with them. This requires remembering a fair bit what you are going to say and not reading from a script all the time. Use cue cards rather than A4 sheets with the talk written out.

  16. Use the projector only as a diversion from the main attraction, namely you. Too many people treat the slides as the principal centre of interest and relegate themselves to an accompanying soundtrack. Your visuals have to be extremely good for this approach to hold the attention of the audience.

  17. Talk loudly enough to be heard above the noise of the audio/visual aid. Project confidence into your voice by reminding yourself that you've worked to acquire the knowledge you're imparting and you've every right to appear confident. Try to hide the fact you may be feeling otherwise. Avoid apologizing about any defect you might perceive. Hopefully others will miss it in any case.

  18. Don't rush. As mentioned above, include deliberate pauses to give time for the audience to think or reflect on your points.

  19. Make sure well beforehand that any computer animations work on the machine you'll use for the talk. Practice any short demonstrations so that they fit into your talk without fumbling or apologies being necessary.

  20. Dress smartly. It creates the impression that you have spent a significant amount of time preparing for the talk and see the occasion as something out of the ordinary. Many of the comments above refer to your pitch but it's also worth remembering that your presentation has a visual content too, and you are part of that.

  21. Keep to time. A few practices before hand will let you know you've got the timing right. The chairman may let you ramble on but you'll be slated for bad timekeeping when it comes to marks awarded. It should go without saying that you should find out well in advance how much time the chair has allocated to each talk.

  22. Don't end with a very long list of 'future work' that could be done on the topic. It makes it look as if you could have done a lot more if you'd got down to it.

  23. Do finish on a positive and definite note. Don't just peter out. This is very important since your final comments remain in the minds of those assessing the talk. Conclude by reminding people of the key points or emphasizing the achievements of what you have done.

Most oral sessions have questions afterwards. If you don't immediately know the answer, don't abandon the question but try some thinking out loud in an attempt to work out something of an answer. When answering a question that has a short answer, try adding some gratuitous extra information on a related matter that keeps the conversation going and might deflect the discussion into an area you know more about. An admission that you don't know the answer may not stand against you because it is good to give the impression that you're aware of what areas you know about and what areas you don't. Recognition that a question refers to a topic outside your remit is likely to be seen in your favour.

All Physics students are welcome to make their presentations in PowerPoint. Follow the course instructions, which will usually involve either giving the presentation in advance to the course co-ordinator or bringing it in a memory pen for use with the PC provided. Make sure you have prepared it in a version of PowerPoint that will run on the University machines. DIT have a free Fact Sheet that gives guidance on using PowerPoint.

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work" T. A. Edison