- When preparing your oral presentation, you need to deliver it at the right level to your audience.
- Your oral presentation is split into three parts: the opening, the body and the closing.
- Focus on practising your talk as much as you can. This will ensure you stick to your allotted time and don’t go over.
- Get to the venue early, pay attention to your body language and project your voice well.
- Treat it like you’re having several one-to-one conversations with individuals in the audience rather than addressing everyone at the same time.
- Check your slides for any spelling and grammar mistakes. You don’t want to risk your audience not understanding your presentation. This is your chance to get you and your research noticed for all the good reasons.
Presenting at an academic conference is a great honour. It gives you the platform to get your research noticed by your peers. At an academic conference, typically delegates will be invited to present their work in the form of a poster or an oral presentation. I go into detail about producing an award-wining academic poster in my blog ‘How to create an academic poster’.
But an oral presentation is a different animal. Sure, an oral presentation can last mere minutes but the whole experience can be nerve-racking. How do you overcome the anxiety? Well, there are two components: the presentation and presenting. I will cover both aspects in this blog and provide tips to help you deliver your best talk yet. Why is this important? I discuss in my blog, ‘A guide to the academic conference’, that your oral presentation could get you noticed by the right people and open new doors for you.
The main focus of your oral presentation is to disseminate your research amongst your peers. It has to demonstrate to your audience that your research is interesting and relevant. You have to put across the motivation for your research, why people should care and what your major findings were. You’ll also have the opportunity to interact with the audience towards the end of your oral presentation.
You have to design your presentation with your audience in mind. It’s no use using technical terminology throughout your talk when your audience is mostly made up of laypeople. They won’t be able to effectively engage with your research which is exactly what you don’t want. However, if you’re presenting at an academic conference, chances are that most of those in attendance will be research students and academics with some knowledge of your field. So, it’s ok to use technical language and there’s no need to oversimplify everything.
You can break your oral presentation into three main parts: the opening, the body and the closing. Let’s take a look at each section in closer detail.
Picture your opening as the hook. This is something I wish I knew back when I was a student. Even though your presentation is not a sales pitch, it can have similarities. In a sales pitch, you need to use a hook to grab the attention of potential customers in mere seconds. With your oral presentation, you need to grab the attention of the audience quickly. You can do this using some interesting facts, statistics or an engaging statement. One example of an engaging statement could be ‘Hydrogen is mostly produced using a method called steam methane reforming, but we have developed a way to make hydrogen using a technique that cuts cost by 50% and increases the yield by 200%.’ Now, the audience will be curious to know what this technique is and how it works. You now have their attention.
A good idea would be to give a preview as to what you will cover. Similar to a table of contents, this could be just one slide outlining the contents of your talk. It will inform your audience of your talk’s destination and a map of how to get there. The audience will often appreciate this level of structure and detail as it prevents them from feeling lost.
State the problem you are trying to solve to your audience. This will need to be the most memorable part of your oral presentation. Your audience needs to be aware of this central piece of information from the get-go so state it as clearly and as concisely as possible. This will make it easier to remember for both you and your audience.
The body portion of your oral presentation is where you get into the nitty-gritty. In the opening, you identified a problem, now it’s time to provide a viable solution with evidence to support it. This could be in the form of test data that can be displayed as charts, graphs and various graphics that can illustrate your findings. You’ll most likely have an abundance of data at your disposal, but you’ll only have a limited time for your oral presentation. Only pick the results you feel best substantiates your solution.
In the opening, you introduced a problem and in the body you provided a possible solution with evidence to back it up. Now, you need to wrap things up. You can do this in three stages. First, you can give a brief review of the major points you want the audience to absorb. Next, you want to give your conclusions which will essentially involve reiterating the original problem and its solution complemented with any relevant and useful information. Finally, you close your oral presentation by thanking your audience for their attention and invite any questions.
There’s no hard and fast rule on how to structure your oral presentation. I will now go through a basic structure for a 15-minute oral presentation which I recommend but adapt it to suit your needs where necessary.
This forms part of your opening. The title should be concise but not too descriptive. It’s similar to the way you’d come up with a title for a scientific manuscript. In my blog ‘Manuscript publishing: a beginner’s guide’, I give an example of a title that’s too cluttered, a title that’s too vague and a title that’s just right. I recommend checking it out.
In addition to the title, you need to include your name and affiliation. Don’t assume that your entire audience will know who you are and where you’re from. So, include your name and a logo from your institution or company. Timewise, you’ll probably spend no more than 15 seconds on this slide.
The introduction still forms part of your opening. You could also include your table of contents here. This part should only contain a few slides. It should cover why you did what you did and why people should care. So, it could be that your research is focused on recycling batteries to meet the growing demand for battery electric vehicles due to the move away from fossil fuel-based technology. The audience will now understand your motivation and will see the relevance of your work. They will be more engaged as a result. You could also give your objectives for achieving your goals so that the audience can see and understand your tactics. Spend no more than two minutes on this part.
You don’t have to detail your entire methodology. Relate back to the original problem and identify the tests/experiments you needed to do in order to produce your proposed solution. You’re now transitioning into the body of your oral presentation. Spend no more than one minute on this part.
Results & discussion
This is still the body of your oral presentation. It is where you provide the evidence to support the solution to your problem. This will be where you dedicate most of your time. You’ll likely include a mixture of text, figures, tables, diagrams, photos and much more. Ensure you only have one of these items per slide. Too much information on a slide will just confuse your audience and you don’t want that. You also have to tell your audience what your data means and how it supports your idea for a solution. You’ll likely need five minutes for this part of your oral presentation.
You’re now moving into the closing portion of your oral presentation. State your conclusions. Your conclusions must be based on your results. Highlight your major findings and even briefly mention any limitations of your study and recommendations for future work. Spend no more than two minutes wrapping your oral presentation up.
It’s customary to give a mention to those that made your work possible. This could be your supervisor(s), contributor(s) and funding body. This should take no more than 15 seconds to go through. End by thanking the audience for their attention and invite any questions
Questions and answer session
The rest of the time should be dedicated to answering any questions from the audience. Take your time and stay as calm as possible. It’s okay not to know the answer to a question. Just say so and say that you will look into it and contact the questioner with an answer if they so wish.
This is obvious, but I cannot overstate it: practise makes perfect. No one ever got upset because they were overprepared. If you’re preparing to run a marathon, it would make sense to practise running a lot. Rehearse as much as you can and familiarise yourself with each slide. It will be very obvious to everybody if you don’t know what’s coming up on the next slide. I recommend doing a few mock presentations in front of your colleagues. Try and do this in a similar setting to where your real presentation will take place. Ask for critical and constructive feedback and take it on the chin.
This goes hand in hand with practising your oral presentation. You’ll likely know well in advance on how much time you’ll be allocated for your talk. Time your practise runs and aim to finish within your allotted time. Usually, the chair of your session will let you know when you have two minutes left. You don’t want to find out that you have a couple of minutes to cover twenty slides. It never ends well.
Find out well in advance the location of your oral presentation and get there early. If possible, visit the room where you will present to get yourself prepared for when you deliver your talk. I did this whenever I could and it helped to calm my nerves.
Pay particular attention to your body language when delivering your oral presentation. Don’t cross your arms or put your hands in your pockets. Do not chew gum. Don’t be intoxicated. Try to resist pacing back and forth as this will divert attention away from your slides. Make regular eye contact with the audience. This can be intimidating for some, but imagine you’re having a one-to-one conversation with individuals in the audience rather than presenting to the entire audience. Project your voice. Even with a microphone, some in the audience will still struggle to hear you. It’s okay, you want to be heard. Remember, you are the expert and know the most about your work. Once you realise this, you become less anxious. But whatever you do, don’t become arrogant because of this.
Tips for creating your slides
- Remove any clutter and keep the slides organised. Too much text or too many images will overwhelm your audience.
- Use fonts like Arial and Tahoma and stay away from fonts like Times New Roman.
- Utilise a colour scheme that is consistent with your organisation. Use a few simple colours that contrast each other well. So, avoid using every colour in the rainbow.
- Consider that there may be people in the audience that are colour blind. So, try not to use combinations of red and green.
- For an Arial font, the size of the title should be 36-point and the bullet points must be 28-point, but no less than 24-point. Keep the font and size consistent throughout.
- Use the 1-6-6 approach where possible. It’s where you have one idea per slide with six bullet points containing six words.
- Don’t capitalise your text unless absolutely necessary.
- Avoid using fancy 3D charts and graphics unless it helps to explain your point. Unnecessary graphical effects can do more harm than good at times. So, keep it simple.
- This also applies to animations. If they serve a purpose and help you to explain a certain concept then they can be powerful. Otherwise, they can potentially annoy the audience.
- If you’re going to use images and other content obtained online then make sure you have the owner’s permission to use them. Using copyrighted material in public without proper authorisation will land you in trouble.
- Reference cited material correctly.
Check your slides for mistakes
Having one or two spelling or grammar mistakes is forgivable. But, if every slide contains multiple errors then this hampers your ability to deliver your message clearly and effectively. It also makes your presentation appear rushed, unprepared and the audience will likely not take your work seriously. Always proofread and edit your slides so that you perfect what you want to say. You only have one chance to deliver your oral presentation so make the most of it.