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Giving presentations

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Good preparation is key to a good presentation. If you have considered your audience, know what messages you want to communicate, and have thought about the clearest way of communicating these messages, you can go into your presentation with confidence. Keeping things simple and not including too much in either your presentation itself, or your visual aids, means you will be able to pace your presentation well and your audience will appreciate the information you wish to communicate. The advice on this page shows you how to prepare a practically perfect presentation!  

Thinking about your audience

A presentation is an act of communication between you and your audience. Tailor your presentation to suit your audience and their levels of knowledge.

  • Who will be in the audience? Students, lecturers, fellow researchers, experts in the field, business people, general public, a mixture?
  • Consider your purpose – to inform, show progress, persuade, sell, disseminate results, teach, or introduce a new idea?
  • Will your presentation be an overview, basic introduction, develop an existing idea, go over old ground from a new perspective, summarise information, challenge beliefs, or show something new?

Planning your presentation

It is difficult to take in a lot of detailed information when listening. Therefore, it is very important that your presentation has a clear structure so your audience can follow it.

In a 10-15 min presentation you will only have time to make 3 or 4 main points. You will have more impact if your points are clear, simple, relevant, and direct.

Beginning: Introduce yourself. Outline the aims of your talk and what you will cover in the presentation. Start with an attention grabber, such as a picture, an everyday example, or a rhetorical question.

Middle: Your points should lead logically from each other. What does the audience need to know first in order to understand your subject? Then what do they need to know? What evidence will you use to support these points and convince the audience? Have clear sections or headings to structure the middle section and lead from one point to another.

End: Avoid introducing new information at this point. Summarise the main things you want the audience to remember. End positively with a strong concluding sentence, not an apology. Leave time for questions. If you are presenting to an external audience, have your contact details available for people.

When preparing your material, think about what you will be comfortable saying – don't include anything that you aren't happy with or don't have confidence in. Do your research and check your facts so that you can feel secure in your knowledge. Steer clear of jokes and humour if it doesn't come naturally to you.

What to avoid…

The most common mistake with presentations is trying to cram in too much information – you either end up talking too fast, or overrunning the time limit. Keep to 3 or 4 main points with an introduction that sets out the contexts and a brief summarising conclusion. You can always expand on these if there are questions afterwards.

Planning a group presentation can take longer than you think, as you have to arrange times to meet and coordinate everyone's contributions. Use the links below to help you work out what you need to do to make your group presentation succeed.

Notes, handouts and visual aids

Many people are tempted to write their presentation out fully and read it aloud, but this isn't enjoyable for the speaker or the audience; it is hard to get vocal expression and connection with the audience when reading aloud, and a written script is often more stilted and formal than natural speech. A better idea is to speak normally and use notes to guide you.

  • It may be better to use a few file cards for your notes rather than a sheet of A4 paper – less flimsy and less tempting to hide behind!
  • Use headings and key words to remind you of the main points and their order
  • Less is more – you want to be able to read them quickly at a glance
  • If you are using visual aids, note cues showing when you want to change slide
  • You can write reminders to yourself – like "slow down" if you tend to talk fast
  • Note down things you definitely don't want to get wrong: names, dates, statistics
  • Number your cards in case they get mixed up or dropped.

If you have been asked to prepare a handout, don't try to include too much information or your audience will spend more time reading it than listening to you. Include:

  • a brief outline of your talk
  • a summary of data
  • references and further reading on your topic
  • contact details 

There are also various visual aids you may use. The most commonly used include PowerPoint slides, Prezi, video clips and posters. You might also use a flipchart or whiteboard, or have some physical materials you want to show.

If you use visual aids, keep them simple and make sure that they support and add emphasis to your argument – not distract the audience from what you are saying. Whatever you use, make sure you know how to find and use any necessary technology or equipment.

Visual aids can give you confidence, help you to remember the structure of your talk and ensure that the audience does not look at you all the time. They should enhance and illustrate what you say, making it easier for the audience to understand and remember. They are not supposed to dominate or distract from your talk.

Here are some common options and issues you may need to consider:

PowerPoint slides

These are common and easy to use, but may take a few minutes to set up, so plan this into your timing. Ensure you have a backup plan in case the technology doesn't work on the day, such as having the slides on a memory stick as well as on the network drive, or having handouts of the slides to give out. Check you know how to change between slides using the mouse or a remote control. Beware of sound effects on animations!

Prezi

Prezi (link below) is a non-linear alternative to PowerPoint. It provides templates that are often similar to mind-maps, and you are able to zoom in and out, and navigate round them in different ways. Be careful not to overdo the zooming and movement as it can be very disorientating for the audience. It is easy to get carried away with exploring the features of Prezi, meaning it can take far longer to prepare your presentation. However, if used well, Prezi can be a powerful presentation tool. Be aware that the free version of the software provides access to your presentations online, so there needs to be a reliable internet connection in the presentation venue.  

Video clips

It can be effective to break a presentation up with a short video clip to illustrate a key point. There are many educational videos available on YouTube and via TED Talks (link below). However, make sure any videos are professional, appropriate, and relevant. Always ask yourself why you are using it and if you haven't got a good reason, leave it out. Check the sound, projection, and internet facilities in the presentation venue beforehand, and have an alternative plan in case the video won't play on the day.

Flip charts / white board

These are more suitable for small group discussions, as they simply can't be seen at the back of a large hall. Make sure you have non-permanent pens to write on the whiteboard. Also practice writing in large, clear letters so that it is easy to see.

Handouts

Handouts can mean the audience doesn't have to copy down all the slides - but they can also be distracting, as people read them instead of listening. If you are presenting to a large audience (for instance at a conference) it can be expensive to provide handouts. Consider whether they can be sent via email or put on a website instead. If you're going to share them (or PowerPoint slides) electronically, it may be better to save them as PDFs.

Props

Showing an object may be useful as a focus for discussion with a small group. It will work better as a replacement for part of your discussion (e.g. leave out some explanation) rather than reinforcing your message.

Good slide design

Keep your slides simple, uncluttered, and easy to read. Just because you can have music, moving graphics, and bullet points whizzing in and out doesn't mean you have to! But if you're confident about your technical ability, some simple animation can be very effective.

30pt font and above is best for large audiences. Avoid distracting backgrounds, and keep lots of white space between lines/sections. Choose a writing colour that shows up clearly on the background (avoid green & red), and for a professional presentation, stick to simple fonts and avoid cartoons. Keep unnecessary punctuation to a minimum. If you're going to use images, make sure they are there for a reason - to illustrate your point or make it memorable.

For sources of copyright-cleared images, see the Library's list of image databases (link below).

Example:

In your presentation, you might say something like: "Classical Hollywood narrative usually traces a highly predictable story arc. The early part of the film is an exposition of the situations and characters the narrative will be concerned with. The status quo is disrupted by a complication of some sort. For instance, the hero and heroine are parted for some reason, or the virtuous heroine is mistakenly seen as sinful. The last part of the narrative resolves that complication and restores the status quo. This narrative structure has been paraphrased as: Get your hero up a tree - throw rocks at him - bring him down. "
Your accompanying slide might look like this:

It's a good idea to include a slide at the beginning of your presentation with your name and title, and follow this with a slide outlining your talk. End with a slide giving your contact details.