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How to... give a research presentation

Options:     Print Version - How to... give a research presentation, part 1 Print view

Preparing for the presentation

When you give a presentation, it's tempting to start off by considering what you are going to be presenting. A better approach is to look at why you are presenting in the first place, and what your audience needs are.

What is the purpose of the presentation?

In the introduction to this section, we mentioned a number of possible reasons for giving a presentation about your research – defending a dissertation, a job interview, a conference, and asking for funding. Knowing the purpose of your presentation is a matter of determining the actions which you want to stimulate in your audience. Here are some examples:

Reason for presentation Type of presentation Intended outcome
Defend dissertation Mini-seminar on thesis: present argument cogently Thesis successfully defended
Academic job interview Mini-seminar on main features of research: summarize, inform, influence Offer of job
Conference presentation Mini-seminar on main features of a particular aspect of research: inform Interest in research; add to networks
Seeking funding Seek to influence non expert audience on the importance of topic, and of synergy with their own work Obtain funding

Many people working for universities are used to lecturing; it is a mistake to consider making presentations as a similar activity. In the former you are presenting information, whereas all the above examples (with the possible exception of conference presentations) call for a degree of selling – your dissertation, yourself, or your project. The emotional dynamic is different, and it is important to be aware of this.

Who is the audience, why will they be there, and how many will there be?

Reason for presentation Audience Knowledge Need
Defend dissertation Your thesis examiners Knowledgeable but your knowledge of topic greater To be convinced that your thesis makes a contribution to research
Academic job interview Rest of the department Knowledgeable but not in the same field To have their own research strengths reinforced or complemented
Conference presentation Others, probably academics, with a similar interest Knowledgeable; may also be experts in the same field To gain knowledge/insights which will help their own work; to build up networks
Seeking funding Commercial sponsors; panels for grant-giving bodies Not experts in the field; probably have different attitude to knowledge To solve a business problem

It is very important, when considering your audience, to know:

  • who they are
  • what their prior knowledge of the topic will be
  • why they are likely to be interested
  • what their needs are and how you can help them

If you are being examined for a thesis, you will obviously do a great deal of background on your examiners, finding out what their research in the area is. In the case of a job interview, it is probable that you will have to do a presentation about your research to other members of the department; you can find out about them and their research strengths from the departmental web pages, and make any connections with people whose research interests are similar to yours. For a conference presentation, the background/needs of your audience will be determined by the topic of the conference.

In some respects, the most difficult audience to prepare for is that for whom you are making a presentation to obtain money for research. If you are presenting to a panel from a funding body, find out the composition of the panel and their interests. The most likely reason however is seeking commercial sponsorship. In this case, it is important to identify:

  • who will be the members of the audience – what are their job titles, will they have any particular preconceptions? It would be useful to ask your contact at the organization about people's background, and whether any particular individuals have particular "bees in their bonnet", i.e. whether so and so is particularly risk averse, etc.
  • what are their needs, both collectively and individually? This is a very important issue to establish. Try and establish synchronicity with your own research questions.

For example, you may be interested in doing research on the supply chain, but your potential sponsor will also have an interest in its effectiveness. Likewise, your own research may be on the psychological process of decision making, but why people make decisions in particular to purchase your products or services is a part of what business is all about!

Image: warning"Never overestimate your audience's knowledge; never underestimate their intelligence." C.P. Scott, former editor of the Manchester Guardian.

How long should the presentation be?

It is normal practice in job interview to be informed as to the length of the presentation; it is very important if you are not informed to find out the length and whether this includes questions. A rough rule of thumb is, for every minute of presentation, allow 100 words, slowly and clearly spoken.

Image: warningRemember that when you give the actual presentation, you will take longer than when you practise.

How formal will the presentation be?

Find out about the location of the presentation – will it be in a seminar room, meeting room, board room, someone's office?

What sort of equipment will you have at your disposal? (See Technical matters – using Microsoft PowerPoint)

How formal is the presentation – will you be expected to present without interruptions and then answer questions, or will you be expected to do something more interactive, taking questions as you go along?