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Giving a talk or presentation

Introduction

Few things cause as much grief to students as being told that they have to give a talk or presentation.  Yet forms of oral assessment are becoming increasingly common in higher education, for good reasons.

Oral communication skills are among the skills most valued by future employers (University of Southampton, 2009). Yet according to the UK body Association for Graduate Recruiters (quoted by the University of Kent Careers Advisory Service n.d.), 64 per cent of employers claimed that these are just the skills graduates lack.

The ability to present ideas in a clear and engaging way is thus a crucial life skill. Talk is also very valuable in academic life because giving a verbal explanation of something is a good way of learning, as is discussion.

There are various types of talk or presentation you may give as a student:

  • An academic exercise in an undergraduate or taught post-graduate course, perhaps in a seminar to get discussion going.
  • In your final year to a prospective employer, to convince them that you are the right person for the job.
  • As a research student, presenting your research, perhaps at a conference.

In this article, we offer some tips about giving effective presentations.

Preparing to give a presentation

Two things are very important starting points when you are preparing a talk or a presentation.

  1. What is the brief? In particular you should have information about the date, time, place and length of presentation, what is the topic or the area from which the topic should be drawn, the audience, and, in the case of a coursework presentation, how it will be assessed, and what proportion of the overall mark for that unit it will contribute. Are there any guidelines on visual aids, handouts etc.?

  2. Who is the audience, and what are your objectives? For example, your objectives may be to present a topic, or summarize the views of a particular author, to your fellow students, or to present to a panel from a potential employer on what you can offer to that organization.

Once you have your topic and your objectives, you are ready to begin to research your talk.

Don’t overwhelm yourself with information – cover the basic sources, and take good notes. It’s important to make sure you understand the issues – if you don’t, your audience certainly won’t!

Once you have the basic information, you are ready to work on the structure of your presentation.

At this point, it is very important to remember that giving a talk is NOT the same as reading out an essay, and you should never "read" your talk.  You will probably be using some sort of visual prop, such as PowerPoint slides, which summarize the main points of your talk.

Although you should not allow visual elements, and your use of technology, to dominate your talk, it is quite useful to bare it in mind as you plan its structure.

The following is a common structure for a presentation:

  1. The introduction – what is the presentation about; what your objectives are; what you will be covering.  Try and have a strong opening line that grabs peoples’ attention, for example, "64 per cent of recruiters believe that students lack communication skills".

  2. The middle – this is the main argument of your presentation. One common structure is 3 x 3: three main headings or topics and within these three main sub-headings or sub-topics. However, the number of topics will vary according to the length of the presentation. Other points to consider:
    • Illustrate points with examples, or anecdotes.
    • Use concrete rather than abstract language.
    • Provide clear transitions, making it clear that you are moving on to another section, for example "Now I am going to talk about the disadvantages".
    • Use humour, but treat jokes with caution, as these may cause offence.
  3. The conclusion – summary of main points. Try and end on a high note, with some sort of attention grabber. Ask for questions.

A good principle to remember is: tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you have told them.

One crucial factor to consider is timing. Know how long you have, and make sure that your presentation fits that time. If you go on for too long, you may lose the interest of your audience; if too short, your audience may not mind, but whoever is assessing you may feel that you have left out important information.

The way to ensure that you deliver a good presentation that is of the right length is to practice. You should speak slowly and avoid gabbling. If you find when practicing that the presentation is too long, cut out some of the information. Remember to allow time for questions.

Practice in front of a mirror, or get someone to video you.

Make sure that you are prepared as far as the logistics are concerned:  if possible visit the room where you will be presenting, and try out the technology.  Make sure you book the necessary equipment.

Have a backup plan in case the technology fails (as it often does), for example, physical copies of your slides if the laptop crashes. If you are bringing handouts, make sure you have more than sufficient.

Slides, notes, handouts and visual aids

If using slides, bear the following points in mind:

  • Don’t put too much information on each slide.  A good rule of thumb is, DON’T PUT MORE INFORMATION ON A SLIDE THAN YOU WOULD PUT ON A T-SHIRT!

  • Have one theme per slide, with two to three sub-points if using bullet points (but see below).
  • Make sure your typeface is clear and easy to see – minimum size suggestions vary between 18 and 22 pt. Use a sans serif font such as Ariel or Verdana.
  • Be careful with your use of colour – avoid orange or yellow on a white background, but yellow or white on a blue background works well.
  • Don’t use gimmicky transitions, jingles, animations, sound effects or fussy backgrounds: these are a distraction.
  • Avoid too much complexity on a slide – long sentences, complex diagrams the detail of which cannot be seen by the audience, long quotations. The latter two can be reproduced on handouts and given to the audience; the former should be avoided at all cost.
  • If you are doing a longer presentation, have a variety of slide formats: too many bullet point slides will bore the audience.

Compare these two slides and see which one you think is the most effective:

Image: Powerpoint slide example 1

Image: Powerpoint slide example 2

You will probably agree that the second slide is much clearer.  The extra information can be presented in your talk.

Visual aids should be used with care. On the one hand, the human brain is used to images so information presented visually can be more easily recalled.  On the other hand, make sure that each visual aid has a real purpose, such as to reinforce a verbal message, or to illustrate information more easily conveyed visually.  (For example, if you wanted to illustrate a sharp rise in inequality over time, you could use a timeline graph.)

If you want to use video or audio clips, make sure that you do so in a way that is relevant to your presentation, that the clips are short, and that you are confident using the necessary equipment.

We referred above to the use of handouts for details that would otherwise have been unclear on the screen.  PowerPoint allows for a print option of slides as handouts, and it can be useful to give these to your audience. 

If you give different types of information, e.g. slides, quotations, it is useful to differentiate these visually.

If you have based your presentation on other works, you can use your handouts to give a bibliography.

Unless you are one of those fortunate people who is a natural public speaker, you will want to have some notes to speak from.  Here are some suggestions on how to make them effective.

  • Some people use cards for their notes: each card has a separate heading (corresponding to the headings of the slides) along with prompt words to remind you of what to say.

  • PowerPoint gives you the option of writing notes to accompany your presentation, and you can print out each page of notes with the accompanying slide. Do not, however, write too much, and make sure you use a fairly large font size otherwise you will not be able to read your notes!
  • Whichever system you use, make sure you number them so that you can keep them in order.
  • It’s a good idea to include "stage directions" to yourself about when to bring up the next slide or show the next visual.

Giving the presentation

The time has arrived for you to give your presentation.  If you have prepared carefully then you can relax because you have done most of the work: now all that is left is to get the credit!

Most people are nervous about giving presentations: don’t worry too much about this, it probably won’t show to your audience as much as you think.  Being well prepared is a good way of dealing with nerves. 

Arrive early in the room to set up, if possible, allowing yourself plenty of time to check that the equipment is in order and the seating is how you want it. Check the lighting – too much will make it difficult to see the screen, too little and you won’t be able to read your notes.

When you give your talk:

  • Take a deep breath before you start, it will calm you. Make sure you have a glass of water to hand.
  • Speak slowly, but in a lively way, varying your pitch and tone to avoid a monotonous delivery.
  • Maintain eye contact with as many people as possible – not just your tutor, or one member of the assessment panel.
  • Smile and appear confident; don’t apologize for anything that may have gone slightly wrong.
  • Make a creative use of silence – pause between sections/slides to allow your points to sink in.

NEVER EVER JUST READ OUT YOUR TALK!

End your talk by offering the audience the opportunity to ask questions:

  • Try and anticipate likely questions as you prepare the presentation.
  • If questions are slow in coming, have a question prepared which you can ask the audience.
  • Take time to respond to questions – reflect the question back to the speaker to make sure you (and the audience) have understood.

Be honest: if you don’t know the answer, say so.

Group presentations

Most universities encourage group-work as a way of developing team-working skills, and these often involve presentations.

Many of the same points apply to a group as to an individual presentation. However the challenge is to share out the work fairly, and not to end up feeling that everyone has the same mark for differing levels of contributions.

The process of groupwork needs to be managed, so appoint a coordinator.

Avoid control by a strong personality who makes all the decisions, or opt-out by someone who does not contribute or have any responsibility to the group.

For all the preparation tasks, decide who is doing what. Do a skills audit of your team, and allocate tasks accordingly.  For example, someone with graphic skills could be responsible for the visual aids, whilst someone good with numbers could take on that aspect of the presentation, etc.

Once all this has been agreed, plan a tight schedule and monitor it as you go along.

Meet regularly as a group to plan the presentation, and be firm with those who don’t (or won’t) attend for no good reason.  Although you have appointed a coordinator, it may be a good idea to rotate the chair, and you should always have someone who records key decisions and writes up minutes.

Make a collective decision about how the talk should be structured, and who will write, and present, what.  Identify who will be responsible for any visuals.

Needless to say, you should rehearse together. This should include how you “manage” your group presence on the day.  In many group presentations, those who are not presenting stand around like spare parts, with self conscious grins.

Introduce other group members, either at the begining or as you move onto the next speaker. Decide where you are all going to stand, and always use “we” not “I”.

Conclusion, References, Further information

In this article, we have covered some major points on how to give a presentation.

Now look at this example of a PowerPoint presentation, based on this article.  What do you think about it? Are there ways it could be improved? Click image below or the link to view the PDF.

Image: PowePoint example

References

University of Kent Careers Advisory Service (n.d.), Tips on Making Presentations, http://www.kent.ac.uk/careers/presentationskills.htm. (This has excellent advice, including an example from a student, on giving presentations to a recruitment panel.)

University of Southampton (2009), Giving a Talk, available at http://www.studyskills.soton.ac.uk/develop.htm.  (This very useful word document is available for download.)

Useful sources of information

Study Success at Sussex: Presentations
http://www.sussex.ac.uk/s3/?id=63
Has a couple of amusing and useful videos, with lecturers’ views on what makes a good presentation.

Skills4study: Presentation skills
http://www.palgrave.com/skills4study/studyskills/personal/presentation.asp#Use
A free resource produced by Palgrave Macmillan to accompany its Study Skills series

Learn Higher – Group work
http://www.learnhigher.ac.uk/groupwork//index.php
This includes some amusing videos about what can go wrong when a group prepares a presentation.

Joan van Emden and Lucinda Becker, Presentation Skills for Students, Palgrave Study Skills, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Out of print but available as an ebook, see http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?PID=267435.