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How to... give a research presentation

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?

Planning the presentation

Once you have done your research, you will know all about your audience and its needs, and the actions you need to stimulate, and how long you are expected to speak for. The next stage is planning the actual presentation.

These days, particularly in a commercial setting, it is expected that the presentation will be accompanied by slides created using Microsoft PowerPoint. Because of this, we deal with more general points of planning on this page, and the more specific aspects of preparing the slides to go with your presentation in the page in Technical matters – using Microsoft PowerPoint.

Introduction

This is the first chance you have to grab your audience's attention – take it! It is usual to have a cover slide with the title of the presentation and your name: while this is up on the screen, take the opportunity to introduce yourself briefly. Having done that, make some arresting statement which sums up your presentation in a way that will make them prick up their ears and convince them that you understand their needs.

For example, you are seeking funding on ways of streamlining the production line for the creation of space rockets. This could be stated as:

"Would you like to improve the production management of your space rocket construction?"

Or, you may be interested comparing how people manage projects with and without software. This could be stated as:

"Would you like to understand the factors that improve project management?"

Obviously, you will have to show how your research will in fact reveal these factors.

Of course, there are other circumstances when it might be better not to make explicit reference to your audience's needs, for example, when you are attending a job interview you could start like this:

"I want to talk to you about my research in the area of X, where I have key interests in a, b, and c."

The next part of your presentation should be a brief summary of what you are going to cover: this will give the audience a roadmap.

The body of the presentation

First, you need to decide what material you need to cover. There are various ways of doing this, not necessarily mutually exclusive:

  • Write out a list of the main points, and then establish a structure.
  • Prepare a spider diagram of associated words to do with the theme, then use different colours to link related themes.
  • Identify a number of key concepts, and write a paragraph for each.
  • Write down a list of questions you think your audience might want answers to.

You also need to establish how you are going to structure the presentation. Here are some possible approaches:

  • Having a list of topics which are examined sequentially, possibly grouped according to major themes, with sub-topics.
  • Research sequence: this is where the research is described chronologically, from the research question through the chosen methodology to the data and its analysis to the findings. Your research could include the testing of a hypothesis, or a general principle which you have established.
  • Problem-based: outline a problem, and discuss possible solutions.
  • Describe a project: the questions it is attempting to answer, why it is important to answer them, the stages, time scale, budget, reporting structure etc.

The occasion of the presentation will also help determine its structure. For a job interview, you may wish to use a topic based approach providing a few general statements about your research (the detail will be in your publications/work in progress, a list of which will have been supplied with your application).

A presentation requesting funding requires a different approach in that you are probably talking about future research. You could adopt a problem based approach, but you will also need to describe the stages of the project with built in milestones so that your potential sponsors can feel that they are monitoring progress, and obtaining tangible benefits along the way.

Some further points to remember are:

  • Tailor your style to your audience. Using technical terms and jargon is OK if you are talking to your peer group, but not for a 'lay' audience.
  • Avoid going into too much detail. People will not remember. The object of a presentation is to give a broad brush view

Summary

Briefly recapitulate the main points, referring to your objective. In the case of a presentation for sponsorship, make a specific request for action – "We need £x amount over y time period."

Using graphics

It is important to make a visual impact with your audience – we will discuss other ways of doing this, such as through design, when we come to the section on Technical matters: using Microsoft PowerPoint. Here we are talking specifically about the use of graphics. These can clarify concepts, help make your presentation appealing, add variety and interest, and retain audience attention. However, make sure that your graphics:

  • Really do convey the message better than words could.
  • Are large enough to be seen when projected onto a large screen.
  • Are not hand drawn but created by a graphics package or PowerPoint.
  • Use text sparingly – too much text on graphics can be confusing.
  • Use enough data to make your point, but not too much, as in the following example, which will just be a blur to most people watching:
  • Image: example of too much data on a graph

Use a graphic type suitable for making a point:

  • Tables are suitable for presenting groups of detailed facts and their relationship to one another, as in the following example:
  • Image: table presenting detailed facts

  • Bar graphs are a useful way of comparing numerical data, e.g. sales figures of different types of products.
  • Line graphs show trends or how one variable can change as a result of the other's actions.
  • Flowcharts demonstrate a process.
  • Organization charts depict hierarchical relationships
  • Pie charts show the relationship of different elements of the whole.
  • Formulae can be done using TexPoint, a LaTeX add-in for PowerPoint.

Practise, practise, practise!

Once you have written your presentation, and assembled your overheads, you need to practise to ensure:

  • That you can speak fluently without having to refer too much to notes.
  • That your presentation is the right length (remember, a presentation takes longer "live").
  • That you can handle your overheads confidently.

Supporting documents

Remember, your presentation is really just a snapshot of the entire information you are trying to convey.

  • If you are a job applicant, you will have a CV with a list of your publications.
  • If you are applying for a grant or sponsorship, you will have already submitted a proposal.
  • If you are doing a conference presentation, it is an idea to do a paper even though the conference proceedings may not call for one. You can hand it out to people who are interested, and adapt it afterwards for a journal article.

Technical matters: using Microsoft PowerPoint

One of the more challenging aspects of doing a presentation can be using the technology. In the commercial sector, this means using PowerPoint, a Microsoft product which allows you to build a slide show.

If you are not familiar with PowerPoint, you will find it on most Microsoft Office packages, and it is not a difficult piece of software to learn. Microsoft do a number of training courses: "Create your first presentation" is a good introduction.

Avoid falling into hardware traps

Image: tick Do:

  • Check that the venue has the right equipment for you: you will need a computer and a projector.
  • Decide whether you are going to bring your presentation on a USB memory stick, or on a laptop, and check with your hosts beforehand that they can accommodate you.
  • If bringing a USB memory stick, scan it for viruses, and have a back-up.
  • Email your host a copy of the presentation beforehand, asking him or her to test it on the computer you will be using.
  • Check that you are using the 'right' version of PowerPoint, i.e. one that is compatible with the "receiving" computer's software.
  • Arrive early and check out the equipment, and have a practice run-through of your presentation from a technical point of view, ensuring that you can run through the slides seamlessly.
  • Run your presentation out on acetates, or have a set of 35mm presentation slides, just in case their equipment fails. This will make you look as though you are the sort of person who thinks of everything!
  • If you require sound, check that the computer has a sound card.
  • Check the size of the room beforehand, and if it is large, request a microphone.

Image: cross Don't:

  • Bring USB memory sticks that are not standard format, or without first checking that the hardware can accommodate them.
  • Let lack of confidence in the technology mar your presentation!

Avoid Death by PowerPoint!

PowerPoint is a powerful tool, but like all powerful tools if not well used it can be deadly!

Image: tickDo:

  • Prepare a draft of what you are going to say, then consider how best it would appear into slide form. You will probably want to divide up the presentation into a number of sections according to the number of slides you consider appropriate.
  • Allow a maximum of two to three minutes per slide – so for a 15 minute presentation, you should have no more than five to seven slides.
  • Bullet points should be just that – a summary of the point you will make when talking, "headings" which convey the flavour of your point without gving all the detail, as in the following example (click here to see how I would talk to these bullet points):
  • Image: powerpoint example

  • Draft notes for your speech separately from your bullet point slides. Either print out a second copy of your slides which you can use for notes, or use the "Handouts" facility – available by clicking just under the slide:

  • Image: powerpoint example

Image: cross Don't:

  • Allow the software to run away with you! Don't use PowerPoint to write your talk – it is NOT word processing software.
  • Present by reading out what's on your slide.
  • Have too much on a slide – too much material will get lost.

Use your slides to capture the audience's attention!

Image: tickDo:

  • Use minimum 24pt – anything else will be hard on your audience's eyes!
  • Use serif rather than sans serif fonts:
  • Image: font example

  • Use graphics, pictures and tabular material where appropriate. (See Planning the presentation: using graphics INS LINK for more information.)
  • Use a consistent design – choose a colour scheme and then apply it to all slides. Appropriate use of bright colours can do much to enliven a presentation, as in the following example:

    Image: contrasting perspectives

  • Ensure that you use strongly contrasting colours for text and background (as in the left-hand slide). Failure to do this could result in lack of clarity, as in the right-hand slide below:

    Image: initial steps

  • Keep it simple –"PowerPoint is fun the first time you use it and get to know its many features, but your audience...won't be impressed that you know how to use the 'dissolve' feature accompanied by a 'whoosh' sound." (Abby Day Peters, Winning Research Funding, p. 140.)

Image: cross Don't:

  • Use technology for its own sake, but ALWAYS to help you and your audience.
  • Use graphics and pictures where not appropriate, just to show you can use the technology.
  • Use any of the fancier features, such as animation, media clips etc. unless you are really sure that you can make them work, and work effectively.

Give your audience something to remember

Image: tickDo:

  • Provide handouts (use the Print menu, and set the 'Print what' drop-down menu to "handouts"). These should contain your contact details.
  • Check how many people will attend the presentation, and provide that number of handouts, and a few more (about 10 per cent).

Giving the presentation

If you are well prepared, that's over half the battle. On this page we'll look at a few things you need to remember on the day, including body language and dress.

On the day

Before

Arrive early at the venue, to check out the room, equipment etc.

  • Check that the lighting is adequate – is the room sufficiently dark/bright? Can you alter the lighting by drawing blinds etc.? (Ensure that closing the latter will not mean that you also shut out air, which may cause your audience to go to sleep!)
  • Does the sound card work, and is the quality of the sound OK? If you are using a microphone, test that.
  • Check for any potential problems with "dead" areas of the room, e.g. where visibility may be poor due to no overhead light, furniture in the way etc.
  • Set up the USB memory stick to run from the computer, or connect your laptop to the projector, and make sure you are comfortable with running through the slides.
  • If you have requested a whiteboard and markers, are they there and in an appropriate place?

During

Image: tick Do:

  • Take deep breaths before you begin – this will help calm any nerves.
  • Acknowledge other people's part in the research.
  • Be enthusiastic – enthusiasm is infectious, as is your energy.
  • Talk at a moderate pace, don't rush, and keep your voice at normal volume.
  • Talk rather than read from a script.

Image: cross Don't:

  • Rush the presentation – if you have properly rehearsed then you should have got the timing right, and you should know which areas you can leave out if short of time.
  • Stand in such a position that you obscure the screen.
  • Stand with your back to the audience.
  • Betray any sign of boredom, or nerves, or tiredness.
  • Read from a script (unless your first language is not English, in which case make sure that you look up often).
  • Make jokes – you may be too nervous to carry them off, it can be devastating if the audience doesn't laugh.

Body language and appearance

Image: tick Do:

  • Dress well, but avoid flamboyant clothes. Business dress is usually a suit in a fairly sober colour for both men and women.
  • Maintain eye contact with the audience.
  • Make your body movements quiet and natural; some hand movements are OK, but avoid wild gesticulations!

Image: cross Don't:

  • Dress casually, or in academic "grunge".
  • Employ exaggerated body language.
  • Stand with your hands in your pockets.
  • Fumble with change in your pockets, bite your nails, or twiddle your hair. If you have habits like these, practise NOT doing these things while presenting, as they can be VERY distracting.

Answering questions

The following points are worth bearing in mind:

  • If you have planned your presentation well, you should have forestalled obvious questions, e.g. how many people will be involved in this project, what will the reporting structure be etc. (We have earlier suggested that a good way of planning your presentation is to write down a list of possible questions.)
  • Try and make the question and answer session a two way process: have some questions of your own; try and stimulate discussion.
  • Always repeat questions – the questionner may have asked the question quietly so that some of the audience may not have heard.
  • Don't feel that you have to know all the answers. Either say that you will come back to the person, or if appropriate ask if anyone else in the hall knows the answer.
  • Prepare an "additional point" so that if there are no questions, you can use the time effectively.
  • If you get asked a question in the middle of your presentation, answer it if it will clarify a point, but don't be afraid to ask if you can come back to the point after the main presentation.
  • Stay calm, even in the face of difficult questions. Never be afraid to pause in order to collect your thoughts.
  • Try and think up possible questions as you prepare your presentation, and write down a list, including answers.

Some useful resources

Advice on presenting your research
from the Kansas University Medical Center

Using LaTeX add-ins