Giving Presentations

Many students will, without hesitation, tell you that public speaking is one of the greatest fears of academia (or really, any professional life). But there is no avoiding the inevitable — an important part of academia is sharing your work with the greater world, and you will need to develop the ability to give great presentations. On this page, we will offer some tips on preparing a great talk, an exercise to hone your skills, and some external resources for additional reading.

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We hope your presentation doesn't end up like this.
(Source: Piled Higher and Deeper #1553 by Jorge Cham)

Overview

Prepare! This should come as no surprise, but the key factor in giving excellent presentations is to be 100% prepared. Whether your audience is a group of five of your labmates or 200 attendees at a conference, your goal is the same: communicate your message in clear and concise terms, and convince your audience of the importance/interest of your work. Take some time to structure your presentation, before you even start thinking about slides. What is the objective of the talk? Are you presenting a paper? Giving an overview of your research? Giving an update to your advisor? What main points do you want to present? What is the "bottom line" you want your audience to take away from your talk when it's over? Make a list of these questions and their answers, and this will give you a great starting point for developing a structure for your talk.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Once you've structured your talk and completed your slides, you must practice. First practice to yourself, record yourself and critique yourself. This will help you get used to the sound of your voice in a quiet room, too, if you are not accustomed to it. Then practice your talk in front of peers and/or your advisor. Ask your colleagues for feedback and honest assessment, of both your speaking skills and the format of your talk. It's better to hear this feedback from them than from strangers at the conference.

Speaking skills. Be conscious of your voice. When giving a talk, it's not just what you say, but how you say it. Speak clearly, and make sure the back of the room can hear you. Don't rush, but don't be too conversational. A monotone voice will put your audience to sleep, so be sure to vary your pitch and speed. Make sure you pause at key points to allow your points to sink in. Make eye contact with members of the audience. Be aware of your facial expressions and energy level. If you look bored, your audience will be bored. Your research excites you, doesn't it? Show it!

Exercises

Practice Presentation

Prepare a five-minute talk on a research paper or project of your choice. Videotape yourself giving this talk, to a small audience or by yourself. Your talk should include some form of visual aid, such as a short set of PowerPoint slides (or even just one slide) summarizing your results or evaluation.

Rewatch your recording and consider the way you perceive yourself presenting. Pretend that you are an external observer seeing your talk for the first time, or ask a peer to help you review. Consider your presentation style (your presenting skills and slides) as well as your substance (your content and how it is organized). Seeing yourself present can be uncomfortable, but this approach can be extremely useful for preparing excellent academic talks.

External Resources

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