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Academic presentations: Presenting

Good practice in presentations including design and structure. Covers group and poster presentations

“Delivery is the final and most challenging part of a presentation. Not the most difficult or the most important—that award goes to storytelling—but the most challenging, the most frightening.”

Alexei Kapterev, Presentation Secrets

No matter how good a slideshow is, a poor presenter can ruin it for the audience. The challenge is to appear relaxed and professional even if you don't yet feel it. Follow these top tips to become a confident and compelling speaker.

Our 5 top tips for presenting with [apparent] confidence:

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1. Don't read your slides

Surveys have shown that presenters reading their slides is the number one most hated thing about PowerPoint presentations. Who wants to be hated? Don't do it - use small cue cards if you need them. Reducing the amount of text on your slides will also make this less likely to happen. If you have a lot of text on a slide (a longish quote for example) then shut up and give your audience a chance to read it themselves before continuing.


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2. If possible, use a remote device for advancing your slides

This allows you to move out from behind the computer and/or lectern and enables you to connect to your audience. Standing behind the computer creates an unnecessary barrier between you and them.

Most departments have them if you ask nicely!


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3. Know your material and ditch the notes when you can

There is no quick fix for learning your material, you just have to get your head down and do it we're afraid. Ideally, all you should need is a quick glance at the slide (or some cue cards) and you should know what you want to say to explain your point. Nervous and new presenters are clearly going to struggle with this - but don't panic, use notes to begin with (the briefer the better) and eventually you will grow in confidence and be able to ditch them completely. The worst case scenario is that you could take 3 years getting to this point - but at least you will be fabulous for your first job interview presentation!


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4. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

Even experienced, professional speakers rehearse their narration. We recommend two or three times sitting in front of the computer (timing it to make sure I'm not going to run over or be too short), and then at least once in a room where you can stand up and have it on a screen behind you.  Even when you are at the computer, saying it out loud is important. You may feel a bit self-conscious but the computer is a very uncritical audience. If you are an inexperienced presenter and do not think you will be able to manage without reading from your notes, at least memorise and practice some short passages so that you can have some eye-contact with the audience and make them feel involved.


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5. Be yourself

If you are a natural performer - go for it. If you are naturally reticent, keep it simple. Look at some TED talks and see how different even renowned presenters are. Below are two good ones to compare from two wonderful and much missed presenters. One is from Sir Ken Robinson, a former government adviser on education who championed supporting creativity in children. He gave some of the most-watched presentations at the TED conferences. He had a really simple presentation style with little or no visuals but managed to keep the audience hanging on his every word by making them feel he was just having a chat. The other is from Hans Rosling who was quite over the top in his presentation style and got really involved with his strong visual data. Think about what sort of a presenter you would feel comfortable being and embrace that authentic you.

Presenting online

Most of the tips above are also relevant for online presenting, but there are a few additional things to consider:

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Look into the camera if you are going to be on screen

Sometimes, when you present online, you are still visible in the corner of the screen. Make sure you spend a lot of the time looking directly into your webcam so that it looks to the audience like you are looking at them and not at your notes constantly. This is the nearest equivalent there is of making eye contact with your audience.

Don't just read your presenter's notes

If you are lucky enough to have two screens when you are presenting, or are using the Presenter option in MS Teams, you can see the speakers notes that you have added in the Notes pane on PowerPoint. This is brilliant - but don't just read them out as that will come across very stilted. Instead, use your speakers notes like cue-cards - just put a few bullet points in them that remind you what to talk about but leave some of what you say to come naturally.

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Thinking about standing

You don't have to, but a lot of experts suggest that if you stand up when you present, you will be more energised and engaging. At the very least make sure you are sitting up straight and looking like you want to be there. Body language can be just as important on screen as it is in person.