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Academic presentations: Structure

“A solid structure is the foundation of a coherent presentation, and shows the relationship between the parts and whole.”

Nancy Duarte, Resonate

A presentation that has a strong, clear structure is a presentation that is easy to follow. Without structure a presentation can be confusing to an audience. How do they know if you are going to cover what they need to know? How can they tell which slides contain the most important points? This page considers some ways that you can organise your slides to give shape to your presentation as a whole.


Basic presentation structure

Every presentation should flow like a good story. It should involve the audience directly.

Image of an open book showing the beginning, middle and end of the story

  • The beginning section is where you hook them. Start with the general picture then explain the specific problem and how by listening to your presentation you can solve it for them.
  • The middle section should contain the main detail of your presentation, and can be organised in a number of ways (two good ones are explained below).
  • Finally your end section should summarise the presentation and lead the audience to the next step.

Design your slides so that these sections look distinctive and any key points stand out.


Beginning section

This section is all about drawing the audience in; giving them a reason to want to listen to the main part of your presentation.

You can include any or all of the following:

  • A really well designed title slide that grabs the attention
  • A slide that gives the audience the big picture
  • A slide that shows what you will be focusing on
  • A slide that uses the word 'you' or 'your' in the title to connect with the audience
  • A slide that tells the audience what is to come in your presentation (its structure)

 

Visual version of the points above

After your title slide you need slides covering these areas


Middle section structure option 1 - key points

Several authors suggest using a structure that involves an introduction followed by a middle section containing key point slides (usually 3).

The ideas is that there is a hierarchy of slides so that after each key point you have other slides that explain or add detail to that key point.

 

Image showing the 3 large boxes broken down to show a key point box followed by several detail boxes

Cliff Atkinson (writer of the book Beyond Bullet Points) provides a story template to help you structure and plan your presentation in this way on his website (follow this link - BBP Resources - and download the BBP Story template for Word 2007 - it works fine with later versions of Word too). There are lots of other useful resources there if you want to explore more.

University of Hull staff and students can access the eBook for Beyond Bullet Points via this link: Beyond Bullet Points eBook.

Middle section option 2 - sparkline

For her book Resonate Nancy Duarte looked in detail at the structure of successful presentations throughout history (even back to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address). She discovered that many have the same structural form which she calls a 'sparkline'.

Image of sparkline structure showing a line starting low and then moving up and down several times before ending high - low sections are labelled what is and high sections what could be

 

This structure makes a clear distinction between what is (the position before the presentation is seen and acted upon) and what could be (the position after the presentation is seen and acted upon). The audience is introduced to the what is state at the beginning of the presentation and then switched back and forth between what could be and what is several times before ending in the what could be condition, which she calls Reward:New Bliss.

Nancy explains this better here: Sparkline Overview.

In terms of academic work the what is is the current level of knowledge or previous thinking on a subject and the what could be is the new knowledge or new thinking. The new bliss is what the audience could do or learn next now that they are aware of the change. 


End section

The end of your presentation is a very powerful part because it contains your final words, the ones that the audience will take away with them. After you have finished your middle section, have at least one slide that summarises your main points and one slide that leaves the audience with the most important point of your presentation - the one you would like them to remember even if they forget everything else.

 

Visual summary of the above paragraph

Include slides that show these in your end section

 

DO NOT finish with a slide that says Any Questions? or Thanks for Listening as this a waste of your final slide and does not need a visual image to help the audience understand your words. This slide could potentially be viewed longer than any other slide (whilst you answer your questions or receive feedback) and so you want to make sure it contains something that is important to both you and the audience.

 

 

Any questions-2.png   slide showing large question mark (crossed out) and slide showing sign labelled 'Thank You' also crossed out 

These slides are a waste of your last slide - use the final slide for your most important point not a throwaway.


Template for structuring an academic presentation

Thumbnail image of template

This MSWord document is a template for structuring a typical academic presentation, it can be adapted and changed if necessary depending on how long the presentation you need to give is. Try to fill it in using full sentences as these will become your slide titles.

The blue sections are optional. The NEED and TASK sections are most suited to research presentations.

This is designed for a presentation between 20-30 minutes long. Shorter presentations will have no explanatory points and longer presentations will need more explanatory points.


This is adapted from Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points templates which are linked to on the home page of this SkillsGuide.