Oral Presentations

[by Jeff Radel, University of Kansas Medical Center]

Preparation | Important Elements | Practice Makes Perfect | Using Notes | The Moment of Truth

Visual Aids | Design Concepts | How to Give a Bad Talk | Useful Links

Ten simple rules for making good oral presentations (video)

Giving Oral Presentations

How to make the most of 15 minutes


Initial Planning

 Before preparing the presentation determine:

   1. The type of talk you will be expected to give. Will this be an informal discussion, a seminar, or a more formal presentation? Different talks have different purposes; the intent of a conference presentation is not the same as a presentation at a job interview. When in doubt, ask for guidance from your host.

   2. The composition of the audience. Will you be speaking to a general audience or specialists? How many people will attend?

   3. The time allotted for the talk. The longer the talk, the more freedom you will have to explore the topic. A short talk needs to be clear and concise.

   4. Expectations concerning content. Is there a specific purpose for having you give a talk? Clarify expectations and address them during the presentation.  Will you be presenting novel concepts to this audience, or building upon their prior knowledge? Either way, make sure you cover the basics clearly, and early in the talk, to avoid losing the audience.


 Once you have a general idea of what you want to say, you'll have to decide how to say it. It is essential that your talk be well-organized and that your points be presented logically and unambiguously. To do so may require much preparation. Start early! Here are a few pointers:

   1. Start preparing well in advance by thinking through what needs to be said.

   2. Develop a clear statement of the topic and its importance.

   3. Arrange material in a logical sequence (IMRAD).

   4. Presentation software (such as PowerPoint) is, of course, widely used for oral presentations. PowerPoint is a good tool for organizing your presentation & is useful for creating slides for your presentation (but see Annoying PowerPoint Survey Results & Gettysburg Address & Making PowerPoint slides).

Power Point Problems

Life After Death by Powerpoint

   5. Determine transition elements which will help your audience to follow the link from one topic to the next. These should be logical, and may be presented by posing a question, or explaining your own discovery of the link's existence.

   6. Run through the talk once, early. Go back and re-think the sequencing. Discard non-essential elements.

   7. Attempt to identify problems or questions the audience may have and address them in the talk, before the audience has a chance to think of these things themselves.

  8. Proof-read your slides! Do so while there is plenty of time to re-print any visual aids with errors.

  9. The most important preparation factor is to REHEARSE! You may want to videotape yourself and watch the results with a critical eye.

  10. Try the presentation in front of a few colleagues. Ask for feedback, then act on that information. Depending on the audience expected for your presentation, you might want to select those who know a little about your topic, and not those who know a lot. This will focus your attention on attempting to explain why you did what you did in simple terms, rather than encouraging attention to details only specialists care about.

  11. If you start preparing early, you'll have plenty of time to refine the presentation based on your colleagues' feedback.

Important Elements

 Keeping these elements in mind as you prepare and practice the presentation will reduce the amount of re-working you'll have to do as it evolves, and will result in a streamlined, effective end product.

   1. Rate: The optimal rate for a scientific talk is about 100 words per minute. Any faster and the audience can't absorb the additional information. Use pauses and repeat critical information.

   2. Opening: The opening should catch the interest and attention of the audience immediately, while avoiding trite filler phrases (Thank you for having me . . .) and technical jargon.

   3. Transitions: The link between successive elements of the talk should be planned carefully. You should make the relation between successive elements clear to the audience.

   4. Conclusion: Summarize the main concepts you've discussed, and how your work relates to issues you've raised. Signal that the summary is beginning ("In summary, ..."), but don't begin the summary too soon or else the audience will start to leave before you finish!

   5. Length: Don't run over! Ever! Shorten your talk by removing details, concepts, and information, not by eliminating words. If it becomes absolutely essential to supply details, supplement your presentation with a handout. Make about 10% more handouts than you think you'll need. Always leave time for a few questions at the end of the talk.

Practice makes perfect

 Practice is the most important factor in making a good presentation. No matter how busy you are, make time for at least a few practice runs. The effects of practice will be apparent, and a poorly presented talk reflects upon both you and your attitude towards the material and audience.

 Practice the talk a few times to see how it flows. After that, seek outside feedback to make sure you are on the right track. Finally, practice all parts of the talk equally. If you always start at the beginning and work until you run into problems, the beginning of the talk will be great, but the final part of the talk may suffer.

Hints for efficient practice

  Breath slowly and deeply; project your voice. Practice making eye contact with your imaginary audience, but don't single out one individual. Avoid looking at your notes when you don't need to.

 Your words will probably be different each time you practice, but try to stick to the general outline of your notes. Don't attempt to memorize your text; use your notes only as reference points to keep you on track. Think about the ideas, and your words will follow naturally. Speak slowly and clearly, and use gestures.

 A tape recorder or videotape are useful tools. Look for variation in speed or tone, or for distracting fillers like 'um's (and 'er's, 'like's and 'you know's). Avoid distracting mannerisms, e.g., don't pace or adjust your clothing. Make sure you are speaking to your audience, not to the floor, ceiling, or, especially, the projection screen.

 What you say should be readily understandable by the audience. Pay attention to diction; speak clearly and distinctly. Listen carefully to the words you use, not to what you think you are saying. Are these the best words for making your point? Are they unambiguous? Avoid using jargon whenever possible.

Using notes

 A prepared series of notes can be useful. Keep in mind that notes may not even be needed for the final talk.

 Begin by determining the underlying message of the talk, then decide on the minimum essential material needed to support that message. Write out the talk and practice it once or twice. If needed, reorganize the material, rephrase statements, and highlight key phrases.


 There are a few things you can do at the last minute to ensure a successful presentation:

   1. If possible, check out the room you'll use for the presentation. If you need specialized equipment, make sure it is available. Determine who will be controlling equipment for you. If the room is large (or your voice small), use a microphone. Try it out before the audience arrives. If using a laser pointer, make sure it works.

   2. Don't wait until the very last minute to make that run to the bathroom, and remember to check your appearance.

The Moment of Truth

 So you are sitting there, about to be introduced. Now what?

   1. Take several deep breaths as you are being introduced. Visualize your rehearsed opening statement; don't improvise at the last moment.

    2. State your objectives at start of your talk, then restate them again at the end of the talk. In between, discuss how your material relates to these objectives.

   3. Choose a natural, moderate rate of speech and use automatic gestures. Don't speak in a monotone voice. Vary pitch and volume as appropriate.

   4. Monitor your behavior, and avoid habitual behaviors (e.g., pacing).

   5. Laser pointers are wonderful pointing devices, but remember not to point them at the audience. They are best used by flashing the pointer on and off, so that the place you are indicating is illuminated briefly. Don't swirl the laser around and around one place on the projection screen, or sweep it from place to place across the screen. This may be distracting for the audience, and they will end up watching the pointer and not listening to what you are saying.

   6. Enthusiasm for your topic is contagious, but don't overdo it.

   7. If appropriate, converse with your audience. Involve them in the process of the presentation by posing questions and making eye contact.

   8. Keep an eye on your time, and don't run over your limit. Ever.

   9. Be prepared for interruptions (e.g., late arrivals).

  10. If you must turn down the room lights, don't turn them off entirely.

  11. Don't apologize for any aspect of your presentation. This should be your very best effort; if you have to apologize, you haven't done your job properly.

  12. Never turn your back on an audience. Always maintain eye contact with your audience

  13. Strive to have a prepared and memorable summary. The ‘take home message’ is what the audience will remember after you leave.

  14. Give others credit where due. This can be done early in the talk or later in the talk. If planned for later in the talk, don't forget to acknowledge these people's efforts (even if you have to skip a statement or two to remain on time).

Handling Questions

 The question period often is the part of the talk which influences the audience the most. After all, you've had time to practice the rest of the talk. This is the part of the presentation where your ability to interact with the audience will be evaluated. Since you can't always predict the what you'll be asked, how can you prepare for the questioning? Here are a few guidelines:

   1. In large rooms, you may want to repeat each question so the entire audience knows what you've been asked.

   2. Before you answer, take a moment to reflect on the question. By not rushing to give an answer, you show a degree of respect for the questioner, and you give yourself time to be sure you are answering the question that actually was asked. If you are unsure, restate the question or ask for a clarification.

   3. Above all, wait for the questioner to finish asking the question before you begin your answer! The only exception is when it becomes necessary to break in on a vague, rambling question; this is your show, and you have only a limited time to make your presentation. It is essential, however, that you break in tactfully. Say something like "So, are you asking ....?" This will focus the question and give you a place to begin an answer. Remember that your ability to interact with an audience also is being evaluated.

   4. If a question is asked during the talk, and it will clarify an ambiguity, answer it immediately.

   5. If you can't answer a question, just say so. Don't apologize. You may offer to research an answer, then get back to the questioner later, suggest resources which would help the questioner to address the question themselves, or ask for suggestions from the audience.

Visual Aids (See Rate Your Presentation Slides - a pdf document + Ten Secrets For Using PowerPoint Effectively)

  Be sure that the title will be interpreted by the audience the way you intend it to be, and check for spelling errors! One of the early visuals is often used to break the ice, warming the audience up and getting you over the jitters (but if that's not your style, don't bother - nothing is more awkward that watching someone tell a joke when they don't possess that talent). Using an icebreaker is fine, but don't overuse cartoons. You'll want to avoid appearing shallow or superficial. Screen the contents and implications of each cartoon carefully, too.

 Another common use of a visual is to introduce or acknowledge collaborators. Consider placing this near the beginning of the talk. That way it will only take a few seconds early on when you feel there is plenty of time - and it won't get lost at the end of the talk when you may feel constrained for time. Collaborators can be listed by name and affiliation, but a more effective way to acknowledge these folks is a collage of candid photos with names attached. If one or more of the collaborators is in the audience, this can be great fun, and can serve as an icebreaker (thereby eliminating one more slide - the cartoon).

A Word About Timing

 Keep the following points in mind as you sit down to begin to create your visuals:

Most presenters use too many slides. By using only essential slides, you'll increase the time that you are the focus of your audience's attention during the talk (i.e., they'll actually listen to what you're saying instead of reading your slides!).

Four Important Design Concepts

Pay attention to these four concepts as you create slides:

    1) Make it BIG

    2) Keep it Simple

    3) Make it Clear

    4) Be Consistent

Make it BIG!

 Naturally, you'd like everyone in the audience to be able to actually see the visual you plan to use. This is complicated by not always knowing the size of the audience you'll speak to, or the size of the room you'll use. As a rule of thumb, if it looks right on the computer screen, it's probably too small. If it looks big, it's still too small. Here’s a hint for those using some type of graphics software. Simply expand the visual until it takes up the full screen. Then move back until you are about 6 feet away from the screen. Anything you can see or read easily should be about the right size. And, what about when you actually get the slides back from the developer? Ideally, of course, you'd like to try the slides in a large lecture hall. However, you can also try this: once you have the slides in your hands, simply grab one by the corner and hold it at arm's length. Squint a bit, and try to see what it says. Even better, shuffle the slides first, then try this out - if you can sort the slides according to your presentation outline then you are doing well for both sizing and organization. Be critical of your work, since you can count on having at least one critic in any audience. Be certain that the visuals you plan to use actually illustrate the concepts you plan to present and discuss.

Keep it SIMPLE!

 Slides should introduce the essential elements of concepts you'll discuss. The audience ought be able to get the point of the visual within the first 4 or 5 seconds after it appears. If you must use text, use it sparingly. Spend more time explaining the slides instead of assuming that the text will explain it for you. As a rule:

     1. Use no more than 6 lines of text per slide.

     2. Use no more than 7 words per line of text.

     3. Avoid using a number of text slides in a row during the presentation.

After a slide first appears, don't say anything for a few seconds - allow the audience to absorb the information. Then, when you have their undivided attention, expand upon what the slide has to say. For this approach to be effective, you'll have to include only the most pertinent information in each visual. You should limit the text on each slide and restrict the contents of tables or graphs to include only the information most pertinent to your topic. Although presenting data in tables can be effective, limit the data you do present to that which is pertinent to the topic at hand and, remember, a graph often is more effective. If you present means, include estimates of variablility. Be prepared to discuss the statistical assessment of your data and the implications.

Make it CLEAR!

 If the information in the visual isn't easy to see or read, the audience will be trying to figure it out instead of listening to what you have to say. That's the first step towards loosing the attention of an audience or confusing them. Consider carefully as you choose a font for the text, you'll find that the larger the text, the easier it is to see from the back of the room. On the other hand, you'll be able to fit less text on each visual (that isn't necessarily a bad thing). We tend to see most fonts printed in a 10 - 12 point size, in textbooks and on computer screens. Larger text looks strange, and we tend to overestimate how big text sizes larger than 18 point will actually be when projected onto a screen. If the text looks big enough to be the right size (18-24 point), it's probably too small. Make the text so large that you feel it must be too big (36-48 point) - it will probably be just about right. Also, a mixture of upper and lower case characters is easiest to read. DON"T USE ALL CAPS!!!

 Color increases visual impact dramatically, and one of the most effective uses of color is to emphasize selected text. Select complementary colors to increase visibility, and avoid color clashes! Many folks experience some degree of color insensitivity (the most common form is a reduced sensitivity to reds and greens, in about 1 out of 10 males). If you use reds and greens, choose highly saturated colors instead of pastels, and use thicker lines (for instance, when showing different sets of data on a graph).

Be Consistent!

 Your goal in all presentations is to educate and inform your audience. Make sure your presentation follows a logical sequence. Use transitions to help the audience understand how successive stages are related to each other, and to the big picture. One effective strategy is to begin and end the presentation with an identical pair of visuals that summarize the main points you hope to convey to the audience.

     At the beginning, this summary gives the audience a notion of what to expect, and an idea of your logical outline. It also helps to break through the last minute jitters, and reminds you of the concepts you'll present. Don't deviate from your plan! At the end of the presentation, the summary provides a way to recapitulate the main points you've made. It provides the audience with the sense that you've come full circle, completing the story you had promised to tell. It also allows you to be sure you've covered all the points you'd planned to cover!

 You should also be consistent in the use of formats. Don't switch formats! Once you've selected a general 'look' of the presentation by deciding on the color scheme, fonts, and so on, stick to it! Change distracts an audience; your audience will pay more attention to a change in background color than to what you will be saying.


 1) Begin preparing your visuals early:

  2) Make back-up copies of your presentation.

 3) Practice the presentation. A lot.

How to Give a Bad Talk

David A. Patterson
Computer Science Division
University of California-Berkeley

Circa 1983

Ten commandments (with annotations gleaned from Patterson's talk by Mark D. Hill):

   I. Thou shalt not be neat

     Why waste research time preparing slides? Ignore spelling, grammar and legibility. Who cares what 50 people think?

   II. Thou shalt not waste space

     Transparencies are expensive. If you can save five slides in each of four talks per year, you save $7.00/year!

  III. Thou shalt not covet brevity

     Do you want to continue the stereotype that biologists can't write? Always use complete sentences, never just key
     words. If possible, use whole paragraphs and read every word.

  IV. Thou shalt cover thy naked slides

     You need the suspense! Overlays are too flashy.

  V. Thou shalt not write large

     Be humble -- use a small font. Important people sit in front. Who cares about the riff-raff?

  VI. Thou shalt not use color

     Flagrant use of color indicates uncareful research. It's also unfair to emphasize some words over others.

 VII. Thou shalt not illustrate

     Confucius says ``A picture = 10K words,'' but Dijkstra says ``Pictures are for weak minds.'' Who are you going to
     believe? Wisdom from the ages or the person who first counted goto's?

 VIII. Thou shalt not make eye contact

     You should avert eyes to show respect. Blocking screen can also add mystery.

  IX. Thou shalt not skip slides in a long talk

     You prepared the slides; people came for your whole talk; so just talk faster. Skip your summary and conclusions if

  X. Thou shalt not practice

     Why waste research time practicing a talk? It could take several hours out of your two years of research. How can you
     appear spontaneous if you practice? If you do practice, argue with any suggestions you get and make sure your talk is
     longer than the time you have to present it.

Commandment X is most important. Even if you break the other nine, this one can save you.




Useful links:

Designing Effective Oral Presentations

Effective Presentations

Effective Presentations

How to Give a Talk

Pacos' Top Ten Rules for Speaking Well

The Art of Communicating Effectively

The Top Ten Things You Can Do To Improve Your Next PowerPoint Presentation

Virtual Presentation Assistant

Back to BIO 801 syllabus