Presenting your research

Develop the confidence to communicate your research at seminars, conferences and similar settings. Clear communication of technical or complex material is a key aspect of professional development.

Consider your purpose

Why are you presenting? Are you outlining a particular method or approach? Are you emphasising the practical application of your research? Are you providing an overview of your work-in-progress?

You need to provide information that your audience will remember later, but avoid trying to cover every small detail. Keep in mind your reason for presenting.

Consider your audience

Even when presenting to your department, make a realistic appraisal beforehand of how much your audience would already know about your topic. You need to be able to present your research in a way that will engage and inform all of your audience, not just your supervisor. Think carefully about all these points as you compose your slides and decide how to pace your talk.

Ask yourself:

  • What prior knowledge of my field should I expect from my audience?
  • How familiar are they with recent research in this area?
  • How much technical knowledge do they possess?
  • Are there any technical terms that I need to define?
  • Do any of them use English as an additional language? If so, how can I make my presentation clear to everyone?

Consider the structure

The timeframe of your talk is a key consideration. A short talk (10-20 minutes) needs to address the topic concisely. It’s very important not to exceed your allotted time or, even worse, to have to leave your talk unfinished. So be selective about what you say.The following is a common way to structure research presentations.

  • What you're doing

    Introduce:

    • yourself.
    • your topic and the broader context of your research.
    • the main hypothesis or research question.
    • why your research matters.
    • methods of data collection/analysis.
  • What you've found (or expect to find)

    Include:

    • key findings, trends in your data, progress to date.
    • any difficulties with your methods and how they were or will be dealt with.
  • Why this is important or relevant

    Specify:

    • whether your results confirm your hypotheses or how they answer your research question.
    • likely implications or possible applications.
    • what you plan to do next.

Using PowerPoint slides

Well-designed, professional-looking PowerPoint slides can complement most presentations. They can reinforce key statements, help maintain interest and concentration, illustrate concepts that are difficult to explain, and serve as a guide for you, the presenter.

Select the content carefully

Identify your major concepts and principal points. Which ones will require a slide? Make sure the slides are not cluttered, use large font size and present one topic per slide. Don’t simply read out your slides! The slides should just list key points for you to expand on as you talk.

Organise your slides

Slides must be discussed and integrated into the flow of your presentation. Your audience should know exactly why the slides have been used in that order. When organised logically, PowerPoint slides can be a means of support, both for the speaker and audience. However, don’t allow them to take over and detract from the main points of your presentation. Ensure that your slides are clear, easy to read and relevant. Avoid unnecessary “special effects”!

Time your presentation

A good guideline is to spend two to three minutes to talk through the points on a slide. If you’re presenting for 20 minutes – and you need to allow a few minutes at the end for questions – you may only have time to present a title slide and seven or eight other slides.

Presenting technical material visually

  • Tables and figures

    You can use tables and figures to illustrate your main points, but they need to be simple and clear. If you overwhelm your audience with information, they will be tempted to read rather than listen. Reduce or simplify complex visuals to the essentials so your audience can see them clearly and understand what they show. Below are some suggestions:

    • Graphs should have bold lines with simple, clearly numbered axes, and strong contrast.
    • Try to keep bar charts at a maximum of five categories that need to be differentiated.
    • If a slide contains a lot of data, consider spreading it over two or more slides to indicate different trends in the data.
    • Visuals containing mathematical equations should have ample white space.
    • Figures must be bold and large, as well as neat and accurate.
  • Animated effects

    Using PowerPoint animations, you can set up your slideshow so that each set of data appears with a mouse click, allowing you to speak about each data set while displaying it. This helps to keep your audience engaged.

  • Extra material for complex data

    To simplify the data for your presentation, you could prepare a subset of slides containing additional information, which could be shown later in response to questions.

    An alternative would be to include complex or detailed technical information on a handout that your audience can examine more closely afterwards. But distribute these handouts after the presentation or your audience will read them during your talk, instead of listening to you!

Dealing with questions

A good presentation will naturally encourage discussion and interesting questions. Always spend some time before your presentation to consider those aspects of your research on which you might be questioned. For example:

  • Is your method or approach unusual?
  • Are there any aspects of your work that are problematic or controversial?
  • What are its practical applications, if any?

Generally, you should be able to predict about 75% of the questions you may be asked. You can prepare and practise possible responses.

Listen attentively to your questioner. Paraphrase, or repeat, the question or comments, as in the following examples:

“So, what you are asking is …”

“So, you’d like to know more about …”

This clarifies what has been asked. It also gives you some thinking time. It’s perfectly acceptable to take a short pause to think before responding to a question. If you can’t provide an answer, first acknowledge the question and say you don’t know.

You can perhaps offer to find out the answer, or to refer to other sources where the information may be found.

“Thank you for asking that question. I can’t answer that question at this point in my research.” or:

“Unfortunately, I don’t have that information with me.”

Final tips

Most people are quite nervous before an important presentation, so it’s a good idea to practise your presentation with a friend or sympathetic peer. This can help you gauge if you have the right amount of material for the time allowed. Also practise your conclusion – to provide a summary for your audience and end your presentation on a strong note.

Think of your presentation as an opportunity to both inform and learn from others. Enjoy the occasion!

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