You’ve been working on your research for months, and now that it’s finished, or almost there, you need to make an oral presentation. Perhaps you are applying to attend the ACC Meeting of the Minds undergraduate research conference. Maybe you would like to participate in the Undergraduate Research Network’s spring research symposium. Or it could be a requirement for a class or for your major. Here are some tips to help you bring order to the ideas swirling in your head—and communicate the key points about your research to an audience.
Timing. Find out how long your talk should be. As you decide what to present, keep in mind that a ten-minute talk is very different from a 45-minute lecture. If you only have ten minutes, you’ll need to focus on the most important points. With more time, you’ll still need to focus on those points, but you’ll be able to present additional supporting detail. Time yourself giving your talk, and make cuts if you need to. It is fine to end a bit early. Going overtime shows your lack of preparation.
Audience. Find out what sort of audience will listen to your talk. Specialists in your field will bring a different sort of understanding to your presentation from a general audience; you may be able to use certain technical terms without defining them, but always beware of jargon and acronyms. With a general audience, you need to ask yourself what educated people not in your field will know, define any terms that may be unfamiliar to them, and make an effort to explain the significance of your research in terms the listeners are likely to understand.
Content. Students often think they need to explain every single thing they know or be perceived as knowing too little. This is not true. Giving a talk is a great opportunity to think about the big picture rather than focusing on details. This can be hard if you are immersed in the specifics of your project.
Step back for a moment to before you became the expert on your particular topic. What piqued your interest? Why did you start asking the questions you asked? Now step into the future. When you look back on this research, what will you remember as the most interesting or compelling thing you learned? Were there surprises?
Now you are ready to ask yourself: What are the points I want to convey? What do I want the audience to learn? When audience members remember my talk the following day, what main point do I want them to remember?
Organization. Your talk must have a beginning, middle, and end. You need to (1) introduce yourself; (2) present your research question and why it matters; (3) describe how you conducted your research, (4) explain what you found out and what it means; and (5) conclude with a summary of your main points.
Depending on your topic, you may need to provide background information so that the audience understands the significance of your inquiry. Be judicious in the amount of information you give, and do not let this discussion get you off track. Once you’ve provided sufficient background, bring the focus back to your research by reminding the audience of your research question.
Do not even think of opening PowerPoint until you have organized your ideas and decided on your main points. If you need guidance, see below for a sample oral presentation outline.
PowerPoint. You should treat PowerPoint as a useful tool. You can use it to incorporate images into your presentation, to emphasize important points, and to guide your audience in following your argument. You should not use it for anything else. This means:
Don’t present too much information on the slides. The audience cannot read a long section of text and simultaneously listen to you speak about it. If you really must provide a long quotation, then highlight the words and phrases you want to emphasize, and read the quote out loud, slowly, so the audience can absorb it. Then discuss it.
Do explain to your audience what each chart or graph indicates. Use charts and graphs to convey information clearly, not simply to show that you did the work.
Don’t spend extra time on making a fancy PowerPoint presentation with moving images and graphics unless they are vital for communicating your ideas.
Do be prepared to give your talk even if technology fails. If your charts don’t look quite right on the screen, or you forget your flash drive, or there’s a power outage, or half the audience can’t see the screen, you should still be able to make an effective presentation. (Bring a printout to speak from, just in case any of these disasters befalls you.)
Tone. It is best to approach your prepared talk as a somewhat formal occasion. Treat your audience—and your topic—with respect. Even if you know everyone in the room, introduce yourself. Don’t address audience members as “you guys.” Dress neatly. Most of all, share your enthusiasm for your subject.
Practice. Practice speaking slowly and clearly. If you want to emphasize an important point, repeat it. Practice speaking slowly and clearly.
You don’t need to read your talk, and in fact you should avoid doing so. But you should speak it out loud enough times that you know when there are points that tend to trip you up, where you might have a tendency to throw in something new and get off track, and whether some of your transitions are not smooth enough.
And, of course, time yourself. Make cuts if you need to.
Sample Oral Presentation Outline
Introduction Hello, my name is ____. I am a ___-year student at the University of Virginia majoring in ____. I’m going to talk to you today about my research on _____.
Context of research
I had the opportunity to join Professor ____’s lab, where the research focus is____.
This is research for my Distinguished Majors thesis….
I got interested in this area because ….
Research question and significance
I wanted to find out _______[insert your research question].
This is an important question because _____. OR This question interested me because ______.
I thought the best way to answer this question would be by ______.
I chose this method because….
Research activity Here’s what I did: _______.
Results Here’s what I found out: ______.
Significance of results/where this research might lead
This result matters because….
Now that I’ve learned this, I see that some other questions to ask are….
Conclusion/Summary of main points I set out to answer ______ [research question] by _______ [research methods]. And I discovered that ______ [brief statement of results]. This was interesting because _____ [significance]/This will help us understand ____.
I am grateful to my advisor, Professor _____, for her guidance.…
My work was supported by a _____ award. OR I’d like to thank the ____ Family for their generosity.
Questions I would be happy to take your questions.