6 steps to a successful presentation

Jemma Smith, Editor
April, 2021

Standing in front of an audience to give a presentation is a daunting prospect but you're unlikely to get through university without having to do it. Read these top tips to ensure it goes without a hitch

Your tutor or lecturer mentions the word 'presentation' and the first thing you do is panic but there's really no need.

Depending on your subject, you might be expected to summarise your reading in a seminar, deliver the results of a scientific experiment, or provide feedback from a group task. Whatever the topic, you'll usually be presenting to your tutor and fellow students. While getting up and making your case in front of an audience isn't easy, especially when you're not used to it, it really is good practice as many graduate employers use presentations as part of the recruitment process.

To help ensure that your presentation stands out for the right reasons, the careers team at the University of Cumbria provide their top tips.

Prepare carefully

Give yourself plenty of time to prepare thoroughly, as a last-minute rush will leave you flustered when it comes to delivering your presentation. 'Plan the structure and format - Introduction, the key facts you want to get across in the most logical order, the objective and purpose of your presentation and the conclusion,' advise the careers team at the University of Cumbria.

To help plan your content and to make sure you stay on track ask yourself why you're putting the presentation together and what you're hoping to achieve.

You can make detailed notes as part of your planning, but don't rely on these on the day, as reading from a prepared text sounds unnatural.

If you want to take a memory aid with you use small index cards, as referring to A4 sheets of paper during your presentation can be distracting and highlight your nerves if your hands shake.

At the planning stage you'll also need to consider the timings of your presentation. Time limits are set for a reason - falling short or going over this limit will likely result in a loss of marks, especially if it’s part of an assessment or exam.

'It's also a good idea to prepare answers to possible questions you may be asked about the presentation,' adds the Cumbria careers team.

If you have to give a group presentation discover three tips for successful group work.

Use visuals wisely

Bear in mind that visual aids should complement your oral presentation, not repeat it, nor deliver the presentation for you. While your slides should offer a brief summary of points, or an illustration supporting the concept that you're discussing, you are the main focus.

When putting together your slides and visual aids:

  • 'Don't over clutter your slides, keep it simple,' says the Cumbria careers team. Stick to one idea per slide and use short phrases or sentences.
  • The careers team at Cumbria also remind you to think about accessibility. Does the design of your presentation interfere with its readability? Will everyone in the audience be able to read your slides? To ensure your presentation is accessible minimise the number of slides, use high contrast colours and a large, clear font. If using graphics make them as simple as possible and avoid over-complicated charts or graphs. If using video's make sure they are captioned.
  • If you intend to provide hand-outs for your audience, distribute them at the beginning or end of your presentation. Doing it halfway through can disrupt your flow.

Don't fall into the trap of merely reading aloud what is written on your slides - instead use them as a starting point from which you expand and develop your narrative.

It's also worth pointing out that a presentation is only as good as it's content. Visually your presentation could look beautiful but if you're lacking knowledge your audience is unlikely to be fooled. 

Consider your audience

There are many elements you can include in a presentation - sound, video, hand-outs and questions at the end, for example - so you'll need to think about which ones are suitable.

For example, whether your tone is serious or light-hearted might depend on factors such as the subject you're studying, or whether the presentation is an assessed piece of work.

To show that you have thought about the audience consider how much background information they will need. Do they already have some knowledge of the topic you're presenting?

Spending the first half of your presentation telling an audience what they already know will be frustrating for them. Equally, if you go straight into the detail they may get lost. It's vital you get the balance right, and knowing your audience is the key.

Practice with a friend

You should run through your presentation in full more than once, ideally in front of an audience. Ask a friend if they'll help you with a practice run. Make them sit at a distance to check that everyone attending can hear you speaking. It’d be even better if you could do this practice run in the room you'll be giving your presentation in.

This will enable you to work out whether your presentation is the right length when spoken aloud, and give you the chance to get used to expressing yourself in front of others.

While you practice make sure that you:

  • Speak slowly - nerves can make you rush but try and moderate your speech. Take a breath at the end of every sentence or point you make.
  • Face the audience - to give a confident impression regularly make eye contact with your audience. If using a screen stand at a 45-degree angle so you have a good view of both your audience and your slides. Don't turn your back on your audience.
  • Leave time for questions - factor this into your overall time limit and be prepared to field any questions that come your way.

Another top tip from the team at Cumbria is to record yourself giving the presentation on Teams or Zoom. 'Play it back and reflect on it. Ask yourself if it’s clear, concise, and if it makes sense. How are your mannerisms and non-verbals? Do you come across well? Are you talking too fast or waffling? Are you smiling and personable?'

Be positive

Try developing a positive attitude in the days leading up to the presentation. This may seem obvious and easier said than done if you're shy, but pull it off and it will make a huge difference to how you perform. Acknowledge your nervousness but don't let negative thoughts win. Instead of thinking about all the things that could go wrong visualise a positive outcome and focus on what you can do to ensure it runs smoothly.

On the day nerves can conspire to make you think that the room is against you but this isn't the case. Remember that your tutor and your coursemates want you to succeed. To set your presentation up for success make sure your introduction is strong. Start with a confident attitude and a smile.

Don't rely on technology

We've all witnessed the agony of a presenter struggling with a faulty USB stick or failing to get a projector to work. However, with a little bit of planning, you can minimise the risk of technology tripping you up.

If possible, test your presentation beforehand with the same equipment that you'll be using for the real thing. Otherwise, try to arrive early on the day and have a run through. Make sure you know how to link your laptop to the projector and if your presentation includes links to web pages or video clips make sure these lead to the right places and are working beforehand. Bring back-ups of your documents and print out a few copies of the slides to share if things go wrong.

However, you shouldn't rely too heavily on your slides. Always be ready to give your presentation without them if necessary, using your notes or index cards as memory aids.

And if a piece of technology does fail, don't panic. It will happen to everyone in the room at some point. Get through it without being fazed, and it might even impress your tutor more than if everything went perfectly.

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