6 steps to a successful presentation

Dan Mason, Editorial manager
January, 2019

Doing presentations at university is a great way to practice and gain confidence before you have to do one in an interview for a job or graduate scheme

You'll almost certainly be asked to give a presentation at least once during your time at university. 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. Some people may not find that too daunting, but others will be understandably apprehensive - getting up and making your case in front of an audience isn't easy, especially when you're not used to it.

However you feel, it's a good idea to improve your skills and become comfortable with the format, as many graduate employers use presentations as part of the recruitment process.

To help ensure that your presentation stands out for the right reasons, academic skills tutor Andrew Edwards and careers adviser Andrea Hilditch, from Wrexham Glyndwr University, 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. Gather the information you need and set it out in a logical order, with a clear introduction and conclusion.

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

He suggests that if you want to take a memory aid with you, you should 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.

Use visuals wisely

'Visuals should complement your oral presentation, not repeat it,' says Andrew. 'You are the main focus - your slides should offer a brief summary of points, or an illustration supporting the concept that you're discussing. Don't fall into the trap of merely reading aloud what is written on the slides.'

Make sure you use a clear and suitably sized font. Andrew adds that you should use short phrases or sentences so you don't overcrowd your slides.

Images can be a great way to grab the audience's attention, but there are other tricks you can use. 'Can you use humour to make a point?' asks Andrea. 'Can you use a thoughtful question instead of a sea of words?'

She emphasises that slides are a starting point from which you should expand and develop your narrative. 'Make sure the substance is there over the fancy fonts and animations,' she warns.

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 be distracting and disrupt your flow.

Consider your audience

There are many different 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.

'Show that you have thought about the audience,' advises Andrea. 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, which means 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. 'Visit the room in advance if you can, and ask your friend to sit at the back, checking the speed and clarity of your speech,' Andrew advises. 'Check that the visuals of your presentation are visible too.'

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. 'Vary your tone and pitch,' recommends Andrew. 'Speak normally - do not sound monotonous.'

Be positive

Andrew recommends developing a positive attitude over 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 give in to negative thinking,' he adds. 'Counteract it by telling yourself, "Yes I'm nervous, but I can do this".'

Andrea suggests a technique for achieving a greater level of confidence. 'Think about a time in your life when you are more confident,' she explains. 'It could be on the dance floor in a club, in a workplace mentoring others or helping a class of small children. In the days approaching the presentation, imagine stepping into that version of yourself. Bring this to mind just before you start, along with a few calming breaths.'

It might feel like the room is against you, but this isn't the case. 'Don't assume your audience wants you to fail,' Andrea adds. 'I meet students who have absolute dread when approaching presentations, yet their friends in the class are there to support them and really want them to succeed.'

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. Andrea advises that you 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.

Andrea relates a real-life example. 'I had a problem with a lecture theatre screen not working, so quick thinking and a little humour meant that I flipped the small screen around on the lectern and asked the class to move closer until the technician arrived to help out,' she says. 'The audience were able to see that I did my best to work around a tricky situation.'

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