How to Make an Oral Presentation


  • The purpose of an oral presentation is to share your research with an audience, typically through PowerPoint or Prezi. It is typically a synopsis of your research. If you've conducted a study, you will probably address the following topics:

    • Background research on your topic (with citations to past studies)
    • The rationale for your study (how does your study address a gap in the literature?)
    • Hypotheses/research questions
    • Methodology
    • Results (graphs are more interesting than tables or words)
    • Conclusions (for example, the implications or applications of your research, limitations, future research directions, a concise summary of your main findings, concluding thoughts)
    • References and Acknowledgements (such as grant support, a faculty advisor if he/she is not an author on the presentation, assistance from others who are not listed as authors)

    If your scholarship is in a different form (e.g., a film analysis, a presentation of a creative work), the structure will likely be a little different, but in all cases, it should be clear to the audience what the main goals of your research are, why it's important to do this work, and what you found in your research.  

    • First, make sure you know how much time you have; it is common for oral presentations at conferences to exceed the time limit. Prepare a presentation that is a little shorter than the allotted time to allow for questions and other comments.
    • Think about your audience: Will they understand technical terms, jargon, and acronyms? Will they be mostly undergraduates or professors in the field? You should tailor your presentation to your expected audience.
    • Think carefully about your central message. What do you want the audience to know by the end of your presentation? Most people will only remember a few take-home points from your carefully constructed presentation (if that!). There's no point in getting bogged down in minutia that the audience can't really process anyway.
    • The most important parts are the beginning (to draw the audience in) and the ending (to wrap up, to inspire). Put some thought into how to make these parts of your presentation have impact.
    • Think about your speaking style; can you speak loudly and clearly? Can you modulate your voice appropriately, or do you tend to sound monotone when you give presentations? Consider working on your public speaking skills if it's needed; consider joining Legacy Owls Toastmasters Club for this purpose and check out Toastmasters International public speaking tips.
    • Ask about technology beforehand.
      • Will the conference provide computers or do you bring your own laptop?
      • Will there be internet available?
      • How reliable is the internet?
      • Will there be speakers or a way to use audio (if necessary)?
    • Back up your presentation in at least two places (e.g., flash drive, Dropbox, email it to yourself).
    • When you prepare a presentation on a Mac and then use a PC (or vice versa), be aware that sometimes things look different.
    • Bring a printed copy in case the technology fails, or have a tablet/laptop with you.
    • Find the room early, and check out the technology so you’re familiar with it.
  • It is usually not required that you use visuals for your presentation, but a PowerPoint or Prezi can often help the audience follow along with your research.

    If you use PowerPoint or Prezi:

    • Avoid the temptation to put too much text on your slides; the audience can get bored or overwhelmed and might not be able to clearly see all the words if you've used a small font (less than 20-pt is considered "small"). 
    • Avoid font types that are hard to read or look unprofessional.
    • Avoid putting words on a busy powerpoint background that makes the words hard to read.
    • Avoid using font color that doesn't contrast with the background (in other words, your audience can't read gray text on a black background). 
    • Avoid tables and graphs that have too much information - you can recreate those tables and graphs with just the most important information instead.

    Also, consider your verbal and physical presentation:

    • Avoid reading your slides to the audience.
    • Avoid reading from prepared notes; the audience will maintain interest better if you can speak extemporaneously directly to them. It's also hard to make eye contact with the audience if you are reading.
    • Avoid distracting behaviors or verbal tics (“um,” “like,” “uh”).
    • Dress appropriately for the occasion.
    • Consider your body language (e.g., arms crossed can come across as you not wanting to be there).
    • Embrace a "Presentation Zen" style: simple (not simplistic), clean, and powerful.
    • Have interesting, high-resolution images on your slides.
    • Consider ways to involve your audience and make the presentation a little bit interactive so it's not just you talking the whole time.
      • You could connect your research to recent events (perhaps asking the audience to summarize the recent event).
      • You could ask specific questions throughout the presentation.
      • You could poll the audience on a topic relevant to your presentation (perhaps even using a free resource such as Socrative or Poll Everywhere).
      • You could insert a powerful quote into your presentation (perhaps at the beginning or end).
      • You can show a short video to illustrate something important about your topic.
      • The point is not to be gimmicky; the point is to keep your audience interested and engaged (especially when the audience has been listening to oral presentations all day and might be tired). Be aware, though, that different disciplines have different conventions regarding what is and is not appropriate for an oral presentation; be sure to ask your research advisor for advice first.
    • How do public speakers keep the audience engaged?
      • Smiling
      • Showing enthusiasm for their work
      • Being energetic
      • Using emphasis on certain words
      • Using hand gestures to keep the audience engaged
    • Be sure to leave some time at the end.
    • If a questioner is soft-spoken, repeat the question so everyone hears.
    • Avoid long, meandering answers.
    • Don’t make something up if you don’t know an answer. Offer to look it up and get back to the person, and be open to someone in the audience knowing the answer.
    • Give positive reinforcement to questioners (smiling, nodding, “that’s a good question”).
    • If someone is attacking you or otherwise being rude, remember that this usually comes from someone who wants to show off or appear smart in front of everyone The other audience members will recognize the rudeness and be on your side! Stay calm, answer as best you can, and acknowledge it when he/she makes a good point (smiling and nodding can disarm an attacker).
    • People will often talk to you right afterwards; try to avoid running out right after your presentation if you can help it.
    • Audience members may email for a copy of your presentation or to ask further questions; be sure to follow up with them.
  • If you have been accepted to present your research at a conference, congratulations! This is a great honor, and you should be proud of this accomplishment. If you would like an individual consultation with someone from the Office of Undergraduate Research about your presentation, please do not hesitate to contact us at

    Other online resources to check out include: