Share on

About the author

ThaoNguyen Nguyen
ThaoNguyen Nguyen

Besides the PhD viva, an oral presentation is ranked in the Top 2 on many PhD students’ “Hate-to-do” lists.  The good news is that giving a good oral presentation need not be a “Mission-Impossible”.  Fear not, by doing  the right preparation, you can deliver an excellent presentation, be it in front of your own research group or to experts at an international conference.  Here are the top 10 tips:


1.  Know your audience:

Knowing the audience will help you plan the content of your talk most appropriately.  For example, a presentation in front of many lecturers should have a more academic style compared to a presentation to the general public.


2.  Time management:

Your audience always forgives if your talk is under the time limit but less so in the reverse situation.   Time management is not only important in structuring your talk, but it’s also  good etiquette.  It’s not fair for the next speaker to be pressured to talk faster because of your overrun presentation.


For a 20 minute presentation, plan to speak only for 15 minutes.  Leave the last 5 minutes for questions and also as an overrun safety net.  Spend 1-2 minutes per slide.

If you want to know more about time management, take a look at Nuno´s blog post: Five tips to PhD students on managing their time


3.  Title of the presentation:

Pick a good title that truly represents your work.  A good one sentence title is short and straight to the point.  For example “Molecule X as a novel approach to Y disease treatment”.  The audience may not remember every detail of your talk, but they are more likely to remember a concise title.


4.  Summary of presentation:

Before making slides, sketch the summary of your talk first.  The content of a standard PhD student’s 20 minute presentation should contain:


1.  Introduction (i.e. background to your work – maximum 2 minutes).

2.  Data and Analyses (i.e. the results of your work should make up the bulk 10 minutes of talk time).

3.  Conclusion (i.e.  use bullet points to capture your findings in 1 minute).

4.  Future work (i.e. again use bullet points in 1 minute to remind the audience that you are a good scientist who has a good vision for your research).

5.  Acknowledgement (i.e. spend the last minute acknowledging contributors to your work).


It’s a good idea to have a summary slide after the title slide to guide the audience through the content of your talk.


5.  Making the slides:

a/  A picture is worth a thousand words: 
Always have more graphs and pictures on your slides than words.  People are naturally more drawn to  pictures than words.


b/  Design your slides:  Don’t use a really dark background and squeeze too many graphs into one slide that make it hard for your audience to visualise.  Mixing the right colours helps make your slides less boring than just black and quite, while also catering for viewers who are colourblind.


c/  Choose the right font and size:  Personally I wouldn’t use any font that is smaller than size 18, unless it’s for the references whose  minimum size should be 12.

This video below can also help you : How to Give an Awesome (PowerPoint) Presentation, by Wienot Films


6.  Prepare your speech:

Even experienced speakers write their speeches so there’s no shame in writing what you want to say on a piece of paper, especially if English is not your first language.  This also helps you keep to the time limit per slide.  Again the golden rule is:  Concise and Straight to the Point.


7.  Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse and rehearse:

In my opinion PhD students can never over rehearse their presentations.  Just like performing in a play, the more you rehearse, the better your performance will become.  Rehearsing boosts your confidence and helps keep to the time limit.


If you’re shy – like many PhD students – then rehearse in front of the mirror first before communicating to your friends and family.


8.  The body language: 

Now that you’ve invested time in making presentable scientific data on slides, it’d be a shame to not bring them to life with your body language, which makes up a big part of your presentation.  There’s a reason why it’s called a presentation and not a report/statement reading.  The audience may not remember the content of your talk after a while, but they will surely remember a charismatic speaker.


a/  Project yourself:   Keep good eye-contact with the audience and speak audibly to them.  You want to make them feel engaged in your interesting work.  Don’t leave your audience alone by spending more time looking at and speaking to the screen.


b/  Reasonable hand gestures:  They help communicate your passion and keep the audience engaged.  People are there because they want to get to know the person behind the good work, otherwise they can just read your papers from home.


c/  Smile at the audience:  Do smile at the start of your talk.  First impressions always count.


d/  Nerve control:  Most speakers feel a bit nervous before giving a talk.  This is normal.  Taking part in activities like performing arts can help you control nerves better.


d/  Enthusiasm, enthusiasm, enthusiasm and lot of enthusiasm:  Not a good idea to read through your slides in monotone to send audience to sleep.  Present your slides in a lively manner, with passion.  If you believe your work is interesting, the audience will also believe it.

Learn more about body language, take a look at the video below:

Gestures and Body Language, by Derek Banas

9.  The supervisor:

Discuss the talk with your supervisor.  They were once PhD students just like you and have given many talks since, so are much more experienced.  They can correct your slides, share personal experiences and give guidance on handling challenging questions.


10.  The challenging questions:

The good news is most audiences are quite supportive to PhD student presenters.  My best advice to you on this is to consult your supervisors and senior colleagues, since they have more experience in handling tough questions in your field.  In general, a positive way to address a lengthy and challenging question is:


“I appreciate you feedback and take your interesting points on board.  But as we are running out of time, may I suggest we discuss this further at coffee breaks when I’ll have more time to show you the data in detail”.


Usually the chairman will intervene anyway so don’t fret too much about challenging questions if you have prepared well for your talk.  Oh, and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” to questions that you don’t know the answer to.  The audience understands that you’re not Einstein.


Last but not least, after putting so much hard work into preparing your presentation, ENJOY it.  Don’t think of it as a mountain to climb.  Do think of it as an opportunity to show the world your interesting work. 

If you ENJOY your presentation, the audience will ENJOY it too.