Preparing Your Presentation

There are 3 steps in preparation:

  1. Choose what you’re going to say—including what you might add or trim depending on how the time goes.
  2. Prepare speaking materials as appropriate, such as a speaking outline, note cards, or visual.
  3. Practice your presentation a couple of times and revise your speaking materials if needed.

Below you’ll find more details to help you prepare.  Keep in mind, though, that these are just guidelines.  If you find the details overwhelm you, skip ‘em and just use the 3 steps above.

But first, a few words about feeling nervous!

  • It’s extremely common to feel nervous, and nervousness does not determine success.
  • Feeling nervous can be a good thing: it shows that you respect your audience, and it can help you keep alert and ready to do a good job.
  • Despite the fact that your nervousness is very apparent to you, most of your nervousness (if not all of it) will be invisible to the audience.
  • Audiences are typically supportive and friendly.  –And don’t forget that you can invite your friends and relatives and other people who already know you’re fabulous.
  • Most of the audience will not know what you plan to say, and they probably won’t notice if you forget to say something.
  • The moderator is there to support you. If you do leave out something vital (e.g. forget to cite any sources), they will prompt you. If an audience member has forgotten his/her manners, the moderator will remind them.  If the moderator asks you a question, it’s because he/she is interested or wants to give you a little practice explaining your research and ideas; it’s never meant to give you a hard time.
  • A little planning and practice will go a long way to make you feel more comfortable.  However, your presentation does not have to perfect; it’s a casual conference.

Choosing Content

  • Unless told otherwise (e.g. if you’re in a special panel in your own class), prepare a 5-minute presentation.  Sometimes more time becomes available if your panel is small, so be ready to add more if you can.
  • The structure below has worked for many students presenting at the SRC—of course, you need to plug in the specificinformation for your topic:
    • How I got interested in this topic/why I chose it
    • What my basic argument is (your thesis statement plus a little explanation)
    • How my specific sources contributed to my understanding of the topic
    • 1 or 2 special highlights: why your findings are important, an important quote (just read it and explain why it’s important) or interesting image, a special “a-ha!” moment, a research challenge and how you handled it, what you’d do next if you were to take your study further

Preparing Your Support Materials

  • You’ll need either a speaking outline or note cards to refer to during the talk. This is usually not be in full sentences, because that’s too much text for you to look at quickly and will sound less natural.  Just write down the phrases that will remind you what to talk about next. Save blocks of text just for quotes that you need to read word-for-word. If you use a PowerPoint slide show, it can often serve as your “speaking outline.”
  • There is not very much time during the SRC, because many of the panels are large, allowing each speaker only about 5 minutes to present. There is little time for set-up, so most people choose not to create a full PowerPoint show. Either they use PowerPoint just for some essential visual, or they put that visual on a single poster.
  • Make sure your visuals can be easily seen from anywhere in a classroom.  Make sure they support what you say and do not distract readers from what you say.  Busy visuals and errors (e.g. spelling mistakes) on the visuals tend to be the most distracting.
  • Think through the time and actions needed for set-up.  Will your poster simply sit on a chalk tray or do you need someone to hold it during your talk? Do you have a flash drive and a back-up of your PowerPoint available? Will you be able to arrive early at the presentation room so that you can download (and troubleshoot if needed) while the audience arrives?  If you want to use handouts, do you have enough copies and when is the best time to pass them so that they don’t distract from what you’re saying?
  • If you have some object that you want to pass around, make sure you are comfortable with everyone touching it—that is, rather than pass around the antique photo of your grandparents’ wedding, make a photocopy or scan it onto a PowerPoint slide.

But what about just writing out my presentation and reading it aloud?  Some people assume reading a script will guarantee success, but it’s usually better to use note cards or an outline.  Consider these points before deciding to read your whole presentation:1)    If you’re going to work with a script, you basically need to write a new paper for this audience and this time limit.  2)    You need to be a super-duper reader to make sure that your presentation is still interesting. Presentations read aloud come across as “canned” and audiences have trouble keeping their interest.  You have to practice a lot to make a scripted speech sound and look natural.3)    If you run out of time or get extra time, it’s a lot easier to edit on the spot when you’re working with an outline than when you’re working with a script.4)    People expect more from a script, because you’ve planned out every word. Working from an outline, however, is more casual, which removes the pressure to be perfect. 

Practicing Your Presentation

  • Forget about “practice makes perfect”; you’re aiming for “practice makes flexible.”
  • The biggest tip about practicing your presentation is this: DO IT.  Practice does make for a better presentation than no practice, practice does enable you to work out the tricky spots, and practice does make most speakers feel more comfortable than no practice.
  • Just practice putting your outline into words as you go, make sure the timing is good, and consider possible challenges (e.g. if you run out of time, what will you cut?).
  • Some people like to practice in front of an audience and get feedback, but that’s not necessary.  If you don’t have the time or don’t like to practice in front of a real audience, simply practice it by yourself. 
  • Imagine what questions audience members are likely to ask and run through in your head what you could say in response.  You’ll feel more calm and confident during the presentation even if they never ask any of those questions.
  • If your practice tells you that your time is definitely too long or too short, revise your plan. This may be as simple as crossing out a section or putting a few facts in brackets [] to show you can leave them out if you need to.