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Presentation Skills

Find out how to plan and deliver an Oscar-worthy presentation with this online guide from the Skills Centre.


Presentation Skills

Learn effective techniques for engaging your audience, crafting compelling content and delivering confident presentations. 

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Why present?

Presentations are a feature of many courses and can form part or all of an assessment. Presentation skills broadly falls into two key areas - the writing of material and the verbal presentation of this material. It is extremely common, almost universal, to find speaking in front of others a challenge. Part of coping with the anxiety of speaking in front of others is about managing nerves but proper preparation also makes a significant difference to the likely success of any presentation. 

Why are you asked to present?

Sometimes it might feel like a punishment being asked to verbally present you work to your tutor(s) and potentially your course mates but it is included for very good reason. Presentations:

  • can be easier for some people as it allows them to articulate their ideas and arguments in a different way.
  • allow you to bring your argument to life by delivering it in a more passionate and engaging format.
  • give you the opportunity to practise your public speaking skills required for interviews and in many different professions.
  • can boost your overall confidence in social and speaking situations.
  • give tutors the opportunity to ask you questions about your work/ your understanding of a topic in a way that written work doesn't

Planning your presentation

There is a saying that states "proper planning and preparation prevents poor performance" and this is very much the case with presentations!

Understand the purpose of your presentation

It is crucial to understand your assessment brief and whether the aim of your presentation is to inform or persuade. A good way to look at this is by asking the question "so what?" After listening to your presentation, your audience need to feel like they have a greater understanding your subject or have been persuaded by your argument and are not left thinking "so what?" to what you have said.

Knowing who your audience is and their level of prior knowledge

Knowing who your audience is helps set the level of formality and the language you should be using. Understanding the audience’s prior knowledge of a topic helps to determine how much you need to explain terminology or concepts, and what key contextual information they will already be aware of.

The content of your presentation

The first step is to fully understand the brief, the task you have been set and the assessment criteria. Generating questions from your criteria that you will answer in your presentation can help give direction to your reading and research. As with any other assignment, it is crucial note down your sources so these can be properly referenced.

Creating a mindmap of what you already know and what areas you need to research can help focus your thinking:

Title: Mindmap - Description: The image shows what is known as a mindmap. The assessment question is written in a bubble in the centre of the image. Arrows then direct out from this to other bubbles with key points or themes written in them. From these bubbles there is a further set of arrows and bubbles where sub-points and themes are written.

Once you have created your mindmap you will be able to see which points you have more knowledge/arguments to support and which you need to research in more detail. Sometimes you will have been given a list of topics, processes or sections that you must cover but if you are responsible for choosing what to cover and how to structure your argument, you may choose to focus on the points or themes you already have a greater understanding of, or that you feel more passionate about.

Structure and formatting

Structuring your presentation

One of the biggest mistakes made when delivering a presentation is failing to properly introduce and conclude what you are saying. When presenting:

  • Tell them what you are going to tell them (and why it is interesting).
  • Tell them (bring the subject to life).
  • Tell them what you’ve told them (remind them of the key points and your conclusion).

This might sound incredibly simple but this makes a profound difference to the impact of your presentation and how likely your audience are to engage with the content and remember what you have said.

The Rule of Three

Splitting stories and concepts into three parts is an ancient convention which still works with audiences today, and is a format we are trained to be receptive to. This can incorporated into presentations by:

  • having three key sections in your presentation

  • splitting sections into three sub sections

  • having three bullet points per page

  • using three part statements: "what happened, why it happened and what we can learn from it"


Presentation structure examples - title slide, contents slide, three sections (with three points each), conclusion, references

The percentages at the bottom of the structure indicate the length of each section. The introduction and conclusion should be more than 5% of your total time (each), saving 90% for your content. For a 10 minute presentation this would mean 30 seconds for your introduction, 30 seconds for your conclusion and 9 minutes (1 minute per sub point/section) for your content.


Opening and closing statements

Opening and closing statements tend to be the parts of your presentation the audience remember the best. Because of this, it is important to plan these carefully and even consider having them written out in full sentences as part of your notes.

Your opening statement should hook your audience in and given them a reason to continue listening. Your closing statement should refer back to your opening statement and should provide a conclusion to your argument or what the next steps are in the research/discussion/project.

Formatting and notes

Formatting tips

Often, formatting your presentation can be a welcome distraction when you are not sure what to write. A nicely formatted presentation can help your audience take in the information you are delivering but can also distract and confuse. Always ensure that you:

  • Use a consistent layout and style on slides of the same type.
  • Avoid cluttering slides - only add wording or images that support/illustrate your point.
  • Use a typeface and font size that is easy to read and ensure background colours effectively contrast with your text - i.e. white on black or dark on light.
  • Have no more than one slide per minute you have to present, ideally less than this. This excludes title slides, references slides and any other that you will not spend time on but are needed for formatting.

Should I use notes?

This is down to the individual: some people will find it easier to present with notes, others prefer a more unrehearsed and informal delivery style. If you are using notes, it is recommended that you condense your points down to well-spaced bullet points on small cue cards or pieces of paper. It is also helpful to have one card or piece of paper per presentation slide. This allows you to mentally break the presentation down into a number of small presentations and should you lose your place or get nervous, it is easier to recover your composure and move on if your notes are in small chunks.

Viva exams

What is a viva examination?

  • If you are required to undertake a viva examination during your studies, you will be expected to give a verbal defence of your written dissertation.

  • You may be asked to take a viva examination either during or upon completion of your research, depending on your course.

  • The purpose of a viva examination is to:

    • Demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of the dissertation in question.

    • Determine a solid understanding as to where the dissertation sits in relation to existing research and subject field.

    • Explore and clarify any points of ambiguity within the theories proposed in dissertation.

  • A viva panel will typically be formed of two or three examiners, including an appointed chairperson from your faculty/college. The chairperson should have some background knowledge of your research field but must not be directly involved in your work. Additionally, there will be an external examiner present for your viva and in some cases, your supervisor will also be present, though they will not be able to participate in the proceedings.

  • There are no guidelines concerning the length of time a viva will take. The panel will use their discretion to conclude the Viva when they feel is necessary. 

How to prepare for your viva examination

  • The most important thing you can do to prepare for a viva examination is to familiarise yourself with your dissertation. So read, read and re-read your work!

  • You should make summary notes as you read through your work. Try to be as concise with your notes as possible and avoid rewriting chunks of your thesis. Brief, summarising notes are much more effective and easier to learn.

  • Try to identify strengths and weaknesses throughout your dissertation and integrate these into your summarising notes.

    • Do not panic if you notice any mistakes in your work! If you do recognise any errors in your work, you will be able to make corrections accordingly before your final submission.

    • Identifying weaknesses will give you time to prepare appropriate responses in case the panel make reference to these during the Viva examination.

  • In addition to your summary notes, you may consider alternative ways to revise your dissertation. Here are some ways which you could do this:

    • Using your list of contents, write out a brief summary of the content below each heading

    • Practice telling the story of your research within a given time limit. You could practice rehearsing individual chapters or your work as a whole.

    • Record yourself reading your notes and listen back to them.

  • The infographic below summarises some of the strategies you can use to prepare for your viva examination.

an infographic summarising different revision strategies

  • Although specific questions during the viva examination will vary depending on your research field, you are likely to be asked a mix of questions in relation to the following areas of your work:

    • Research context

    • Research methods

    • Findings and analysis

    • Discussion

    • Conclusion and implications

  • We recommend you spend some time thinking about any potential questions the examination panel may want to ask you and consider how you will respond to these questions.

  • You should also consider your thesis within a broader context as you may be asked to comment on the wider implications of your research. Think about how your thesis ties in with existing research and your work could be followed up on in the future.

Coping with nerves

Tips for staying calm

Preparing and practising your presentation will help you to feel more confident, but there are also practical steps that you can take to manage stress related to public speaking and looking more confidence than you might feel:

  • Arrive early to familiarise yourself with the room and the technology you will be using. If this is not possible on the day then try to visit the room in advance.
  • Wear comfortable and breathable clothing to avoid overheating or feeling more uncomfortable than you might already be feeling.
  • Have a bottle of water with you as you are likely to get thirsty. It also provides a natural pause in your presentation for you to gather your thoughts.
  • Avoid fidgeting by holding something in your hand such as a pen, PowerPoint clicker, water bottle or your notes. If your hands are occupied you are far less likely to put them in your pockets, play with your hair etc.
  • If you find eye contact challenging then look at the tops of your audiences' heads. This gives the impression that you are making eye contact but feels a lot less intense.
  • Talk more slowly than you think you need to. It is important that your audience can understand you so you need to speak slower than you would in normal conversation.
  • Before your presentation, take deep breaths, breathing out for longer than you breath in. This helps to calm your body. To do this, count to four when you breathe in and then count to six or seven as you breath out, pursing your lips together to allow the air to flow slowly.
  • In your head, repeat the words "I am excited". This helps "trick" your brain into thinking that the nerves you are feeling are actually those of excitement. This will not take away your nerves but does help reduce them.

Group presentation tips

Presenting with other people can often feel even more of a challenge but, as with presenting on your own, proper preparation and organisation is the key to success.

How to work effectively together

  • Meet as soon after being set the task as possible in order to agree how the work is going to be allocated and when tasks need to be completed by.
  • Share the presentation out by topic/sub topic not time.
  • Schedule rehearsals that everyone can attend and time yourselves.
  • Introduce everyone who will be speaking and what sections they will be covering at the beginning of the presentation.
  • Listen to each other during the presentation. This helps people feel supported and makes your audience more likely to listen.
  • Ensure handovers are smooth and courteous. Tell the audience who you are handing over to and what they are going to cover.

Further actions and resources

Further actions

  • Book onto a Presentation Skills Workshop at the Skills Centre to learn more.
  • Practice your presentation with someone you know and time yourself so you know if your presentation is too long/short/just right.
  • Think about what questions your tutor might ask you after your presentation and how you might respond to these.

Further links