How to Give Killer Presentations as a PhD Student

How to give killer presentations

It is said that the fear of public speaking is the greatest fear that most people have, and it is true. Fear of public speaking is greater than even the fear of death.

As a PhD student, you will be required to give public presentations on numerous occasions: during class work, during meetings with your supervisors, at scientific conferences, and when defending your proposal and thesis.

Developing effective presentation skills is therefore important for all PhD students to enable them give killer presentations.

In this article, I cover some useful tips that will help PhD students (and anyone else for that matter) give killer presentations.

Preparing for your presentation

The difference between a killer presentation and a boring one lies in the amount of effort and time that goes into preparation.

To prepare for a presentation, you need to:

Practice makes perfect

a man making a presentation

Finalise the presentation at least a week before the presentation day.

Rehearse the presentation on video and play it to see your areas of weakness that need improvement.

Repeat the rehearsal while working on the areas of improvement until you are comfortable with what you see.

Brainstorm on the key messages

Narrow down your key messages to what you want your audience to know.

Prepare a few stories relevant to your presentation; each key message with its own story. Stories help your audience remember your key points and ideas.

Get feedback on your presentation before your presentation day

Share your video recording with a few trusted friends and colleagues and seek their honest feedback.

Constructive feedback includes: which key points they remember and which slides are memorable to them. If they remember something from your presentation, then you have done a good job.

Address your fear ahead of time

It is normal to be afraid of giving presentations.

Fear mostly comes when one is uncertain of what to say.

To address your fear, practice your presentation until you can give it without referring to your slides. This will help to build your confidence.

Creating your PowerPoint/Keynote slides

Whichever medium you use for your presentation, whether PowerPoint or Keynote or Google slides, does not matter. What matters is how you create the slides. To create memorable and interesting slides:

  • Use less text and more of visuals: it is easier for people to understand and remember visuals rather than chunks of text. Visuals can be charts and graphs, pictures, tables, maps, animations, etc. Use one visual per slide.
  • If your slide must have text, use few bullet points.
  • Have as few number of slides as possible; a handful of slides is the ideal.
  • If you have a lot of data and information to share with your audience, it is better to prepare a separate handout and share with your audience either earlier (if possible), or just before you give your presentation. Limit your PowerPoint presentation to just the key ideas.
  • Each slide should reflect one distinct idea.
  • Make sure the fonts, font size and font colours used in the PowerPoint slides are legible.
  • The sequence of the slides should be done thoughtfully and should enable a smooth flow of ideas and information.
  • Always rehearse your PowerPoint presentation including the duration of the presentation. If you have 10 minutes to present, then time yourself to present within 10 minutes during the rehearsal.

Giving your presentation

giving presentations

The following are useful tips to follow during the presentation:

  • Always carry your own laptop and other supplies that you will need for your presentation, for instance, a remote control. Do not assume that the host will provide. Having your own laptop and supplies also ensures that you don’t waste time trying to learn someone else’s supplies.
  • If presenting in a new location, arrive at the place at least an hour before the event starts so that you familiarise yourself with the room and where everything is including the lighting, the lantern, the projector etc. If possible practice giving the presentation at that location. This will help calm your nerves and build your confidence.
  • Do not start your presentation with the boring introductions that most presenters give; instead give a statement, share a short story, ask a question; something out of the ordinary but which is relevant to what you are presenting on.
  • Do not put up your slides first; instead converse and engage with your audience and then put up your slides. This will force your audience to really pay attention to what you are saying rather than focusing on what is on the slides. This applies to every time you want to move to a new slide; talk about the idea and then put up the slide to emphasise what you have talked about. The advantage of this strategy is that your audience is not forced to multi-task by reading the slides and listening to you talk. Instead they are able to focus on one thing at a time.
  • You as the presenter should lead the show, not the slides. This means that for every idea you want to talk about, introduce it, give some details about it, provide examples, stories or case study on it, and then put up the slide. This is the preferred sequence of your presentation.
  • You should always carry a sheet of paper with the main ideas for your presentation, written or printed in large fonts. This sheet of paper comes in handy when you forget your next point of discussion or when you want to quickly check what you will present next without putting up the slides. It is also useful in case technology fails and your PowerPoint or the laptop refuses to open. In such a case, the show will not be interrupted or stopped but will simply continue because you have the key ideas on the piece of paper.
  • While discussing your ideas, make sure the slides are blank (you can hit the letter B on your keyboard to make the slides go blank, or letter W to whiten the screen). This will force your audience to look at you instead of at the slides.
  • Your body language is key when giving presentations. Your hands, eyes and body should move naturally as if conversing with friends and colleagues. Do not stand stiff in one place; instead move around the place naturally. Your eyes should also look at individual members of your audience, each at a time without staring at them. Your hands should also move and gesture naturally. Body language tells your audience whether you are relaxed, comfortable and confident, or not.
  • Besides body language, the audio should also be audible enough to ensure that your audience is not struggling to hear what you are saying. Practicing and recording yourself on video or audio helps to diagnose any voice problems and to work on them before your presentation.
  • Your voice should not be too low, too loud, too monotonous, too high-pitched. You should sound as normal as possible and as if you are conversing with your audience. You should also vary the tone of your voice to reflect what you are presenting.
effective presentation

Final thoughts on giving killer presentations

No one was born knowing how to give killer presentations. Public speaking is a learned and acquired skill. Anyone can become a great public speaker and give killer presentations. All it requires is to prepare in advance, learn from great speakers, and practise until you perfect the skill.

Also read

How to Network as a PhD Student

Grace Njeri-Otieno

Grace Njeri-Otieno is a Kenyan, a wife, a mom, and currently a PhD student, among many other balls she juggles. She holds a Bachelors' and Masters' degrees in Economics and has more than 7 years' experience with an INGO. She was inspired to start this site so as to share the lessons learned throughout her PhD journey with other PhD students. Her vision for this site is "to become a go-to resource center for PhD students in all their spheres of learning."

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