Preparing an Oral Talk

In this section we will discuss the key elements in preparing and delivering an effective oral presentation:

Visual Aids


Use a landscape (horizontal) rather than a portrait (vertical) layout when preparing visual aids. Portrait formatted slides when projected have a greater likelihood of either being obscured at the top or the bottom of the slide than do landscape-formatted slides. In addition, the comparatively larger width of the landscape formatted slide allows for better use and display of information.

When creating your presentation aids, use light text on a dark background as this is easy to read and is also easy on the eyes. Avoid using colorful backgrounds with words or complicated patterns or pictures on them. Plain single color backgrounds are the most effective.

Use an appropriate font size on your slides for the room in which you will present. Note that this means you will need to do some homework in advance. minimum type size you should use for any text on a slide is 18 pt.

A mixture of upper and lowercase text is easier to read than text printed in all upper case.

Make good use of graphics when preparing slides. Audience retention is about 20% when a speaker uses words alone but rises to 70% when text is supplemented with graphics. If you do use graphics, avoid the use of tired clip art such as that provided by Microsoft. Graphics should not distract the audience from your content. Use medium quality graphics whenever possible. If you must use animation, use it sparingly and only if it will help the audience understand and appreciate your work better.

When preparing and using graphs and/or tables for a presentation:

  • Always label your axes and include the units
  • Use standard graph and/or table formats. The purpose of graphical aids should be to uncover the data not to obscure it.
  • Avoid the use of insets if at all possible.
  • Tables should be constructed and used only when you are displaying fewer than 10 or fewer numbers.

Present your information in bite-size chunks. A good guideline for slide content is the “6×6” rule. Use no more than six words per line and six lines per slide.

How many slides should you prepare? On average plan to show a new slide every 30 to 45 seconds.

KISS. Keep it simple stupid! Plan to introduce a maximum of one new idea per slide. Provide only enough detail to convey your message.

Title your slides succinctly , specifically, and clearly with the slide’s purpose. For example, a poor title might be “Results.” A more effective title serving both you and your audience’s need for information might be “Spectroscopic Evidence for a Change in Protein Conformation Upon Reduction.” The title reminds you what it is that you want to say and it conveys to the audience the significance of the data shown on the slide.

Proof your visual aids. Typos, misspellings, etc. rob you as a speaker of your authority. After all, why shouldn’t audience question your technical expertise if all of your slides say “Fiziks of Kwantum Dotz”?

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Public Speaking


Identify your audience and speaking environment. What is their education? Interests? Are they generalists or specialists – what does your audience likely already know about your topic. Is this a formal presentation? Is one-way or an interactive style of presentation expected?

KISS – Keep it simple stupid! Prioritize your presentation – what message is it that you want to convey to your audience? Make sure this is the focus of your presentation. Avoid the use of acronyms and technical jargon whenever possible. Acronyms can be very divisive. When your audience isn’t familiar with the terminology and too many acronyms are introduced, they may become lost and therefore hostile.

Follow the “T3” rule: Tell the audience what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them. This means you should provide an outline of your talk to your audience, deliver the actual content, and then summarize the key points.

Don’t read your slides. If you find that you are, this means that your slides aren’t correctly designed. The text on the slide should act as a visual prompts for the speaker in terms of the information he/she intends to convey orally.

Practice your talk in advance several times. Practice makes perfect.

Dress appropriately and comfortably. Find out in advance if formal clothing (business attire) is expected and dress appropriately.

Arrive early and make sure that you are comfortable with room layout and the A/V equipment. If you are using technology, be sure to bring backup visual aids such as a set of transparencies with you. If you are using a laptop for your presentation, make sure that it is compatible with the projector. An important consideration is the display resolution of the laptop and of the projector. If you are using a PC computer don’t attempt to switch at the last minute to a Mac or vice versa.

Be enthusiastic. Deliver your speech with animation in your voice. Face the audience. Make eye contact with them. Speak loudly, clearly, and slowly so that everyone in the audience can hear and understand what you are saying.

Take charge. If you feel uncomfortable fielding questions during your presentation, be sure to make your feelings known to the audience upfront and if you are interrupted don’t be afraid to defer the question until the end of your presentation.

Don’t attempt to use humor (or quotations) in your presentation if you aren’t funny. Audiences at scientific talks don’t expect comedic or thespian performances, they do expect good science presented well.

Make judicious use of the laser pointer. If you use one, turn it on and point to the specific text or graphic element you wish to highlight, then turn it off. Try not to swing the laser pointer all over each and every slide and be careful not to point it into the audience.

End your presentation on time. This is particularly important at large scientific conferences where attendees may move from session to session in order to hear a specific speaker at a specific time.

Fielding Questions First , believe it or not, you really can anticipate the questions that most folks will ask in advance and if you take the time to do this and to prepare, then fielding questions becomes “a piece of cake!” To do this think about who your audience is and what their interests are likely to be related to the subject of your talk. Once you have done this write down every question that comes to mind. These are likely to be the questions your audience will ask. Consult your advisor, other members of your research group, friends, etc. Once you have created this list, prepare an answer for every question and practice delivering them until your are confident.

Listen to every question. This is perhaps the most frequent mistake that speakers make. They don’t listen to the question being asked and therefore it makes sense why they have such a tough time answering the question. A good technique to adopt which will help you to listen is to plan to restate the questioner’s question out loud before you answer. This technique is also useful in that it provides the speaker with time to frame an answer and it ensures that the speaker is actually answering the question which was actually asked.

What do you do as a speaker if you didn’t hear the question? Simply ask the questioner to repeat the question. Frequently, the speaker isn’t the only person who couldn’t hear it.

What do you do as a speaker if you didn’t understand the question being asked? State that you aren’t sure you understood the question and ask the questioner to rephrase his/her question.

What do you do as a speaker if you don’t know the answer? Simply state that you don’t know it. No one knows everything.

Treat every questioner respectfully. Compliment a good question. Think about how you answer every question before you actually do answer it. Be careful not to embarrass your questioner if they ask a “dumb” question. Always treat them with dignity and respect even if they don’t deserve it and speak disrespectfully to you. Don’t attack hostile questioners. Do challenge inappropriate questions but don’t get personal.

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Tips on How to Use a Laser Pointer


A laser pointer is most effective when it is used intermittently in a presentation as a visual aid to highlight key points or to assist the audience in visually identifying specific content on a table, graph, or figure of a slide. The laser pointer loses its value when speakers use it constantly. Depress the button and simply point the beam at the text or visual element you wish to highlight. Do not wave the laser pointer around in circles. Also, constant activation of the laser pointer will betray a nervous speaker. If you are nervous, hold the laser pointer with both hands when you activate it. Finally, intermittent activation will also conserve the batteries so the laser pointer will work when you need it.

Practical Suggestions

  • If you are using your own laser pointer during the presentation, it is a wise idea to carry a spare battery in case your pointer fails during your presentation.
  • When gesturing, be careful not to wave an activated laser point at your audience.