The mechanics of presentations: A step-by-step guide

Back to Presentation Skills

Step 1: PreparationStep 2: PracticeStep 3: Present

Step 1. Preparation—the Most Important step

Prepare the Opening

An engaging opening will “hook” or pull in the audience and make them more willing to listen to you. Some people suggest you have about 2-4 minutes to accomplish this! Consider using a…

  • surprising or provocative thought,
  • shocking statistic, or a
  • clear statement regarding the relevance of your presentation to a problem they are trying to solve, or goal they are trying to reach.

Consider your audience: design your presentation around the needs of the audience.

  • Become aware of the audience’s prior knowledge, background, expectations.
  • Ask yourself “What does my audience most need to hear from me today?”

Plan your take-home message:

  • What are the key points for this particular audience to remember?

Prepare the Content

The body of the presentation will include a proposition or hypothesis or purpose, the evidence or data or facts on the topic, the arguments or interpretation, and the conclusion or call to action.

The structure of a talk depends on several factors, including the purpose of the presentation, time available, the material to be covered, and the audience. Choose a structure that will result in a logical, flowing and understandable presentation.

Possible organizational formats include:


  • A chronological story to document a process, development or series of events.


  • Frame your research as a problem to be solved
    • What was the original problem(s), and why was it important?
    • What was the solution(s)?
    • What lessons were learned, or next steps needed?

Question /Answer:

  • Set up the presentation as a series of questions and answers.
  • Asking and answering questions is often more engaging than passive information sharing.

Methodological Structure for scientific talks:

  • Outline the flow of experiments by describing the initial problem addressed (the particular issue, why it is important), and present a series of experiments focusing on Results/Conclusions followed by final conclusions in relation to the original problem.

“Brief but bright” talk (e.g.,  the 3 Minute Thesis or 5 minute job talk). Distill your thinking around a series of WHY questions:

  • WHY did you/they DO the research?
    • Describe the history of the issue, why you/they are interested in the issue, purpose of the research.
  • WHY are the results SURPRISING?
    • For example – the results don’t support the dominant view in spite of sound methodology, an incidental finding takes on major significance, new data is produced.
  • WHY are the findings IMPORTANT to the research community?
  • WHY might the world CARE? (e.g., What is the broader value to society, informing of policy, practical applications, etc.)


Add information around WHAT. Include sufficient detail on what you did (Method) and what you found or interpreted (Results) so that the key content you have distilled (the 4 WHYs above) are understandable.

In a very brief 3 or 5 minute presentation, it can be difficult to know how much detail to include. Draw a mind-map or brainstorm web of your content.

  • The material closest to the main thesis or theme should be the focus
  • Include peripheral material if it is needed to understand more central information
  • The longer the talk, the more possible it is to include additional peripheral material


Seminar Presentations:

  • A seminar is an opportunity for a group to focus deeply on a topic, usually through face-to-face discussion. The expectation is the leader will be knowledgeable, and the participants will have read the assigned material and possibly prepared questions.
  • The seminar leader typically reviews a paper or presents a summary of the assigned material (see the suggestions for a “brief but bright” talk above) and leads a discussion.
  • The seminar leader can stimulate the discussion or Q&A component by explicitly “seeding” a question at the beginning of the presentation (and telling the audience you will return to this question later for discussion), and then opening the discussion by referring back to that question and seeking audience input.

Suggestions for leading the Q&A are presented below.

Prepare the PowerPoint (or other presentation software)

  • Format your slides in a way that makes sense for your presentation. There’s no need to follow the PowerPoint bullet point defaults.
  • Use a minimum 28 sans serif font to increase readability.
  • Include one concept per slide, use point form, and remove as many unnecessary words as you can.
  • Do not worry about slide count.
  • More slides with fewer ideas are more effective than a few long, complicated slides.
  • For complex material: Consider using one comprehensive slide followed by several more focused slides and then return to initial comprehensive slide to reinforce relationships or context.
  • Use visual images or graphics to make key points.
  • Estimate 2 minutes per slide, excluding the title and final slides.
  • Slides should not make you redundant as a speaker
  • Consider creating a handout rather than distributing a copy of the slides.

Prepare the Closing

Sum up the main points of your talk. People will only remember a couple of ideas so restate key ideas.

Challenge the audience to think more about a particular question or topic, after the presentation is finished.

Step 2. Practice

Practice is critical to delivering a coherent, understandable, interesting presentation with smooth transitions between ideas or activities. Even professional speakers practice a new presentation. Practice is the most significant way to reduce excessive anxiety.

Strategies for effective practice include:

  • Speaking in front of a mirror
  • Video-recording yourself
  • Having someone observe you speak and  give you feedback, including a Question & Answer period
  • Becoming familiar with the presentation space and audio-visual system

Develop positive self-talk statements (I can do this!) and practice using them to build and maintain your confidence. See the material on Presentation Anxiety for specific suggestions.

Check you are within the time allowed for the presentation.

Step 3. Perform

Effective Delivery Skills

  • BREATHE intentionally before you begin, and throughout your presentation.
  • Avoid pacing, swaying, fidgeting, or shuffling.
  • Stand tall.
  • Make eye contact with individuals or imaginary people at back and sides of the room
  • Smile to relax your face and throat, and appear interested in your audience
  • Gesture with purpose
  • Vary your volume, tone of voice, and speed of speaking

Calm yourself: visualize yourself as a good speaker.  Use your positive self-talk statements.

Observe your audience: do they look bored? Lost? Engaged? Vary your expression, volume or pace, or ask a question or summarize recent content to re-engage your audience, as needed.

Vocal Projection Techniques


  • Feet shoulder width
  • Weight evenly distributed
  • Knees not locked – springy
  • Hands at side
  • Upper body lifted (imagine a string at back of head)
  • Drop /lower your shoulders


  • Breathe low in your chest
  • Expand rib-cage at FRONT and BACK
  • Relax/drop your shoulders

Open your throat

  • Drop tongue
  • Lift soft palette (like when you yawn)
  • Inhale quickly on “kah” and then speak as you exhale, if you cannot produce a sound
  • Relax the throat muscles

Open your mouth

  • Relax the jaw by opening it slightly
  • Drop the chin
  • Let the sound out!

Support your body

  • Feel your support low to the ground, through your feet
  • Use muscle support from your butt

Lastly – adjust your volume

  • Lower the pitch of your voice if you are normally soft- spoken
  • Aim your voice to the back of the audience
  • Increase the volume if people are straining to hear you