Presentations - Planning and structuring more assignments

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Planning and structuring more assignments

On your degree programme you might be asked to give a presentation, from 5 to 30 minutes long, reporting on some research you’d done - either singly or as a group. The audience is normally made up of your fellow students and one or more members of staff who assess you. Most such presentations are performed using accompanying slides, created using presentation software such as Microsoft Powerpoint, Apple Keynote or Prezi. Such software can be used to give yourself prompts during the presentation, and to create notes that you can hand out to the audience.

Writing for a presentation is very different from writing a paper or electronic assignment that will be read by an assessor in his or her own time. A presentation is a much more multi-sensory experience in which the words you say need to complement anything the audience sees displayed in writing. This means that you may need to write material to display, often with accompanying images, as well as prepare material to be spoken. Sometimes, you might also need to write an associated report. The focus here is on spoken words and the accompanying visual material.

Getting started

As with other writing tasks, a good starting point if you are unfamiliar with the type of task is to use the IPACE model (Chapter 2) to identify key elements:

1ldentity. Who am I expected to be? What is my persona? What qualities should such a person have? The task guidelines and assessment criteria should help determine the persona you should adopt. As for qualities, think about the presentations you’ve experienced and presenters you’ve admired. This should give you some insight into the qualities you are aspiring to achieve.

2Purpose. Again, the task guidelines and assessment criteria should help you determine this. But go beyond these to consider what you are seeking to convey to your audience. Consider also the benefits for you, in the short to medium term, in developing appropriate skills in designing and carrying out an effective presentation.

3Audience. You need to know, of course, who will be at the presentation, and whether they will be adopting a particular persona (such as a business person, a specific type of practitioner in your discipline, or a member of the general public).

4Code. Encompassing format, structure and style, this will include elements such as: the location of the presentation; the facilities available; whether you are expected to use Microsoft Powerpoint, or can use posters and props; whether you need to produce handouts; and whether there will be a question and answer session at the end of the presentation.

5Experience. This includes what experience you are bringing to the task in terms of content and process. The information that follows should help with process if you are unfamiliar with presenting.

Model yourself on presenters you admire

Think about presentations - lectures, seminars, videos - you’ve seen. What, in your opinion, works well? What doesn’t work well? What could you apply to your own presenting?

Keep it short and simple

Commonly, students try to pack too much material into a short presentation. In 10-20 minutes you can normally cover only five to eight major items. It helps to work out, early on, what the three key ’take home’ messages might be. For example, an undergraduate giving a presentation about the value for students in assessing and giving each other feedback on written work might wish to address issues such as:

Vygotsky ’s zone of proximal development, and the benefits of the process to both

hhe person giving the feedback and the recipient of the feedback

The value of seeing a range of work of different quality

The learning and other benefits that come from better interpretation of the assessment criteria

The degree to which students should be empowered to determine the process and nature of the feedback they give

How students can be supported by staff in giving better quality feedback

How to manage the peer assessment and feedback process so that it maximises benefit for students and staff

That student would then need to decide which aspects of these points are the key ’take home’

messages she wants to convey to the audience (normally, no more than three).

Overall structure

Your presentation typically follows the traditional maxim: tell the audience what you’re going to talk about (introduction); tell them (the body of the talk); remind the audience what you’ve talked about (close):

The introduction. This includes: introducing who you are (unless the audience knows already), what your topic and approach is, any relevant background, and your aim(s) in giving the presentation.

The body. If you were talking about an investigation you’d carried out, this might include methods, results, discussion and conclusion (but with more interesting headings!).

The close. Ending your presentation with ’take home’ messages, and thanking your audience. There may then be an opportunity for questions and answers.

Planning speech to complement displayed words and images

Whether you show slides, give a practical demonstration, talk about a poster, or any combination of these, the words you say need to complement any words and images you display. You should avoid simply reading out or repeating what is shown in a slide or poster. What you say should summarise, explain or breathe life into what you have displayed visually. Achieving this requires planning.

When giving a presentation, the ideal is to make your audience come away thinking that the experience has been spontaneous yet well planned:

✵Make a plan of what you wish to cover in your presentation, basing your structure around an introduction, body and close. Make notes using headings and subheadings, bullet points, key phrases, a flow chart, mind map or concept map, or whatever works best for you (see Section 5.7).

✵Sequence your ideas logically, creating notes for each section. Use these as a basis for designing your visual material. At an early stage, decide what you will display visually, perhaps on slides or in a poster.

✵Once you have designed the visual material (see below) you need to consider how your commentary will relate to this. If you are unused to giving presentations, you may wish to write a detailed script. Producing a script may be an assessed requirement for your assignment.

✵However, it is not normally good practice to read out a detailed script at a presentation. Instead, reduce your script to key words, phrases or bullet points. These are prompts that you can glance at during your presentation. Talking around these is what will make your presentation spontaneous and not leaden.

Guidelines for presenting slides

By using presentation software such as Microsoft Powerpoint, Apple Keynote or Prezi you can create presentations that elegantly combine words and images. Seeking to use all the functions of the software, including animation, is often unnecessary. Simple but elegant design is often most effective. It is easy to make slides too busy, with too much text, or images that carry too much detail. You can provide weblinks or contact details to direct the audience to further information, rather than using valuable space on the slide.

Suggestions for designing and presenting slides:

✵Make sure the projected image is at least 2 metres across (unless the presentation is being displayed on a television screen or computer monitor to a small group of people).

✵Develop an overall design concept, but with some variation from slide to slide.

✵Avoid gimmicks that might distract the audience.

✵The first slide normally shows the title of the presentation, with your name(s).

✵For text, choose a non-serif font such as Arial, Helvetica or Tahoma, of at least 24-point size.

✵Avoid using more than three or four font styles and sizes on one slide.

✵In general, keep to fewer than 80 words per slide (often far fewer).

✵Employ short sentences, bullet points, questions, quotes, photos, illustrations, graphs, charts and summary tables to get your points across.

✵Avoid overcrowding your slide. Leave clear spaces.

✵Ensure there is strong contrast between text and background.

✵Each slide is normally displayed for between 20 and 120 seconds.

✵The last slide typically gives the ’take home’ messages or a striking image that captures a sense of the whole presentation.


It pays to rehearse. Doing so boosts confidence. You can check that you are putting across the key messages within the required time:

✵If possible, practise using appropriate equipment in a room that is the same as, or similar to, the one where you will be presenting.

✵Get a trusted fellow student to watch and listen to your presentation and offer constructive feedback.

✵Use prompts, written on index cards or displayed on your computer screen (but not displayed to the audience), to guide your talk.

✵Fine-tune your presentation, using your experience of the rehearsal and any feedback received.

✵Prepare answers to tricky questions you might be asked.

Prepare for the unexpected

On the day, arrive in good time to check that the facilities, and your presentation, are in place. It pays to have backup plans should equipment fail. For example, if you are using your laptop for your presentation make sure you have a backup of your presentation file on a memory stick so that you can use the university’s built-in computer or can borrow a friend’s laptop. Saving your slides as PDF files is one way of ensuring you can display copies of the slides (without any animation) even if you experience compatibility problems using Powerpoint or Keynote.


Being an effective presenter depends on good preparation, and on ensuring that what you say complements what you show. Writing a script, which is reduced to prompts, will help give you the confidence to engage with the audience in your presentation, rather than reading out prepared material in a mechanical fashion.

Speak directly and enthusiastically to your audience. Notice your audience’s responses and adjust accordingly. If people look confused, be prepared to rephrase what you have said. If they look bored, engage them more by asking questions.

The right degree of nervousness

Being slightly nervous is an appropriate state to be in when giving a presentation. It will help give your presentation edge and sparkle. If you are very nervous, your speech may become garbled or erratic. Slow down. Taking a few deep breaths before you start speaking is one way to help control your nerves.


What makes a good presenter?

Consider the items below. Tick those you consider to be signs of a good presenter of a slide show:

(a)Sticks to a few main points.

(b)Engages with the audience by asking and answering questions.

(c)Reads from notes or a script.

(d)Speaks quickly and quietly.

(e)Is enthusiastic.

(f)Looks at the screen rather than the audience.

Check your answers against those at the end of the chapter.

Answering questions

Give yourself thinking time when answering questions. You could ask the questioner to repeat what they said. And if you don’t know the answer (yet), then say so.

Follow up

To help maximise your learning from the experience of presenting, reflect afterwards:

✵What went well?

✵What went less well?

✵What would I do differently next time?

If there is anything from the presentation that you need to follow up on, such as getting back to a questioner, then make sure you do.