Ask most people what their greatest fear is, and chances are they'll say that speaking in public makes their knees knock and their hands sweat. Lots of people, maybe even you, quake at the thought of talking in front of a roomful of strangers. Now that you're in graduate school, there is no avoiding the inevitable. Ready or not, at some point your thesis adviser will ask you to present your research findings to others. But speaking in front of a group of people doesn't have to be the unnerving experience you think it is, especially if you keep a few pointers in mind.

Get prepared

The trick to giving a great presentation is to be prepared, know your stuff, and practice your talk until it feels completely natural to stand up in front of an audience. Perhaps your first presentation will be in an informal setting with other members of your lab during a weekly or monthly group meeting. Or you may be asked to give a talk to the entire department. At some point (and count yourself lucky if you're given the chance this early in your career), you may even be invited to present your research at a large regional or international conference.

Although this may seem daunting, spending the time to prepare your presentation will take a great deal of fear out of the process. Whether you have an audience of two or 200, your approach and general objectives are the same: getting your message across in clear and simple terms that leave your audience hanging on the edge of their seats and hungry for more.

Where to start? Not by rushing to the computer to experiment with fancy PowerPoint templates and a snazzy array of bullet points. Before you draw even one slide, take some time to sketch out on paper the basic structure of your presentation. Make sure you have an appropriate framework for your talk and a logical reason for any information you wish to present. So, stop what you're doing, turn away from the computer, and ask yourself three things:

  • What is the objective of my talk? (to highlight new data, give an overview of my research, etc.)

  • Which main points do I want to present?

  • Which key message do I want people to remember after my talk is over?

  • Make a list of the answers to these questions as the starting point for your presentation. Then sketch out your presentation in draft form, using keywords and bullet points rather than complete sentences. After you've done this, review what you've written. Is your presentation logical and consistent? Are there extraneous pieces of information that can be left out? Are you trying to present too much information for the amount of time you've been allotted? As a general rule, 2 minutes should be spent on each slide, so calculate how many slides you should ideally have.

    Identify your audience

    As you do all this, keep in mind that the whole point of good communication is not the transmission of information but the reception of it. This means that the preparation, presentation, and content of your talk must be geared toward the needs of the audience. What is their knowledge level and degree of interest? How well do they know the subject of your talk? If the audience is made up of people in your own research group, their knowledge level will be very high; if the audience includes other people in your department, the level might be somewhat lower. Imagine how you might present your data to high-school students or laypeople with a mild interest in science. For each type of audience, you will have to vary your content and delivery. There is no cookie-cutter approach, even if the message you are presenting is basically the same.

    Once you've identified your audience, elaborate on the key message of your talk with appropriate supporting details and data. Prepare your slides (or other visual aids) to support your words. Do not be afraid to give context or background information where necessary, or to explain the meaning of any techniques or acronyms--even if they seem obvious to you. There is nothing worse than sitting through an entire presentation in which "QVA," for example, is written on every slide and the presenter has neglected to tell the audience what it means.

    If you've never given a presentation before, you might want to write down your entire talk to make sure you don't leave out any crucial information. Whatever you do, however, do not read from a script during the presentation itself. This approach is guaranteed to put everyone to sleep. The trick to a relaxed delivery is to know your material well enough that you know what to say without the need for prompts. If you must have something to jog your memory, write some prompts on small index cards using one or two keywords only. These cards should correspond to your slides or other visual aids, so remember to mark the cards with the appropriate slide number.

    Rehearse your presentation out loud

    You've structured your talk and made your slides. Now for the fun part: It's time to rehearse your presentation out loud. First to yourself (this will feel strange at first, but it is very effective for putting yourself at ease and for getting used to the sound of your voice in a quiet room). Then practice your talk in front of a few fellow students or other trusted colleagues. Use these practice sessions to rehearse the pacing of your talk and to master the effective use of visual aids. Ask your colleagues for their comments and honest assessment of your performance at the end of the presentation. Productive criticism from friends is useful for making improvements, and it's better to hear it from them rather than suffer the grumbles and complaints of strangers as they file out of the lecture hall.

    Giving the presentation

    On the day of the presentation, show up early and make sure you know how to use the equipment. If there's a microphone, find out how to turn it on and adjust the volume.

    Okay. Now you're on. Greet the audience and tell them who you are. (Don't assume that everyone knows you, even in an informal setting.) These introductory remarks have the additional purpose of getting the audience to settle down and direct their attention toward you. Clear presentations usually follow a standard formula:

    • In a sentence or two, tell the audience what you are going to tell them.

    • Tell them in detail.

    • At the end of the talk, tell them what you have told them.

    The first part helps you to prepare the audience. By stating in a sentence or two what you are going to talk about, you place your presentation into context. Next, give your talk as you practiced it, using your visual aids to support your words. Finally, sum up what you have told them, keeping your key message in mind and what it is you want them to remember after they've left the room.

    Keep to your allotted time. If you've been given 20 minutes for your talk, then talk for 20 minutes. Fifteen minutes is even better so that you can allow some time at the end of your presentation for questions and/or discussion. For many people, the question-and-answer session is the most nerve-racking part of the presentation. After all, you have no control over the questions asked, so you can't really prepare the answers. Or can you? A good exercise is to try to anticipate the questions you may be asked and prepare the answers in advance.

    When you're asked a question, it's always a good idea to repeat it to make sure everyone has heard it properly. That will also give you time to formulate an answer. Then go ahead and answer the question based on the data you presented (and on what you know).You can also put the question into a larger context by drawing upon data and information outside your own work. If you don't know the answer (and you're not expected to know everything!), or don't have enough data to support a proper answer, then say so. It's better to be honest than try to bluff your way through. If appropriate, tell the questioner you'll get back to them with more information when you have it.

    Tips for a perfect delivery

    Public speaking is an art. Some people are great at it, others less so. The good news is that many of the necessary skills can be learned. Everyone loves to listen to a great speaker, so aim to be the kind of speaker whose talks you have enjoyed. During your presentation your voice, facial expressions, and body language are your most important attributes.

    • Be conscious of how you use your voice. It's not just what you say that counts, it's how you say it. Speak clearly and project to the back of the room. Don't rush. Use a natural pace, but don't be conversational. Speaking in a monotone is boring and will put people to sleep, so be sure to vary the speed and pitch of your voice.

    • Pause at key points to allow the audience to absorb your words.

    • Look at the audience throughout your talk. You will create a rapport with the audience by establishing eye contact with as many people as possible. At the same time, be aware of your facial expressions. If you look bored, the audience will be bored. If you are animated and alert, the audience will be interested in what you have to say.

    • Be receptive to the audience. Pay attention to the audience's body language and nonverbal reactions to your remarks. Know when to stop and when to leave out part of your presentation if you begin to sense that people in the audience are losing their ability to pay attention.

    Common mistakes

    With the spotlight on you, it's tempting to try to impress your audience with an avalanche of data and plenty of bells and whistles. Look how much work I've done! Nothing could be worse than this approach. In fact, this is a common error, and you risk confusing people if you overwhelm them with too much information. Keep your talk short, simple, and to the point. It is not necessary to wow the audience by giving them a minute-by-minute account of your prowess in the lab. Your main message will just get lost in a tangled thicket of unnecessary details and digressions. Less is more. So keep it simple.

    Other bad habits to avoid: blocking the screen with your body; gesturing excessively with your hands or fidgeting; mumbling and turning your back to the audience; and reading from your slides word for word.

    Finally, no matter how nervous you may feel, relax, and try to look like you're having the time of your life.

    Patricia Gosling and Bart Noordam are the authors of Mastering Your PhD: Survival and Success in the Doctoral Years and Beyond (Springer, 2006). Dr. Gosling is a senior medical writer at CMP Medica, Malaysia, and also works as a freelance science writer. Dr. Noordam is professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and director of a Regional Audit Organization. He has also worked for McKinsey & Co.

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    Patricia Gosling and Bart Noordam are the authors of Mastering Your Ph.D.: Survival and Success in the Doctoral Years and Beyond (Springer, 2006). Gosling is a senior medical writer at CMPMedica in Malaysia and a freelance science writer.

    Bart Noordam is a professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and director of a regional audit organization. He has also worked for McKinsey & Co.