How to structure a presentation?

As a speaker, you are a tour guide. You guide your audience from the start to the end of the tour. During the walk, you go from one point of interest to the next one. But a good tour guide doesn’t simply walk from monument to monument. No, a good guide also provides context and connects the tour to make sure that the audience stays interested during the walk and understands not just the monuments you come across but the entire city at the end of the tour.
That is exactly your job as a speaker. Grab the attention of your audience, guide them around and make sure your audience walks away enriched. In order to achieve that, your story should be structured around three main points:

Presentations all too often start in exactly the same. Speakers always have the urge to introduce themselves and their topic, which doesn’t really make sense if you think about it. Usually, the audience already knows the speaker and the topic of the presentation beforehand. And it doesn’t matter whether they know because they have just read about it in the schedule of the event or because your title slide has already been on the screen for a few minutes.

Grab the attention

By repeating your name and the topic of your presentation at the beginning, you inevitably give your audience the signal that your presentation probably won’t be very refreshing or intriguing. Yet the purpose of the beginning of a presentation is to avoid doing exactly that. Your first sentence should grab your audience’s attention and pull it towards you. After your first words, your audience should be both intrigued and eager to hear what’s next.


Goodmorning, my name is Edward and today I would like to tell you something more about the metabolic regulation of the circadian rhythm Drosophila melanogaster which I studied this year. 


Sleeping flies never sleep. 


Have you ever asked yourself why your bed is spinning when you go to bed drunk?

Pause after your beginning

If you decide to use an unexpected beginnen, make sure to leave a pause of about two seconds afterwards. Otherwise, you will lose part of your impact. This might feel like an eternity for you as a speaker but those two seconds will be over very quickly for your audience. You started unexpectedly to make people wonder so give your audience the time to start wondering.

As almost all presentations start in exactly the same way, it is very easy to train yourself to find strong opening lines for your presentations. Listen carefully to the presentations of your fellow students or maybe even your lecturers and try to come up with a good first sentence for it. Let your creativity run free. And don’t forget: practice makes perfect. 

Know the rules 

Explore how far you can go with this, both for yourself and for your audience as well. Don’t force yourself. Some situations demand a traditional beginning. In that case, you need to decide whether it would be a good idea to experiment and possibly cause some discontent.

Sometimes it is also just impossible to start unexpectedly. Sometimes you need to follow protocols and traditions first such as thanking the jury or addressing the chairperson of the event. Make sure to do that first but afterwards, you can leave a short pause and start again.

The ending is even more important than the beginning of your presentation. It is your last chance to get your message across. The ending of your presentation is what will be remembered the most by your audience. But that is only if it is a good ending of course.

If your presentation ends with a simple ‘thank you for your attention’ or ‘are there any questions’, it’s a missed opportunity really. Your audience should understand and remember your message and the best way to achieve this, is by ending your presentation well.

A short and meaningful ending

Scientific presentations usually end with a nuanced conclusion. That conclusion, however, all too often is too long and too complex. Make sure the ending of your presentation is really simple. Think back to the message you want to get across. Try to repeat it in a very powerful way. By doing this, you will end your presentation with your main message. But what is a good ending?


In conclusion, it is clear that the circadian rhythm of Drosophila melanogaster is regulated by a feedback cycle that has different components such as the PER/TIM, CLK/CYC and DBT: the PER/TIM dimer enters the core at night, binds to the CLK/CYC dimer and this way, inhibits the transcription activity of CLK/CYC. 


That is why sleeping flies never sleep!


In short, the PER/TIM is the most beautiful and most sleep-promoting feedback cycle. 

You already know how to start and end your presentation now but what do you do in the middle? You just need to connect those two parts of your presentation. That sounds very simple but this is often where things go wrong. Scientific presentations often discuss too many different things in an incoherent way. How do you create cohesion and how do you engage your audience?

How to create cohesion?

First of all, your story must have the shape of an hourglass. Your start should be quite broad. You discuss the context and the societal relevance of your research first. Then you can zoom in on your specific work with your research questions, methodology and results. After this, it is time to zoom out again and make sure to end as broadly as you started. What is the link between your results and what you have mentioned at the start of your presentation?


A presentation of your research is not a chronological report of everything that you have done. Presentations that do that are often boring, unnecessarily complicated and much too long. Instead, you should present a problem, your approach to that problem, your results and finally your solutions to that problem. Your audience is usually not interested in every step of the way or every obstacle in the process.

Be straightforward

The shortest way is usually the best way. First of all, try to go from your beginning to your ending as quickly as possible and afterwards, you can add information if you feel that that is necessary. Make sure to always use a logical order! 

Start with a bang. Then you move forward to discuss the broad context, the problem and your specific research questions. In the next step, you discuss your methodology, which leads to your main results that you then need to interpret in your conclusion. Make sure that the ending of your presentation is memorable and finally, close off with a powerful final sentence. 

Once you have decided what the main message of your presentation should be, it is a good idea to make a blueprint for your presentation. Take a big piece of paper and a pencil. Draw the parts that you really need for your presentation onto that paper. Once you are happy with what you have written down, start putting these parts in a logical order and add links between all the parts. How do you make sure that everything will be connected in your presentation? This approach is a good preparation and gives you a good insight into your presentation. 

How to engage your audience?

Once you have found your cohesion and you have put together your story, you can still lose the attention of your audience along the way when presenting because presentations are often nothing more than enumerations. What does that mean? Instead of taking your audience from a specific problem to a solution via your study, many speakers tend to present their research as an enumeration, as if there are no connections between the parts they are discussing.


You should avoid moving from one slide to the next while saying what the slide already says. Really engaging your audience means that they forget that they are watching a presentation. They should be part of the presentation!


So, the research question is: is it possible to transform these waste products into resources in a sustainable way? In order to answer that question, we will have a look at possible sources in the first part of this presentation, after which we will briefly discuss a number of methods to study those sources in the second part of this presentation. (..) And so to conclude, I would like to say: it is indeed possible to transform these waste products into resources in a sustainable way.  


But the question is: can we transform these waste products into resources in a sustainable way? In order to answer that question, we first need to ask ourselves where they come from and how we can study those sources. (…) Yes, indeed, it is possible to transform these waste products into resources in a sustainable way. 

If people talk about something that is serious, scientific or important, they tend to use something that is called ‘metalanguage’. Think about sentences such as ‘In this part, I will be discussing …‘ or ‘I would like to ask you something’ instead of just discussing or asking it. This gives a sense of formality to what you are saying. Nevertheless, your presentations will not be better if you do so. Try to focus on those sentences during presentations of your fellow students, classes of your lecturers or speeches of guest lecturers. You will be surprised by how often they are really used.

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