At some point in your academic career, you will likely be asked to give a presentation. Here are some guidelines to help you prepare and feel more comfortable speaking in public.

Organizing Content

A good presentation contains three parts:

  1. introduction (which includes a greeting, attention getter, and overview)
  2. body of the presentation
  3. conclusion (which includes a summary, final thought, and invitation for audience questions).

See below for more details on what to include in each part of your speech.

Start with a short greeting, such as:

  • Hello, everyone.
  • Good morning.
  • Good afternoon.

Next, say something to grab the audience's attention. You could use:

  • a surprising statistic or fact
  • an impressive image
  • a brief story about your topic
  • an imaginary situation related to your topic
  • a rhetorical question (something for the audience to think about that they don't actually answer)
  • a real question (something you want the audience to answer)
  • a well-known saying or relevant quotation
  • humor

Give an overview of your speech so the audience knows how you will organize your talk and what the main sections will be. One example is:

  • Today I'll explain the main causes of water pollution in Minnesota lakes, describe some solutions to these problems, and evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each solution.

Simply saying "Today I'll talk about water pollution in Minnesota" is not a very good overview because it does not give the audience a clue about how the presentation will be organized.

The body of your presentation should follow the same order that you used in your overview.

Use transition phrases to introduce each section of your speech. Examples include

  • First of all...
  • Let's start with...
  • Secondly...
  • Next, let's talk about...
  • The third step...
  • Finally, I'd like to explain...

In addition to using transition phrases as you move from one section of your speech to another, you can also use transition phrases to introduce details in your speech. This helps the audience follow how you are organizing your ideas. Some examples include:

  • There are three main causes for this problem. Number one...
  • Let me give two examples of this. The first example...
  • Researchers have identified a few causes for this. The first reason is...
  • This piece of equipment has four main parts...

A good conclusion contains a brief summary of the main ideas of your speech.

Next, end your presentation with a final thought that you want to leave the audience with. There are many strategies you can use, including:

  • a well-known saying or inspirational quotation
  • an action that you want the audience to take
  • a question that you want the audience to think about
  • a story or imaginary situation to inspire the audience or help them remember your main ideas

Finally, invite questions from the audience. Some examples include:

  • I'd be happy to answer questions now.
  • Does anyone have any questions?
  • We have time for questions now. 

Public Speaking Skills

Use gestures to aid your presentation. If you watch good presenters, they move their hands to help emphasize key words as they speak. Don't be afraid to interact with your visual aids by pointing to charts, graphs, key words, or images in your presentation. You can also use hand gestures to count items in a list, demonstrate an action or movement you're describing, or indicate the shape or size of things you mention in your presentation.

Don't use distracting body language, such as keeping your hands in your pockets, swaying your body back and forth, tapping a foot, playing with a pen or note cards, repeatedly touching your hair or face, or other nervous movements. It can distract the audience and also make you look less confident.

For a confident posture, stand evenly on both feet, with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed. The TED Talk Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are gives more advice on how to practice "power poses" before a presentation to improve your posture and confidence.

Make sure you look at the audience more than you look at your notes or visual aids. The more you practice your speech in advance, the less you will need to look down at your notes during the presentation.

Pick three friendly faces or three points in the room to look at, one on your left, on in the center, and one on your right. Regularly look at these points while you talk. This will make it look like you are making eye contact with the whole audience (even if you are really just looking at three points in the room). 

Don't speak quickly to rush through your presentation or to fit a lot of information into the time limit. This strategy doesn't help the audience understand your presentation, and the whole point is to share information!

Pausing is important to help the audience think about what you say. Pausing regularly also gives you time to breathe. It's also helpful if you stress key words and phrases (nouns, verbs, transition phrases in your speech, etc.) and pause after them. It will help your audience catch important terms and phrases.

If a microphone is available, use it. The audience can usually understand more when the speaker uses a microphone.

If no microphone is available, make sure you speak loud enough for the size of the audience and the room. If you're not sure, you could pause and ask if everyone can hear you to get feedback on your volume.

The more you practice your presentation in advance, the more confident you will feel about the topic. You can use more eye contact and gestures if you don't need to look at your notes very often. You can also improve your pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary each time you practice the speech.

Practice in front of a mirror or video record yourself so you can see what you look like and monitor how much eye contact you're making. Time your presentation so you make sure to stay within the time limits.

Handling Audience Questions

Good presenters follow three steps when they have questions from the audience.

  1. Repeat or rephrase the question. This lets everyone in the audience hear the question, lets you make sure you understood the question correctly, and gives you a little extra time to think about an answer.
  2. Answer the question. Do this as succinctly as possible. If the question is complicated and will take too much time to answer, you can say something like, "That's a great question, but I'm not sure we have time to fully address it now. I'd be happy to talk about this after class." If you don't know the answer to the question, it's okay to be honest and admit that. You can say something like, "That's a really good question, but I'm not sure about the answer. I can check and get back to you later" or "I don't remember the details on that, but I can check and let you know tomorrow."
  3. Check back with the audience member. Check to make sure the audience is satisfied by saying something like, "Does that answer your question?" or "Does that make sense?" or even simply "Okay?"


  • Toastmasters International has many resources for public speaking and leadership skills on their website.
  • The Golden Toasters is the University of Minnesota student club for Toastmasters International. Joining this group is a great way to practice and improve your public speaking skills.
  • The assertion-evidence approach is a good way to organize scientific presentations. This website explains how to use assertions (messages) and then provide evidence to support your assertions. It also has several example videos from undergraduate and graduate students.