Academic Presentations: Writing, Structure, and Outlines
Academic presentations – even speaking in general – can be frightening at first. After all, speaking is an important skill with any language. That said, speaking is a particularly important skill at university/college. This is partly because speaking is a great way to share ideas – but also because there are often different speaking tests. These vary depending on the type of course you’re on – some degrees use them more than others. However, almost every single university student will have to do a presentation of one kind or another while studying.
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So what are academic presentations?
Well, ideally a presentation is a small speech or ‘talk’ where the presenter communicates something in an engaging and informative way. The subject matter will vary depending on what this person is trying to achieve. In academic context, this might be a piece of research, or an analysis, or similar.
However, if the first word that came to mind when you saw that question was ‘terrifying’ – don’t worry, you’re not alone. In a 2014 study by Chapman University, fear of public speaking was named as American’s biggest phobia. Over 25% of people saying they fear public speaking more than heights, insects and snakes, flying, and ghosts.
The American comedian Jerry Seinfeld even did a bit on this – how speaking in front of a crowd was the #1 fear of the average American – while death was #2!?! Potentially worth checking out..
Anyway, let’s stop thinking negatively – if you have to do it, let’s make sure you do a great job of it! Let’s turn now to look at how to write an excellent academic presentation.
How to write an academic presentation
First, you have to figure out what your professor wants you to do – or more specifically, how you pass. Passing is key. As part of this, you’ll want to look at things like…
What's the task?
What do you need to do? And how long for? If you need to give a five minute comparison of two different ideas – great, that’s straight forward. Or if you need to give a twenty minute academic breakdown of a piece of research you’ve done – excellent, now you know. The first step is figuring what you need to do to pass – or, hopefully, do really well.
One thing – always remember to ask how you will be marked! This helps protect you against any tricky requirements that there might be in the task. It’s better to know before you start preparing so you’ve got time to deal with these. Otherwise, you might have to deal with last minute panics and stress. Not fun.
Who are your audience?
Are you presenting to experts in the field or laypeople (i.e., non-experts)? This will make a big difference to how you present your information. After all, experts (like your professors) will have a base level of knowledge that doesn’t need explaining. In many cases, they might know more about your subject than you know. However, a “normal” person might not have the level of knowledge needed to understand some ideas or special words used in your subject. As such, if you’re presenting to them, you’ll need to simplify your presentation to help them follow and understand.
What are your ideas?
Given the above – what are you going to say? Task pass requirements will tell you what subject you need to talk about. And things like time and audience will dictate how much depth you can go into. So what are your ideas that fit within that? Planning is essential – because it makes presentations (and life in general) much easier. And easy is what we want when you’re already stressed about doing presentations – especially if it’s a test!
Academic presentation structure
Academic presentations vary a lot. A presentation by a law student will, necessarily, be pretty different to that by a student of medicine. There’ll be different subject matter, different language, probably a different approach or tone taken to communicate ideas. That said, most presentations tend to follow a fairly predictable structure. That presentation structure looks like this:
- References (maybe)
Let’s turn to look at each of these briefly in turn…
In the first stage of an academic presentation, the speaker will introduce themselves and their purpose in giving the presentation. To do this, they might talk about their job, background, research or whatever it is that makes them an authority on their subject. They might then talk about what they hope to achieve in the presentation that day.
In this part of the presentation, the speaker will give a brief outline/overview of what the audience can expect from the talk. This might be the structure that the presentation will follow and/or any key ideas they will cover. They might also note any expectations – e.g., for people to keep their questions to the end of the talk.
As mentioned above, this is necessarily much more flexible – depending on the subject, on the task, etc. After all, presentations by students of law, medicine, and engineering are going to be very different in a range of different ways. Ultimately, this section is about responding to the task.
A quick word of advice with this section though – subheadings are your friend. Use them.
As the name suggests, the conclusion is about wrapping things up and concluding the presentation. This might mean a summary of the ideas in the presentation. Or it might mean include recommendations, solutions, thoughts for the future, etc.
This page might not be needed for some presentations while for others it is essential. Check your task sheet and, if in doubt, ask. That said, if this is needed, generally you show it – then move on.
In this last section the speaker thanks the audience for their attention. If they have asked the audience to hold their questions to the end, they might let them ask now. As with the references section, this might not be appropriate in some kinds of presentation. It really does depend on the subject/task.
Academic Presentation Outline Example
This is actually worth coming back to as presentation outlines are so important that an example is worth looking at. The below overview is taken from the lecture on solar power in our Academic Lecture Listening Skills course.
From the above academic presentation outline example, you can take in a lot of information relatively quickly. For instance, you know that the lecturer will begin by talking about solar “now” before going on to talk about future needs. Then it looks like they will talk about making solar more effective. You can see there are two different subsections here – improving solar efficiency and improving storage. Finally, there is a section where the lecturer will be discussing the future of solar at three different “levels”. In order of appearance those levels will be local, national, and international.
In very short order you have the gist* of what the presentation will cover. Good presentations use outlines to create structure in their presentations. A good presentation outline will prepare listeners to be more effective when listening to presentations. *Very similar to what we covered in our very popular Effective Academic Reading Techniques – A Beginner’s Guide blog post.
What about outlines and handouts? What's the relationship there?
Good question! If the presenter gives a handout to their audience, its structure will most likely match the main ideas in the outline. That way the presenter reinforces the structure of their ideas in a number of related ways – the outline, the handout, and signposting words. We go into all of these in some detail in our Speaking lessons so definitely check those out by clicking Start Learning to start your journey to academic success TODAY!
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So that’s us for our HeadStart Guide on writing and structuring academic presentations – we hope it’s been useful! As always, we’d love to hear from you if you have any questions or comments – write us a post below or follow us on Facebook. Or, if you want to get more of these blog posts straight to your inbox – join our mailing list. Or if you have a question or a topic that you’d like us to write a blog post (or even better – a full lesson) about – email us! We read every email.
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