An introduction to PowerPoint presentations

PowerPoint should be used as a visual aid

PowerPoint presentations should be used as a visual aid that helps your audience to understand and remember the key details of your presentation.

Your audience want to hear you speak. They want to hear you explain your ideas, present results, or tell a story.

The human brain has a verbal and visual channel

When learning new material, there is a maximum amount of information that your brain can process at one time. We use visuals to help people to understand a concept. By using an image and talking about a concept, you are using both channels in the brain. Therefore, your audience will be more likely to understand and remember your message. However, many presenters mistakenly consider text on the screen to be visual information.

Text is not a visual aid

Text on the screen is processed by the verbal channel in your brain (think of the voice in your head when you’re reading). If you’re talking while people are reading your slides, your audience can be easily overwhelmed by too much information entering the verbal channel. A good PowerPoint presentation will use minimal text and instead concentrate on using speech and relevant visuals to communicate a message or explain a concept.

too much text can overwhelm the verbal channel

This module provides the information you need to plan, design, and construct a visually appealing science presentations that won’t overwhelm your audience.

Stage 1: Planning your talk
For assignments, your lecturer may require you to construct your presentation in a specific way. You should refer to your criteria sheet for more information. The assertion-evidence approach is still encouraged when designing your slides.

1. Have a clear purpose

Defining the purpose of your talk will help you to focus when you’re designing the content for your slides and when you’re giving your presentation.

Are you trying to explain, instruct, persuade, or entertain?

All effective communication needs a purpose.

At university the main purpose of many of your oral presentations will be to talk about research you have performed, using visuals to present your results and persuade the audience that your conclusions are valid.

2. Know your audience

While at university, your audience will often be your peers who have similar skills and knowledge. However, if you’re presenting information on a new topic, you need to ensure you present enough background information.

Thinking about your audience and considering how they may react to your talk will guide you when you consider what you are going to say in your presentation and how you will support your statements with visuals.

3. What are you going to say?

If you have determined your purpose and you know your audience, planning the content of your presentation will be much easier. Your talk should be comprised of only essential information that helps you to achieve your purpose.

The assertion-evidence approach

The assertion-evidence approach uses slide headlines to plan and present your presentation. Rather than using vague titles such as ‘introduction’ or ‘results’, the slide headlines will tell the audience exactly what the slide is about.

The headline is supported by a relevant images, graphs, diagrams, and limited amounts of text – not a list of bullet points or clip art. Your slide headlines will make up the main points of your presentation but it is up to you talk about the key message of each slide and provide more detail when necessary.

example of assertion-evidence slide

Planning template

Download the planning template

The ‘planning your presentation’ template will help you to structure your talk before creating your visual slides. The template’s 3-part structure can be used to create a range of presentations, from a brief project proposal to a more detailed conference talk.

The template provides space for you to write the headlines for each of your slides – one message per slide. Once you’ve entered in your headlines you can then transfer them to individual PowerPoint slides.

The template provides a column for a 5-10 minute talk and a 15-20 minute talk. For the longer talk, create 3 headlines that provide more information on each of the key points listed in the 5-10 minute column.

Stage 2: Creating your slides
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Design Guidelines

Begin by placing your presentation headlines on blank slides and add any relevant images or graphs that clearly support the assertion in the headline. Don’t use vague section headings such as “methods” or “results”.

For headlines:

  1. Use a sans serif font (E.g. Calibri, Arial)
  2. Font size 36-40
  3. Maximum 2 lines

You can include small amounts of other text on the slide, if necessary, but avoid using bullet points. Bullet points are a bit like a shopping list – just a group of individual items with no story connecting them.

Use colour to highlight important features or differences

  1. Don’t use PowerPoint templates & backgrounds with designs or gradients.
  2. Use a light background with dark text or dark background with light text.

Graphs should be designed specifically for your presentation

  1. Focus on the important data. Leave out any data that does not help you to communicate the key message.
  2. Make the graph the main feature – not a decoration.
  3. Place labels on the graph – don’t use legends that your audience must decipher.
  4. Highlight interesting features with arrows or circles.
  5. Explain what the graph means.
For more information on choosing the right type of graph, take a look at the CLIPS Displaying Data module.

Images should support the headline assertion

  1. Don’t use clip art.
  2. Only use images that clearly support the headline assertion.
  3. Don’t use images to “add interest” to your presentation. If you’re not talking about the image, leave it out.
  4. Only use logos and institute information on the title and final slide.

Always double-check your slides for errors. If possible, have someone else look at your slides to check for errors.

Stage 3: Giving your presentation

Practice

It is essential that you practice your talk. Don’t just run it through your head or practice in front of the mirror – try to give your presentation in front of your friends or family.

Film yourself giving the presentation. This will allow you to identify any problems (E.g. Saying umm a lot, pacing, wild gestures, not making eye contact with the audience.)

Using notes

With adequate practice, you shouldn’t need to use notes during your talk. Reading from notes or palm cards means you’re not interacting with your audience. If you feel you need the support of notes, ensure that they are printed in a large font and broadly outline the message for each slide – don’t write a script.

Acknowledgements

Most people will end their talk by acknowledging their supervisors or colleagues. While it is important to acknowledge the help you received, it shouldn’t be the final message of your talk.
Acknowledgements and your contact details can be included on a final slide to be displayed after the applause and during question time. Your audience will still be able to see who was involved in your project without the anticlimax of reading out a list of names.

Timing

Never go over time. You should continue to practice your talk until you are sure you will complete your talk within the allocated time.

Answering questions

Answering questions from the audience can be a daunting experience but it is your opportunity to interact with the audience and clarify any specific points. Answering questions from the audience may require you to think critically about your research and address any possible limitations. Before giving your talk, it is worth thinking about areas of your talk that may attract criticism or require further explanation.

When answering questions you should:

  1. Listen to the question carefully.
  2. Let the questioner finish their question before you begin to answer.
  3. Ask for clarification if you’re not quite sure what they are asking.
  4. Attempt to answer the question but don’t feel ashamed of saying you’re not certain. If you have absolutely no clue of a suitable answer, thank the person for their question and suggest it is something you will need to consider in more detail or offer to discuss it with them after your talk.

Appearance

You want the audience to concentrate on what you are saying, not on what you’re wearing. When giving a presentation your clothing should be respectable and comfortable.

An academic explains

examples of first science presentations
dealing with nerves
designing slides for science presentations
using notes for science presentations
keeping to time
answering questions in science presentations

Useful links

Creating effective slides: design, construction, and use in science
by Jean-luc Doumont
Watch Video

Communicating Science to Non-scientists
by Jean-luc Doumont
Watch Video

The assertion-evidence structure for PowerPoint slide design
by Robert Yale
Watch Video

Designing effective scientific presentations
by Susan McConnell
Watch Video

How to avoid death by PowerPoint
by David JP Phillips
Watch Video

Make body language your superpower
by Stanford University
Watch Video