How to Give a Good Academic Paper Presentation

The art of pitching your academic research

So, you’re about to present your first academic paper? You are preparing to defend your thesis? You are about to present your research to a bunch of experts?

But, you don’t know where to start? or, how to start?

That’s ok, you are in the right place.

In this short post, I’m going to show you how to do a good academic research presentation so that your audience actually understands and appreciates it.

The main goal of an academic research presentation — like any other type of presentation — is to carry your audience through a story and grab their attention during the whole story. But no matter how good a story is, if it’s not told properly it’ll lose its audience at the very first words.

And every good story needs a good structure, otherwise, your audience will get lost in a dead-end.

To avoid getting into that dead-end and losing your audience, you should structure your presentation around 5 main questions:

  1. Who are you and what’s your story about?
  2. Why should your audience — or anyone — care about your story, and why is it relevant to tell that story now?
  3. How did you get to write your story? Who are the main characters?
  4. What happens in the story? What happens to the characters?
  5. So, What? Why this ending is better? Why should I wait for a new episode?

The order in which these questions are answered throughout your presentation can vary. Good stories might also start at the end and crawl back to its beginnings. Play with the order and see what suits best your story, only you know better what works for your research.

So let’s go now through each of the questions, shall we?

Who are you and what’s your research about?

Introduce yourself — unless you have already been introduced. Sometimes we are so impatience to give our presentation that we forget the basics.

Many times when we choose a book to read we ask ourselves about the human that wrote the book. And, as any writer researchers should include a short biography of themselves in the presentation.

And this is not to brag about yourself or your experience, but to give a human touch to the research itself. Before anyone wants to hear your story — your research — you need to tell them why they should be listening to you.

A short introduction of 30 seconds will do, your name, your background, why you are here in this room presenting and anything else that might be relevant to the research you are doing.

Give a context to your story, a kind of foreword to your research. State your thesis clearly and tell your audience why the topic you are going to address is relevant. And why they should care.

Give a hook. Start with a kind of provocation to instill curiosity and need. Try to think out of the box and talk about something your audience will found interesting. Use analogies too much known or simpler things that everyone in the room would be able to understand. Don’t talk to the experts, they already know it.

To give you an example, this is how I started one of my papers on overconfidence and innovation:

If you had to choose between The Joker and Batman, who would you want to be?

My paper was nothing to do with superheroes — at least not in a common way — but I wanted to talk about the dual personality innovators have, thus The Joker vs Batman analogy.

Once you have given your hook and presented yourself, give your audience an idea of what you are going to talk about and what awaits them during the following minutes.

Give them a roadmap of the talk, even if it seems redundant to you. This doesn’t mean you have to list your table of contents, just a prelude of your story.

In total, one minute and one slide are enough.

Why should your audience care about your Research, and why is it relevant now?

The next 2 or 3 slides should introduce the subject to the audience. Very briefly. Usually, research presentations last between 10 to 15 minutes, but many are shifting to the startup pitch format of 3 to 5 minutes. So being concise and direct to point is quite important.

Telling your audience why the topic you are researching about is important and relevant it’s essential, but should not take all time. This is just the introduction, you need to save time for the main story.

There are mainly 6 elements that make a good introduction:

  1. Define the Problem: Many speakers forget this simple point. No matter how difficult and technical the problem you are addressing is there is certainly a way to explain it concisely and clearly in less than one minute. Explain your problem as if your audience were 5 years old children, not because they are not smart or respectable, but because the simpler you get to explain a complex problem the more it shows your mastery and preparation. If the audience doesn’t understand the problem being attacked, then they won’t understand the rest of your talk, and you’ll lose them before you get to your great solution. For your slides, condense the problem into a very few carefully chosen words. An example here again from my research: Is being extremely confident in ourselves good or bad for innovation?
  2. Motivate the Audience: Explain why the problem is so important. How does the problem fit into the larger picture(e.g. entrepreneurship ecosystem, neuroscience,…)? What are its applications? What makes the problem nontrivial? If no one has done this research, why is it relevant now to do it? What are the circumstances that make it relevant now more than ever? Avoid broad statements such as “Innovation is what drives economic growth, but there are few innovative individuals, so how can we encourage people to become innovators?” Rather, focus on what really matters: “universities are investing millions to develop entrepreneurship education program, still students graduating from these programs aren’t starting any venture.”
  3. Introduce Terminology: scientific jargon is boring and complex, it should be kept to a minimum. However, sometimes is almost impossible not to refer to specific scientific terms. Any complex jargon should be introduced at the beginning of the presentation or when each term is introduced for the first time during the presentation. To avoid losing time tot his, you can prepare a short document with all the terms and definitions to hand out to the participants in the audience.
  4. Discuss Earlier Work: Do your research, you are not reinventing the wheel. There is nothing more frustrating than listening to a talk that covers something that has already been published without making reference tot hose studies. It not only shows that you didn’t do your research and that you are underprepared, but it shows you don’t know how to conduct research. This doesn’t mean that you should have read and cited ALL the works and papers that talk about the topic of your research. This is only useful if you are doing a systematic review. But you have to be sure that you know, read and cite those that really matter. You have to explain why this work is different from past wor, or how you are improving or continuing the research.
  5. Emphasize the Contributions of the Paper: Make sure that you explicitly and succinctly state the contributions made by your paper. That is the so what?. Give just a quick glimpse of your contributions and implications for the research and the practice. The audience wants to know this. Often it is the only thing that they carry away from the talk.
  6. Consider putting your Conclusion in the Introduction: Be bold. Let everyone know from the start where you are headed so that the audience can focus on what matters.

How did you get to your results? How did you conduct your study?

There should be 1 or 2 methods slides that allow the audience to understand how the research was conducted. You might include a flow chart describing the main ingredients of the methods used. Do not put too many details, just what it’s needed to understand the study. Many of the details are appropriate for the manuscript but not for the presentation. If the audience wants to have more details on the methods they can always read your full paper, or you can prepare backup slides with this information to share during the Q&As session. For example, you could just say: “During 4 weeks we conducted semi-structured interviews with top managers and employees from different organizations. Our final sample was composed of 30 individuals, from which 10 were top managers and 15 were female and aged between 25 and 60 years.” Further details are presented in backup slides or in the manuscript.

What did you find, what happened?

The next 3 slides should show the main results obtained with your research. If appropriate, it is nice to start with a slide showing the basic phenomena being studied (e.G. the process of innovation and how). It reminds your audience about the variables used and manipulated and the role they have in the situation being studied.

Next, show figures, pictures, or graphs that clearly illustrate the main results. Do not show charts and tables of raw data. No one is able to read an excel table on a presentation, if only it gives the creeps. So instead of putting large and ugly tables, no one is going to read, use beautiful and meaningful graphs and figures.

You can use free infographic apps to build awesome visual representations of your data. Apps like CanvaVenngage, or Piktochart work great.

All figures should be clearly labeled. When showing figures, be sure to explain the figure axes before you talk about the data (e.g., “the X-axis shows time. The Y-axis shows economic profit).

When presenting the data try to be as simple as possible, this is the most complex part of your research. You might be an expert, but your audience probably is not and they need to understand your results if you want to convenience them with your research.

So, What? What are the outcomes, implications and future steps?

The last 2 slides are probably the most important section of your presentation. It’s the denouement of your story, and it should be good.

Nothing is more frustrating than reading or listening to a good story to arrive to a disappointing end. All the effort you did to tell the good story is lost if you don’t curate appropriately the ending.

Some people be distracted during the whole presentation and would only pay attention to your conclusions, so those conclusions better are good.

Before getting to your end, sum up what your study was about, your research questions and objectives, and then go to the conclusion. In this way, the lousy distracted audience will also get most of your research.

List the conclusions in clear, easy to understand language. You can read them to the audience. Also give one or two sentences about what this likely means — your interpretation — for the big picture, go back to the context and motives of your research. Explain how your results improve our understanding and contribute to theory and practice.

Don’t be afraid to talk about the flaws and limitations of your study. Not only this shows you are humble but that you are prepared enough and that you are aware that things can be improved. Remember that having contradictory results to what you expected is not a bad thing, they are still results, you need to find an explanation to this.

Once you know your limitations, tell your audience how can this be improved in future research. How can other scholars address the problems and flaws, what are the next steps, and what future research should focus on?

Your job as a presenter is to not only present the paper but also lead a discussion with your audience about your research. Talk about its strengths, weaknesses, and broader implications. To help focus the class discussion, end your presentation with a list of approximately three major questions/issues worthy of further discussion.

Please finalize your presentation with at least two or three major things that should be discussed. Discussion with the audience should be especially encouraged at this point, but you should be prepared to foster this by raising these issues.

So, when preparing your presentation think like one of the people in your audience. Think about what they would ask? What would they like to discuss further? What are the points that might trigger confusion or disagreement?

If you have these questions in mind you can prepare to give appropriate answers and be less stressed out by the uncertainty of your audience reaction. You can then prepare a couple of backup slides that will help you give responses to the questions being asked and that will help you make your point.

Final thoughts

Reading and understanding academic research papers can be a tough assignment, especially because it can be very specific and you might not know or understand many terms, methodologies, or even statistical models and analysis. So preparing a presentation of an academic paper, whether is yours or others’ work, takes time and must be taken seriously.

When you are preparing your draft for the presentation, keep in mind that your audience will rely on listening comprehension, not reading comprehension. That means that your ideas need to be clear and to the point, and organized in a way that makes it possible for your audience to follow you.

And since understanding was difficult for you who had the time to read and discuss the paper with your team, you can imagine how difficult it might be for an audience that hasn’t read the paper and moreover has no expertise (or not much) on the research topic you are presenting.

So you have to be very careful about how you present your article so that your audience understands what you are saying, feel involved and curious, and off course don’t sleep while you talk.

Scientific oral presentations are not simply readings of scientific manuscripts, so being in front of an audience reading scientific terms and statistical models and equations is out of the picture. You need to provoke curiosity and engagement so that at the end of your presentation people want to know more about your research.

Don’t forget that time is precious, and not everyone is ready to give their time to listen to things they don’t find amusing or intriguing. Being concise and simple is not an easy exercise, but is crucial for passing by a message.

Follow simple presentation rules:

  • 1 slide takes 1 minute to present, so if you have 10 minutes to present don’t do more than 10 slides.
  • Don’t use small size fonts, the minimum readable size is 20pt.
  • Don’t use text when you don’t need it, the text should be only be used to highlight things that you want your audience to remember
  • Use pictures whenever you can but don’t overuse them. Pictures have to be relevant to your speech.
  • Be careful with grammar and errors. Read your slides thoroughly a couple of times before submitting them for a presentation. And ask someone else to read them also, they are more likely to find mistakes than you are as they are less biased and less attached to your topic.
  • Finally, prepare, prepare, and prepare. Mastery is only possible through training. No matter how good you are at improvising, preparing for a presentation is key for succeeding at it.

And that’s it. Good luck!