Formal Presentations

Presentations give you the opportunity to share and receive feedback on your ideas and research findings.  This page offers basic guidelines for organizing, designing, and delivering formal presentations. It also provides links for further discussion and examples.

But before you get started…

Know your audience. As an engineer, you will deliver formal presentations to different audiences who have varying levels of technical knowledge: undergraduates, graduate students, professors, university administrators, and supervisors and colleagues in industry. Anticipate what your audience already knows about your topic. If you are unsure how to address your audience, imagine having a conversation about your topic with a member of the audience. You would employ different diction and sentence structures to discuss your work with a fellow engineering student than you would to explain it to a marketing student, wouldn’t you? Ideally, you address audience members on a field of shared knowledge and then lead them to greater understanding.

Also try to anticipate your audience’s mood.  You should organize your presentation differently for a friendly audience than you would for a skeptical or hostile one. Generally speaking, a friendly audience will likely accept an early assertion of your main point, followed by supportive details.  A skeptical audience, however, responds more productively to a presentation of shared concerns, followed by a “delayed thesis,” or main point (Ramage & Bean, 1995, 164).

Finally, make sure you know your audience’s preferences for presentations. Does your audience expect or require PowerPoint or other presentation software? Does your audience, like Edward Tufte (2010), despise PowerPoint? Would your audience prefer other modes of presentation, such as displaying slides as Web pages (Olivo, 2006)? These types of questions may be difficult to answer for someone with little presentation experience, but doing some initial research into your audience’s expectations will make you a more effective presenter.

Organizing the Presentation

Most presentations have three distinct sections: Introduction, Middle, and Conclusion.
1. Draft the Introduction. 

Sample title slide

Figure 1. Sample title slide

Think like a journalist: the introduction should explain the “who, what, when, where, and why” of your research.  The Middle will explain the “how.” Your title slide will convey much of this information. Fig. 1 shows a title slide that includes the “who, what, and where.” Make sure you attend to font size and color contrast so that your names are visible. Also, spell out the names of your university and department even though they may be obvious. If you receive external funding for your research, your title slide should identify the source of your support. At this stage, consider your Introduction as a rough draft. You will revise it later.

2. Concentrate on the Middle and Conclusion.

 Imagine yourself at the end of your presentation. What exactly do you want the audience to learn, or take away?  Engineering communicators recommend that you focus on 3-5 points per presentation (Doumont, 2009).  Yet at a busy conference, most of us can realistically remember only the main point of each speaker (Alley, 2003, 153.). Prioritize your points in order of importance.  Make sure all the information you include in the Middle of your presentation contributes to your most important point; too many unnecessary details will veil the important information. Select the most persuasive visual data to use as supporting evidence.

3. Organize your argument and support.

First, avoid your computer (Grant, 2010). Instead, write down your points on note cards and organize the cards, so you can see the entire structure at a glance and make changes quickly. If you begin this work on presentation software, you risk wasting time on slide design details. This process will also help to remove unnecessary information that does not support your main points. It will be earlier to throw away a notecard that you scribbled on than to delete a slide that took you an hour to perfect.

Repetition helps you to emphasize important information. If you want the audience to remember a point, allude to it early, present the information as clearly as possible, and repeat your point in the conclusion.

4. Finally, return to your Introduction. 

Review all the material in your draft, including your title.  Make sure your Introduction explains why your work is important—and why we should pay attention to you. Also explain the larger context of your work (or the “big picture”) for the least technically knowledgeable member of the audience; that person could have the most power or money to help you. If your presentation will last longer than 5 minutes, provide an overview slide to outline the contents. You can use the overview to explain your scope: what you will discuss and what you will not.

Designing the Slides

As an undergraduate, you will normally use PowerPoint for your slide designs, but you should know its limitations. Remember three principles:

Dr. Kristina M. Johnson

Figure 2. Dr. Kristina M. Johnson (2010).

1. Slides should support your message, not act as a substitute. If you watch the talks on you will notice that the focus is on the speaker, not the slides. Watch Dr. Kristina M. Johnson (Fig. 2), an engineer and the former Under Secretary for Energy, discuss the Clean Energy Economy for 20 minutes at the Institute of International and European Affairs. We do not need slides to understand what she is saying.

2. Visual presentations and written reports speak different languages. In other words, don’t simply cut-and-paste words and illustrations from your reports onto the slides. Consider how your presentation audience differs from your reader, and how you can use the language of visual presentation to advantage. Fig. 3 shows another slide from the student presentation featured above in Fig. 1. Here, the authors show at a glance how decision-making factors (in blue) match their more specific goals in designing the production facility.


Figure 3. From “Monoclonal Antibody Production Facility,” (Eberly, Forschner, & Owens, 2010).

3. Keep the slides simple. The more complex your material, the easier you should make the presentation for the reader.  As Doumont puts it, “maximize signal-to-noise ratio” (2010).  Neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn observes that “audience members can only typically handle four ‘perceptual units’ (a word, phrase or picture) at a time” (Grant, 2010). Avoid long bullet lists, complex flow charts, and tables full of fine detail. Pay attention to the size of words and images. Alley recommends keeping the font side no smaller than 18 points (2003, 116).  What if you need to show the fine detail? Make a handout.

Three websites offer detailed advice on how to prepare slides for engineering presentations:

Michael Alley’s Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students at Penn State includes links to pages that discuss examples of excellent slide designs and suggest an alternative template to PowerPoint’s default. Alley presents an argument for the “Assertion-Evidence Structure”, in which a sentence-headline states the “assertion” and the body provides the “evidence.”

Jean-Luc Doumont’s support website for his book Trees, maps, and theorems gives crisp, straightforward advice for producing technical documents, oral presentations, and illustrations. In his link, “Explore the Topics,” a section on “Effective Graphical Displays” shows how to improve graphs, with useful before-and-after examples.

Melissa Marshall’s Becoming an Effective Presenter of Engineering and Sciencealso at Penn State, gives detailed guidelines to Structure, Speech, Delivery, and Visual Aids. One particularly useful feature of this site is its use of video examples, both from TED talks and student presentations.

Practicing the Delivery

Public speakers, politicians, and professional actors get nervous before stepping onto a stage, so why shouldn’t you? Arguably, some degree of “nervousness” works to your advantage in that it keeps you alert and energizes your performance. Still, learning to channel that energy takes time and practice. The delivery could make or break a presentation, so start planning it early. Prepare your delivery as follows:

1. Create note cards.  Even if you are asked to “present a paper,” don’t plan to read the entire paper out loud. Outline it on cards, legibly stating the major points. Make sure you know your sources for all your information. If you are using presentation software, the sources should be cited on the slide. If not, list the source on your note cards. You may be called on your sources during the Question and Answer period.

2. Practice in front of friends—not just the mirror. It is amazing how quickly your brain will disregard the 10 hours of practicing you did at home when faced with another human being. A real audience, however small, will help give you a sense of the “nerves” you will experience and alert you to lapses in clarity or design flaws in your slides. Practice maintaining eye contact as much as possible. Practice twice, and note your improvement. If you are soft-spoken, practice in the largest lecture room possible. Ask a friend to sit in the back row so you can practice voice projection.

3. Visit the location if possible.  For presentations on campus, you should be able to visit the room beforehand.

Note the size of the room and where you will stand. If you are presenting in a large lecture hall, check your slides for visibility from the back row. Test the projector and screen controls and arrange for technical support if necessary.

4. Remember Murphy’s laws. Prepare for your laptop to crash, for the projector light bulb to blow out, for your partner not to show up. If you are presenting outside the University, prepare a backup plan to deliver your talk from memory, with handouts.

5. Anticipate questions and challenges. Be ready to elaborate on each major point. Prepare to support your sources, your methods, and your conclusions without appearing to go on the defensive.  If you do not know the answer, say so.

References and Resources:

Alley, Michael (2007). The Craft of Scientific Presentations. Retrieved March 31, 2016 from

Doumont, Jean-Luc (2009). “Trees, maps, and theorems” from Principiae: Structuring Thoughts. Retrieved Sept. 10, 2010 from

Eberly, Hayley; Forschner, Caitlin; Owens, Lauren (Spring, 2010). “Monoclonal Antibody Production Facility.” PowerPoint presentation from ChE 473 K, Process Design and Operations. The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas.

Grant, Bob. (3 Jan., 2010). “Pimp your PowerPoint.” The Scientist. Retrieved Dec. 29, 2010 from

Johnson, Kristina M. (8 July, 2010). “Growing a Clean Energy Economy.” Address to Institute of International and European Affairs. Retrieved Sept. 10. 2010 from

Marshall, Melissa. (2010). Becoming an Effective Presenter of Engineering and Science. Retrieved Sept. 10, 2010 from

Olivo, Richard (2003-2006). “A Flexible Alternative to PowerPoint.” Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved Sept. 12 from

Ramage, John D. and Bean, John C. (1995). Writing Arguments: a Rhetoric with Readings. 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. (2010). Retrieved Sept. 10 from

Tufte, Edward R. (2010). “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within,” from The Work of Edward Tufte and Graphics Press.  Retrieved Sept. 10 2012 from