How to Make a Scientific or Technical Presentation

Scientific and technical presentations are a vital component to presenting scientific data to a variety of audiences. Whether you are a professional in a medical field of study, an engineer, or a government official, you will have to make an oral presentation at some point in your career. This article is primarily intended for good presentation making skills and helpful hints on the visual display of data and effective PowerPoint presentations.

It's important to note that there is no one stop, easy shortcut to making a good presentation. Generally, if you spend the time in dedicated preparation, practice and keeping in mind any unforeseen circumstances that may arise, you will be ok. However, this article is primarily intended for first time speakers who may not have any exposure to this field of study. Seasoned speakings and presenters will need to view our more comprehensive article at

Thanks, and enjoy!


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    Know who your audience is. This involves preparing your presentation beforehand and listening to your audience during the presentation to find out what they need and don't need. Usually you don't have to involve the audience as you are speaking, but if the talk is more of a
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    Read it like a story: A logical progression of ideas will make for a clean presentation. Your audience will remember what you were talking about if they can visually construct an image in their heads. Make sure there is a clear beginning and end if you are making a scientific presentation about a complex area of research. However, not all presentations need to be structured this way; for example, if you are making a proposal about a new business plan or idea that you want to develop, it may be interesting to flash images at the audience as you talk about them, giving them a more real and personal understanding of your idea.
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    Give the whole picture, then zoom in: As Robert Anholt says in Dazzle 'em with Style: You can't lead your audience anywhere if you haven't given them a reason for following you. Take the specific and place it in the context of what you have explained to be important or true in the general scientific community.
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    Use lots of examples: You can't use enough examples, because they are going to be the parts that the audience remembers most. If they are not relevant, the audience will lose the greater purpose of what you are trying to talk about.
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    Smile! Remember, you are the presentation, not the slides or whatever medium you choose to go with. Your presentation is only as good as the way you present it, so let your passion for the subject show in the words you say and the movements you make. If you can make the audience excited about the topic, chances are they won't get lost and stop paying attention. Visual aids should contain all the information your audience needs, but it shouldn't be what helps them understand it. Your purpose is to translate that information and uncover its meaning and relevance.
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    Focus on the intangibles: audience attention, hand movements, posture, tone of voice. If you know you tend to sway back and forth, or clap your hands between each point you make, adjust your style beforehand to minimize anything distracting. The more you practice and give talks, the more you will know yourself and understand your strengths and weaknesses.
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    Remember who your audience is: If you find there is a large diversity of both knowledge, experience, and personality traits in the room, then please don't feel like you have to completely change the style and delivery of your talk. You don't have to! The content of your presentation will stay mostly the same, but how you choose to state it will more or less change.
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    Keep a critical eye: This is mainly for the sake of your own work and presentation layout. Even detail of your work will be seen by a different set of eyes each time you make your presentation, which means that any mistake will stand out to at least one person in the room. Even more important than your grammar is how you handle the structure and organization of your ideas. Remember that if you can't explain how you got from one step to the next, the audience will be just as confused as you are.
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    Know your topic: This doesn't mean that when you get up at the front of the room you have to tell them everything you know. Know your topic well that you can offhandedly create a well executed argument in clear and simple terms. This will not only please those who are well-versed in the subject, but keep the younger and less experienced individuals on their toes and attentive.
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    Get plenty of rest beforehand: Maximizing the amount of healthy rest you get beforehand will remove the distraction of tiredness and allow you channel the passion and focus you have for your subject and topic at hand. You are less likely to make mistakes in your speaking and more likely to speak clearly if you are completely focused on the subject matter.
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    Practice, practice, practice. The main reason you should do this is to cut down or lengthen the presentation to the ideal time. When you actually says words verbally, you get a sense for how long it takes to convey a particular idea and when it is time to move on to the next subject. The other reason you should practice is for your own sake, so that you know when your next slide is coming up and what it says, so you can start talking and introducing the audience to your topic before it gets to them. The process of practicing will help you gain more confidence as you speak, as well as familiarize yourself with your topic.
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    Post-Presentation: Follow up with people who had additional questions that you didn't get to cover in the lecture. Conduct a survey or brief questionnaire to see if people really understood the basic concepts of your talk. You might want to ask some questions about your presentation style, but also about the material itself, so you can see which aspects you can stress more and which ones aren't as worthwhile.

Visual Aids

The whole idea of using Powerpoint and graphics to boost your presentation skills is that people learn best when they hear and see at the same time. A common misconception of visual data is that it needs to include everything to get the point across. It's better to include a graph that only contains a few data points than showing everything, but failing to convey the meaning behind it. A brief summary statement following the graph or visual will do the trick.

There aren't a lot of data points in this image, but it does have a lot of information. This is a good example of an effective visual because it can be approached from many different levels. Good visuals in science and engineering are data rich, but not so much that the relationships between the data points are confusing.

Visual and Graphic Design Tips from an Information Theorist

Edward Tufte is an information theorist who specializes in the visual display of quantitative information. He has revolutionized the way people think about visual data and how it is best represented. Here are just a few of his suggestions:

1. Graphs are more powerful than tables because they represent the change in information and powerful trends

2. Instead of creating more graphs, create more variables within the graph. Napoleon's march to Moscow is a good example of this. In this case, there are 6 different variables being represented: size of the army in numbers, temperature in degrees, and geographical location of the army. There is also the number of soldiers represented by the thickness of the line (1 millimeter on this graph, in full size, represents 6000 men) as well as the names of major battles that were fought and resulted in large casualties.

3. Use relational graphs (i.e. plotting one variable against another) because they are richer in information and allow little room for confusion.

4. Graphs are to be truthful. Falsification of data looks bad and raises questions about your research and how much data is actually correct.


Context is the medium in which data gains meaning. Without supporting data points and visual aids, the data does not mean anything. The power of large data sets is the shear number of pieces of information that can be extracted from it.

Source: Visuals in a Periodic Table

In this diagram, the user can choose to view which information to see based on his or her interests and time constraints. Since there is a such a large amount of information, the designer of this graphic gives the user the option is finding out which information is most important, rather than the "chart junk" and other stuff they don't need.

6. Data rich information - data ink ratio indicates reveals how much information is actually contained in the graphic. Data ink versus the total ink used to print the graph is the data ink ratio, which should be kept at a maximum. The main reason to do this is to eliminate "chartjunk", as Tufte calls it, but also to show that you don't underestimate the audience's ability to interpret data. As we just saw with Napoleon's march, some data points and variable are easy to pick out, and others not so much. However, as time goes on, the viewer / reader is able to pick up more and more information which makes the graphic much more dynamic and long lasting.

7. Data density

8. High information graphics

It should be noted that at one point in time, illustrations in scientific manuscripts were once a common theme. However, Albert Biderman has noted that "statistical graphs become segregated became segregated from text and table as printing technology developed."

9. Serif better than sans serif (but this is debatable)

Of all these tips, Tufte emphasized three mains points of "graphical excellence" which are:

1. Substance

2. Clarity and precision

3. Greatest number of ideas conveyed in the shortest amount of time

Some useful tips

1. Always restate a question from the floor

2. Respond simply. Give the answer they want, not some offhand diatribe that leaves them more confused than before.

3. If you don't know the answer, just say something like: "I'm sorry, but I don't have a response to that at this moment. I will research it some and get back to you when I know".

4. Answer the question even if you already answered it in the talk. Someone may have missed it, and you don't want to leave them behind.

5. Only answer the questions that you feel are most pertinent to the audience. Remember, you don't have all the time in the world and you have the right to exercise authority.

6. Remember that sometimes you may know someone else who can better answer the question. Perhaps you are not the primary author on a paper, but know who might know the answer. If so, tell you audience and connect them with that person.

7. Q&A is part of the presentation. It is an additional segment, not an addendum to your talk in which people can casually drift out of the room at their own leisure. Many times it is reported that people learn best during this time, in which they get to interact with the speaker and delve into the finer intricacies of his or her research.

8. Close the time with a strong statement (something akin to a rephrasing of your thesis statement or central conclusion).

  • Incorporate feedback as polls and surveys.
  • One way presenters are doing this is incorporating a poll or survey into their presentation to get feedback from the audience about a particular topic. One way we suggest you can do this is having people type a text message into their phone and follow it with a certain number to indicate which choice they made. The data can be displayed in real time. This strategy is currently being used in universities to determine grades for class participation and enhance student learning in a setting where professors traditionally lecture for an hour or hour and a half and then dismiss the class without anyone saying a single word.
  • New presentation software such as SlideRocket ( are changing the craft of presentation making and putting everyone on the same page in terms of transmitting files and making the presentation available to everyone.
  • Thank the audience for their attention.

Thinking vs. Speaking, Listening vs. Speaking

Think before you speak. Remember that the more you listen to your audience, and understand what they are thinking, you will be able to address their most pressing needs. A good listener has the ability to control the pace of the talk and capture the attention of the greatest number of people.

Much of listening has to do with being able to pace yourself and find checkpoints where the audience can meet you and understand what you've said thus far. If you are naturally a fast speaker, then practice slowing your words. If you are normally slow, and perhaps because you are from a foreign country, always keep in mind what your next thought will be to avoid making any "uhhh..."'s or "ok, let's see how..."'s. Practice speaking aloud and always keeping the next thought in mind. Remember that at any public speaking event, you have full command of the audience and can decide what to teach them and what no teach. It's your responsibility to find a pace that suit's the audience's needs so they can best learn.

  • So how do you cope with nervousness?

1. Channel nervous energy into positive, creative energy that allows your passion for the subject matter to come in handy.

2. Do something relaxing before your presentation. If possible, give yourself plenty of rest the night before, and dress to impress!


  • Be conscious of your pacing. Give the audience enough time to process the information on each slide and see how it relates to what you are talking about.
  • K.I.S.S. = "Keep it short and simple!" Any presentation that goes on for too long and is unnecessarily complicated will lost the attention of your listener.
  • Speak extemporaneously. Know your subject so well that you don't have to rely on the information on the slides. Slides, visuals, papers, notes, handouts, or whatever you choose to give your audience a checkpoint are useful only as reminders. They should not be the framework within which you much talk.
  • When preparing a presentation, beware of information overload. Bring your audience up to the level they need to be at before you introduce them to new knowledge.
  • Use handouts if necessary. They are especially useful for mathematics, especially if the derivations are too complicated.
  • Gather all the necessary information about the speaking venue as possible (i.e. audio and visual equipment available, place you are speaking in the program with respect to prior and future days, how many people you expect to be at the conference and what their level of education might be, and how long you have to speak to your audience).
  • Learn from other speakers! You may find that studying the techniques of the great presenters will help you as you talk.


  • Make sure all your presentation software and computer hardware is compatible with the electronic equipment where you go - don't leave this issue to the last minute.
  • Be careful of visual data organization, color, font, and logical structure. The appearance of what you are trying to say is often as important as the subject matter itself.
  • Never go overtime! It's the worst way to end your presentation and there's no doubt you will lose their attention for the additional time that you go over.
  • Don't offer an apology for a slide that is poorly researched or not thoroughly clear. Instead, quickly explain whatever purpose that slide is trying to convey and move on.
  • It's even possible to have your PowerPoint presentation (if you choose one) run at a fixed rate, so that you don't run the risk or going over time. If you find yourself focusing on concepts that aren't relevant to what the audience needs to hear, briefly state that you need to skip to the end and give an ending summary of the main point of what you are trying to say.)
  • Avoid trying to explain something without the proper data, evidence, and research to support it. Gain audience trust by basing your talk off actual findings and discoveries in your field. Although your primary objective is to inform and instruct, it might be to ultimately persuade a skeptical crowd on a particular viewpoint.

Things You'll Need

  • Good, clean clothes to suit the climate and environment of your audience
  • Your presentation and related software and hardware
  • Perhaps a projector for a big screen
  • A back up presentation on file in case your device breaks or is incompatible with the software at hand
  • Written note cards with reminders on which points to make
  • A laser pointer (if desired)
  • A glass or bottle of water (no gum)

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Categories: Presentations | Speaking