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Presenting with Confidence in Grad School: From Planning to Public Speaking

Ready to become a master presenter? This guide for graduate students offers a step-by-step approach to building compelling presentations and speaking with confidence. Start improving your skills today and ace your next presentation.

Author: Ellery Weil

Editor: Staff Editor

Imagine the setting: You enter a lecture hall, complete with podium and microphone under what feels like a spotlight (but it’s really just bad fluorescent lighting, promise), and you glance toward the audience. They’re waiting for you to deliver a presentation that holds the key to your academic success. No pressure, right?

In the competitive landscape of graduate school, effective presentation skills are invaluable. But they can also prove elusive — a recent survey found that 17% of graduate medical students suffered from public speaking anxiety, which is in line with estimates that 15%-30% of the general population fears public speaking.

Even if you don’t have a fear of public speaking (known as glossophobia), most people don’t love the process. Given that 90% of public speaking anxiety is attributed to a lack of preparation, this guide is armed with practical strategies to prep you for your future presentations. Read on to learn how to embrace the fluorescent spotlight — in grad school and beyond.

Step 1: Work on Your Confidence

It may seem obvious, but the first step to a great presentation is feeling great about your presentation. Confidence can be felt inside, and reflected outside, and both are important when it comes to public speaking.

This first step can be the hardest one, especially if you’re coming from a place of anxiety towards public speaking in general. That’s why it’s important not to dive in too quickly. Here are some tips to take it step-by-step and build your confidence well before your time to speak.

Attend Public Speaking Events

Sometimes, it helps to have a role model. Attending public speaking events, like lectures, plays, or even podcast tapings, can help you get a sense of what makes an effective public speaker. If you’ve never addressed an audience before, it can also help to have a mental template to follow on your first attempt.

Finally, seeing others speak in public can help demystify the experience. After all, if they can do it, why not you?

Take a Public Speaking Class

Did you know there are classes and events specifically designed to teach people how to become better public speakers? Some of them, like Toastmasters, have been around for decades. If you’ve struggled with public speaking in the past, and you know that you’ll be presenting and giving lectures in grad school, taking a public speaking course can be a great way to get a jump on your speaking skills, and connect with others who are overcoming the same challenges as you.

Ask Questions & Contribute to Discussions in Classes

It may not feel like public speaking in the traditional sense, but contributing to in-class discussions can be a good way to get used to addressing your professors and classmates as a group. Because you’ll have opportunities to contribute in almost every class session, don’t panic if you feel awkward the first time you add something to a discussion. You’ll have plenty more opportunities!

Even asking questions during class can be a daily exercise in gaining confidence. That way, when it’s time for your presentation, you’ll be used to seeing their faces and speaking up.

Do Visualization Exercises

Fear and anxiety are often, at their core, rooted in a fear of the unknown. Fear of public speaking is no different. While you can’t be sure how your presentation will go, there are ways to make it feel less daunting — and one of those ways is through visualization exercises.

In a calm, quiet place, take a moment to close your eyes and picture the presentation. Think of the room, the people around you, and yourself, delivering your work smoothly. That way, presentation day won’t seem like such a new experience when it arrives.

Just Keep Going if You Mess Up

Did you flub a line? Jump a little too far ahead of yourself? It’s okay — mistakes happen to everyone.

If you make a mistake, the key is not to make too big a deal of it. Odds are, your audience didn’t notice. But they will notice if you call their attention to it. Just keep going, and make any adjustments you need as you proceed. Your audience doesn’t have your script, after all.

Create Positive Affirmations Around Public Speaking

Have you ever done an affirmation? These are where you practice saying positive statements to yourself to improve your confidence. Affirmations can be about anything — they can be ways to remind yourself that you’re strong, you’re smart, you’ve got this, and more.

Try a few affirmations around public speaking. “I’m a confident speaker,” and “I’m going to ace this presentation.” Speaking is the first step to believing, and believing in yourself is half the battle.

Smile and Make Eye Contact

It seems simple, but sometimes just doing this can help you feel more confident. When you get up to deliver your presentation, smile at your audience, and make eye contact with a friendly face.

Not only will this help you come across as welcoming and prepared, but it can also set the mood. Greeting your audience as a group of friends and colleagues, rather than a faceless mass, can help you remember that they’re just people, and there’s no need to be afraid of them as you present.

Overcome your Imposter Syndrome

Do you ever feel like you don’t know much about a topic, even if you’ve been studying for months? Are you worried that you’ll be “caught out” when you make your presentation? You may be suffering from imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is when highly competent people worry that they’re frauds. It’s very common, and it can be overcome. If you find yourself suffering from it, check out this resource to beat back imposter syndrome for good.

Avoid Comparing Yourself to Others

Ever heard the expression “comparison is the thief of joy”? It’s a popular saying for a reason — you’re you, and comparing yourself to others is unfair to you and them.

We all have different strengths, levels of comfort in social situations, and attitudes toward our grad school projects, so comparisons aren’t apples-to-apples. You can exchange tips and support each other, but when it’s your turn to speak, don’t think about them — just present as best you can.

Step 2: Polish Your PowerPoint Skills

Presentations may be built around a speech, but compelling visuals can help bring them to life. However, remember that you want the focus to be on you, and not the screen. Below are some tips to create quality, effective PowerPoints that engage your audience while keeping their focus on you and your presentation.

Use Templates for Beautiful and Appealing Presentations

You don’t have to be a graphic designer to create visually appealing presentations. Ready-made templates are useful for getting a sleek, attractive format for your slides without having to design them yourself.

PowerPoint has a variety of free templates already built in for you. If those options are too limited for your tastes, there are also a variety of third-party websites that offer free templates ready to download.

Simplify the Content on Each Slide

Slides are meant to enhance your presentation, not replace it. If your audience is too busy reading your slides, they may not be focused on everything you have to say.

You can avoid this by keeping each slide simple with limited text. Ideally, a few key phrases or bullet points, and a relevant image or graphic — like a photo or a visual representation of a data point — are all a slide needs.

Keep Readability in Mind

Remember, you don’t want your audience to struggle to read your slides. Ensure a high contrast between the text and background (like black-on-white or white-on-black), instead of similar colors, and use headlines to introduce each slide.

You may also want to look out for key terms and bold them. That way, even if your audience doesn’t catch everything on a slide, the most important bits will stand out — both visually and in their minds.

Consider Fonts & Font Size

Fonts may seem like a dull thing to think about, but a legible font and the right font size can be crucial to making your slides understandable. Avoid unusual or hard-to-read fonts, like those that mimic handwriting, and choose something simple, like Helvetica or another sans serif font.

It’s also important to keep your font size large enough to be legible from a distance. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 24-point font or slightly larger, so everyone can read clearly.

Use Only High-quality Images

Images and graphics are fun, but don’t go overboard. Too many images, or poorly rendered images that don’t enhance your content, will just make your presentation look crowded.

Instead, skip the memes and blurry photos, and stick to high-quality images that add something to the overall point you’re making with your presentation. These can include clearly rendered, lively and compelling photographs, infographics, logos of relevant organizations, and more.

Check Spelling and Grammar

Time to proofread! Typos and errors happen to everyone, but they can be a distraction for your audience and detract from your overall presentation — especially if they’re rendered in large-scale font on a giant screen.

Look over your slides several times before your presentation, checking thoroughly for typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors. That way, you can make any needed corrections well before you present.

Create an Appropriate Number of Slides

You’ll likely have a time limit on your presentation. Make sure that you have a suitable number of slides, which you can go through at an appropriate pace, given the length of your presentation and how much material you need to cover.

When in doubt, simplify. Lingering on a well-made slide a little longer than necessary is much better than rushing through a stack of slides as time is running out.

Keep it Simple

If your presentation is the meal, your slides should be a condiment — there to enhance, but not the main event. With this in mind, keep your slides simple to minimize distractions. This means being very cautious about the use of things like embedded videos, sound effects, and more.

A simplified, short slide presentation can help your audience visualize the points you’re making without overpowering your words or distracting from your speaking.

Step 3: Practice Makes Perfect

Actors are perhaps the ultimate professional public speakers, and they rehearse for a reason. Practicing your presentation isn’t just something to do if you’re nervous; it’s a vital part of the process. Here are a few tips to optimize your practice time, meaning you’ll come out of rehearsals polished and prepared.

Rehearse Alone First

No need to rush things: Your first step in rehearsing should be practicing on your own. That way, you can work out the speech itself, practice your delivery, and get comfortable with the material without worrying about how you’ll react to the presence of an audience. Then, once you’ve gotten a handle on your delivery in its own right, practicing in front of people seems less intimidating.

Take Video of your Practice Sessions

When it comes to practicing, turns out you can be your own best critic. During one of your solo practice sessions, get out your phone and take video and audio recordings, so you can watch them afterward.

Once you’ve had a look at your presentation, you can alter and refine your delivery to change up any issues you have. You can even take a second video to ensure the changes work — before you decide to keep them in the final presentation.

Practice in Front of Friends or Family

Now, it’s time to face an audience. Find some trusted friends, family, or classmates, and practice presenting to them. Ask for honest feedback. Even if they’re unfamiliar with the material you’re presenting, they can give you valuable advice on the speed and clarity of your delivery, your tone, and other speaking techniques.

Once you’ve heard some feedback, you can incorporate it into subsequent rehearsals, and then your final presentation.

Rinse and Repeat

Even if it is a cliche, they say “practice makes perfect” for a reason. The more you rehearse what you’re going to say, the more confident you will become and the better your presentation will go.

Even once you’ve incorporated any changes into your delivery, practice a few more times for flow and ease. Be sure to give yourself time for one final rehearsal before presentation day, so you don’t forget all the techniques you’ve practiced so thoroughly.

Step 4: Speak Like an Expert

Anyone who presents to the public regularly knows subtle tactics to hold their audience’s attention and keep their minds on the subject at hand. Below you’ll find a few tips to take from the pros when you’re addressing a group.

Speak to Your Audience

This advice may sound obvious, but one of the most important things to remember when you’re speaking is that you’re addressing people. Make eye contact with individuals (avoiding concentration on just one or two, which can be uncomfortable for you and them!), and don’t turn your back to them. People crave communication that is simple and clear, so approach your audience much like you’d approach a group of friendly colleagues.

Be Aware of Your Body Language

How you deliver a speech is not just about your voice. The way you move, how you stand, your facial expressions, how you use your hands, and how you handle any objects (think of note cards or a microphone) can make a major impact on your presentation.

When you’re delivering your presentation, aim to use your face and movements in ways that complement what you’re saying and draw in the audience — but don’t overpower the content of your speech.

Avoid Reading Directly from Your Slides

Remember, your audience can read, too! Try not to read directly from your slides. Not only will you be repeating information that your audience can read for themselves, you’ll be turning your focus away from your audience, and possibly even turning away from them physically.

That said, if you lose your place or need reminding of the next step in your presentation, it’s fine to glance at your slides to use them as a prompt.

Speak Clearly and Loud Enough

It can be hard enough to follow along when someone mutters or whispers in conversation, but that problem is magnified when a speaker is addressing an audience. Be sure you’re speaking clearly and at a suitable volume for the space you’re in.

When you’re thinking about volume, you may also want to check if there will be a microphone available when you present. You can base your volume decisions around the space and equipment in question.

Match Your Tone to the Content

Are you talking about a light topic — like you’ve written a paper on the history of rubber ducks sent out to sea and are delivering it to your class? Feel free to make jokes and keep it lighthearted. On the other hand, if you’re delivering a presentation on groundbreaking research on preventing starvation, the subject is serious, so your tone should be, too.

Remember, public speaking is just conversation, so the same rules apply about what’s appropriate to joke about and what tone to use.

Don't Rush, but Stay Time-aware

While you shouldn’t rush through your presentation, you will likely have a time limit. Be aware of this and keep a lively pace when you speak, so that you won’t reach the limit with more material you didn’t have time to cover.

This is also something to be mindful of during rehearsals. Use a timer when you practice to make sure that your presentation falls within the time allotted to you.

Finish with a Summary or Recap

You’re almost done! Now it’s time to wrap it all up. While you don’t need to re-state everything, a brief recap at the conclusion can help drive home your overall point. Depending on the length of your presentation, this also ensures the audience doesn’t lose sight of your early points.

Beyond a concluding summary, be sure to finish with a concluding statement that reflects the overarching meaning of what you’ve just covered.

Allow Time for Questions

Once you’ve finished speaking, allow for some questions from your professors and classmates. There may be a time limit that puts a cap on how many questions you can take, but you should aim for at least one to three.

Answering these can feel high-pressure, considering you won’t have time to prepare in advance. But just be honest and relax. After all, you just presented, and you’re the expert on your own work. And if you don’t know an answer, be honest, and mention that you’ll get back to them when you’ve had a chance to do further research. Honesty is always the best policy!

Step 5: Process and Implement Feedback

Finished your presentation? Congratulations! But don’t just slink away and forget about it. After your presentation, you may receive feedback from professors and classmates, and if not, you can seek it out. Once you’ve been able to process what you’ve heard, you can put this feedback to use next time. Here are some ideas for making the most of the feedback you receive.

Review Your Feedback and Ask Questions

Once you’ve received some feedback, whether it’s written or verbal, take some time to review it and think it over. It’s important to remember that you’ll be receiving feedback from classmates and professors — not speaking coaches or theater critics. The advice you get might be a little vague, and that’s okay.

If any of the feedback you get confuses you or seems unclear, don’t be afraid to ask for a clarification. It’s how you learn and grow.

Don't Take Feedback Personally

It’s inevitable: You won’t always be perfect in every way you present. And that’s okay. If you get a negative piece of feedback, it can hurt, but don’t take it personally. In fact, getting negative feedback can be a sign of trust — the person addressing you knows that you’ll learn from what they have to say and has confidence that even if you’re already doing great, you can improve and get even better.

Reflect and Determine What you Can do Better Next Time

Sometimes, the most honest criticism can come from an unlikely source — you. Take a minute to reflect on your presentation, and consider which parts you think went well and which didn’t seem to be received the way you hoped.

This is not to say that you should beat yourself up — not at all! This is simply your chance to think about what felt right to you, and what didn’t, and make plans for what you’ll change the next time you’re addressing an audience.

Highlight What you Did Well

Criticizing yourself is only one side of the coin; remember to praise yourself, too. Think about the strongest parts of your presentation, both in what you presented and how you delivered it, and why these portions of the presentation worked so well.

Give yourself a hand! You deserve credit for what you did well. Moreover, you can remember what you’ve done, and put those same strategies into action next time.

Use Feedback to Improve Future Presentations

Once you’ve internalized the feedback you’ve received, both from yourself and from your audience, don’t just throw it away. Remember what went right and what went wrong, and how these things can be applicable for next time.

It may help to write down feedback and tips for next time in a journal or on your phone, so you don’t lose sight of everything you’ve picked up from this experience.

Remember – the Goal is Improvement Not Perfection

It can be tempting to get caught in a loop, thinking about all the things you should have done differently. If this gets especially bad, you might be even more anxious the next time you present.

But keep in mind that you’re not perfect, and you shouldn’t push yourself to be. Instead, the goal is to learn from your mistakes and do better next time. There will always be more opportunities to grow.

Public Speaking & Presentation Resources

Now that you’ve brushed up on the basics of polishing your public speaking, you may be looking for more detailed advice. Given how common public speaking is, in academia and elsewhere, you have access to a wealth of resources at your fingertips.

From websites to traditionally published books to groups you can join, here are a few options to help you master academic presentations in particular and public speaking in general:

“Confessions of a Public Speaker” – Part memoir, part guide to public speaking, this book by a professional public speaker mixes fun and funny anecdotes with practical advice on public speaking.

“How to Be Brilliant at Public Speaking” – This book, from education company Pearson, provides a step-by-step guide to becoming a stronger public speaker, with a focus on relating to and engaging your audience.

“How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Public Speaking’ – This book, by an award-winning comedian and playwright, offers readable, actionable advice about how to become a better public speaker. Although aimed at women, much of the advice is applicable for everyone, regardless of gender.

How to Own the Room – The podcast companion to the book, this show breaks down public speaking tips, techniques to overcome anxiety, and more, all in an accessible format aimed primarily at women.

“How to Win Friends and Influence People” – While not specifically a public speaking guide, this bestseller is one of the original guides to communication, and its strategies can be used addressing people one-on-one or when delivering a speech.

Meetup Public Speaking Groups – Did you know that Meetup has a huge variety of public speaking-focused groups you can join? Both in person and online, these groups are a great way to polish your skills while connecting with others.

No Sweat Public Speaking – Check out this website full of resources for overcoming fear of public speaking and becoming a better speaker, including a podcast and coaching services.

Public Speaker Podcast – This award-winning podcast is aimed at improving listeners’ public speaking and communication skills. Topics also cover public speaking-adjacent topics like communication in interviews.

r/PublicSpeaking – From the massively popular social media site Reddit, this is a forum for users to share tips, tricks, questions, and more about public speaking. With over 15,000 users, there’s always someone to answer any questions you may have.

“Speak With No Fear” – A guide to public speaking with a particular focus on overcoming anxiety, this book breaks down seven different strategies to help the reader overcome anxiety when presenting in public.

“Talk Like TED” – For fans of the popular TED Talks, this book is intended as a guide to delivering the kind of compelling speaking seen on the TED stage and elsewhere. The book is written by a communications expert and includes interviews with popular TED speakers.

“The Art of Public Speaking” –This volume, by author and historic public speech coach Dale Carnegie, is one of the oldest American guides to public speaking. With millions of copies sold, it’s stuck around for a reason!

The Great Speech Podcast –This podcast, hosted by a successful public speaking coach, delves into public speaking and communication topics from a variety of perspectives. From overcoming anxiety to speaking on video, there are episodes covering all aspects of public speaking.

The Speaking Club: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking – This podcast is hosted by a comedian, so it’s not only full of actionable advice on how to be a better public speaker in a variety of contexts (personal, professional, and specific tips like how to improve your persuasive speaking) — but it’s also funny!

Toastmasters – This decades’-old global network of public speaking clubs has lasted for a reason. With locations around the country, Toastmasters is also a way to share public speaking tips with others in person.