Anticipating Audience Needs

Reading academic writing is not always a linear process. In reality, your reading likely involves starts and stops. You might pause to look up a term you don’t recognize. You might slow down to re-read a particularly long, dense sentence. In each of these moments, you’re able to address your own needs as a reader in order to maximize your comprehension. An audience member at an academic oral presentation, however, doesn’t have the same control.

That’s why it’s so important for you, as a scholarly speaker, to anticipate the audience’s needs when you’re preparing and delivering your presentation. You have probably heard some strategies for public speaking before –“speak loudly and slowly,” for example. But here we will explore other ways that you might anticipate your audiences’ needs, taking into account the specificities of the scholarly speaking situation.

One of the best times to anticipate your audience needs is right from the start of your preparations – by “writing to speak.” Consider how you can write a script that is meant to be heard not read:

  • Shorter sentences and familiar words can be helpful for your listeners, as can repetition and re-phrasing.
  • Pronouns can become confusing for your listener (which “he” was that?), so try using proper names (e.g. Chris Wong) when you can.
  • Feel free to leave little notes for yourself: give yourself reminders to slow down, or write out the pronunciation of tricky words.

Tip: Your script is a crucial component of your presentation – but it may not have to be memorized! In high school, you might have learned that memorization is important, and there are professional speaking situations where that might still be the case. But given the complexity of the ideas you’ll be communicating at university, memorization is not always a realistic expectation. In fact, scholars very often read from a script or detailed notes. Before you stress about memorization, check in with your professor to see what’s expected.


Print out your script and practice reading it aloud, with a highlighter in your hand. Mark the moments where you stumble, or where a sentence seems too long. Try to imagine you are in the audience, hearing the paper for the first time—would you be able to keep up with your argument? Repeat this activity with a friend and ask them to raise their hand whenever they feel confused.

Tip: Most presentations are expected to fit within given time limits. It’s considered bad etiquette to go over your allotted time, as it might eat into another presenter’s time, or the time set aside for questions and discussion. In some cases, a professor or moderator might cut you off when you hit the time limit. Don’t forget to time yourself when you practice.

Below you will find examples of some of the strategies presenters have used to anticipate their audience’s needs. Compare the examples as you watch, asking yourself which one you find most effective for your own audience experience. What strategies might you try in your next presentation?

Near the beginning of your presentation, it can be helpful to provide the audience with a "forecast" of what’s to come. Using phrases like, “First I will…, “Then I will…,” and “Finally, I will…” in your introduction will give your audience a roadmap that will make it easier for them to follow you as you continue. Below you can watch a few examples of students giving forecasts:

Once you’ve forecast how your presentation will proceed, you can use signposting--phrases like "Now, I will turn to the second section of my presentation" or "As I said earlier" --  to signal for readers where they are in the established plan as you continue. Signposting is also a good opportunity to reiterate the overall argument, reminding listeners of the broader stakes of the presentation as you move from point to point. In the video below, you’ll see a compilation of students signposting to help their audiences follow the thread of their presentations.

One of the most exciting parts about academic speaking is that you get to interact with your audience in an immediate fashion that writing typically doesn’t allow. In fact, it’s common for an academic speaking session to feature a discussion period where audience members can ask questions, comment on what they heard, and offer suggestions for further research. You can also find moments within your presentation to invite audience members into the conversation. Perhaps there’s an interesting idea that didn’t quite fit the main thread of your argument or needed to be cut due to time constraints. You can gesture toward these as possible topics for discussion, as demonstrated in the examples below.

Tip: You can always share your contact information at the end of a presentation in case anyone wants to contact you to discuss your research outside of the confines of the discussion period.

Slides can be an important aid in an effective oral presentation, so long as you don’t let them become a distraction—you don’t want your audience’s attention divided between listening to what you’re saying and reading what’s on the slide! Slides are especially useful for adding emphasis to your key ideas, cueing your readers to what you most want them to take away from a given portion of your presentation. For example, you might want to share your thesis, or share graphs when you’re presenting evidence. Slides can help reiterate and clarify complex ideas and language as well, so you might share a challenging quotation that you’d like to discuss in depth. There are plenty of other uses for slides—watching other scholars’ presentations will help you to familiarize yourself with the conventions for using slides, some of which are specific to certain disciplines.

In the compilation below, you will see students using slides to share graphs, quotations, and big ideas. As you watch, note how the slides contribute to your experience of the presentation.

Tip: Most academic speaking venues have A/V capabilities that allow you to share slides on a projector while you give your talk, but it’s always smart to sort out your setup ahead of time. Be sure to double-check with the professor or panel chair: do you need to bring your laptop or just a USB stick? What kind of inputs are supported? If the presentation is online, will you be able to share your screen?