Giving Your Viva Presentation – Tips and Guidelines
The thought of the viva voce looming can be a huge source of stress and anxiety for many, although there are some who just blossom in such situations. If you’re one of the former, though, don’t panic. With decent preparation and practice, you too can successfully master your viva.
Firstly, though: what exactly is a viva?
Viva voce is a Latin phrase most often translated as “by word of mouth.” In academic circles, it’s an oral exam where you defend your thesis.
After the thesis is defended, it is discussed by a small circle. Among those present are, of course, the examining professors, but there may also be research assistants, members of the relevant department or even fellow students.
The purpose of such a defense is to show the examiners how familiar you are with your research topic, that you have internalized what you have learned and know how to apply it. In effect, it shows that you are well prepared to enter into academic discussion.
In principle, the viva won’t make an entire grade’s difference, but it can tip the scale if you’re on the boundary. Its advantage is, however, that you can clear up any ambiguities, assuage any doubts your examiners may have, and show that your stand by your research.
Thorough Preparation is the Key
Months or even years of hard work, the thesis is finished, the last formatting mistakes corrected, the bibliography painstakingly checked one last time, and hooray, it’s finished! After so many hours bent over your desk, night shifts and endless discipline – time to celebrate! And then you get an invitation to the viva …
So the wine bottle is recorked and it’s back to the desk. But the good news is: you’ve actually already done most of the preparation. That’s what all the in-depth research you did to create your thesis was. You’re already an expert on your topic, so now you just need to explain it to your examiners clearly and calmly. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to start preparing for your viva before your thesis is finished and you’ve answered all your own questions.
Your supervisor should already know what to expect – and the purpose of the viva is to present your results. Some people just hand in their thesis with huge relief and then put the whole thing out of their mind for a while. This isn’t actually a problem, but when the viva is due, you really need to familiarize yourself with the topic again in plenty of time. Re-read your thesis a few times to get your results and methods fresh in your mind, and you’ve already done much of the work towards your viva!
You need to check the examination regulations of your institution thoroughly to find out what is going to be required of you in your viva. How long should the presentation last, is there any information about the type of presentation, who will be present, how is the discussion group structured at the end? Studies have shown that anxiety is significantly lessened if you know exactly what to expect. You should take advantage of this.
You should also think about what you want to wear on the day and whether you want to produce a handout.
If there are no concrete guidelines, here are a few tips:
As far as clothing is concerned, you should be guided by the subject and how your supervisor dresses. If they always wear a suit, you can assume that they attach importance to formal dress. In general, aim for a neat appearance and clothing that’s not too informal, but is actually comfortable. If your shoes pinch or your suit’s too tight, you’re not going to give your best performance – and feeling uncomfortable can come across as being unsure of what you’re saying.
A handout can sometimes be useful even if it is not explicitly required. It shows your examiners that you have thought about their convenience, and makes it easier for them to follow the structure of your presentation. It may even influence the subsequent discussion, as there’s a chance that the examiners will use your handout as a guide for their questions.
The most popular way of making a viva presentation is PowerPoint. Before you even start working on the content, it really helps to make sure you are familiar with how PowerPoint works.
In terms of the actual PowerPoint presentation, it’s important to avoid frivolous transitions, slides which are too colorful and exotic fonts. This is a serious presentation, and your slides should reflect this. Unnecessary and distracting elements will detract from the seriousness of the points you want to make. Use a uniform font and a neutral (preferably white) background.
In general, the rule for such presentations is: Keep It Simple. Slides which are crammed with text make people irritable, and distract from the important aspects. In principle, you should use as little text and as few key points as possible, but when presenting at a viva, it’s also essential to document your achievements accurately. Room for interpretation can be very dangerous here. Naturally, it depends on the preferences of the examiners, but a little more text than in normal presentations is definitely allowed. If the nature of your work allows, graphics, photos or flowcharts are a good way to offer some variety and to clearly present complex issues.
It’s also essential to check that everything technological is going to work on site on the day. Make sure you know what to do if something goes wrong, and make as many back-up plans as you can.
How to Structure a Good Viva Presentation
Like your thesis, your viva PowerPoint presentation should follow a certain structure. It is advisable to follow the structure of your thesis. After all, you have already given it a lot of thought and made sure that everything is in a logical context.
This way you can save yourself additional work. But remember – the presentation is not about retelling your thesis word for word. Just give the most important and interesting aspects.
Create a solid structure for any viva presentation by covering these points:
Your thesis dealt in depth with a particular question, a specific aspect of research. In the first part of your viva PowerPoint presentation you introduce it and explain why it is relevant. What is the benefit for academic understanding, the general public, a specific avenue? Why this question in particular? This allows you to show your audience why you chose your topic and why they should pay attention to what you have to say.
This is where you set out the background of your research question in more detail, i.e. the most important theories and approaches that already exist on the topic, or which prompted your question. This helps your listeners prepare for any complex interrelationships, and clarifies the basis on which you have built your work.
In this part you set out how you approached your work. Was your research qualitative or quantitative? Did you conduct interviews, analyze data, evaluate a particular body of literature? This is your chance to show your examiners how carefully you worked and explain why you chose this particular method.
Now to present the results of your research. Were there any surprises? If so, how did you deal with them? Are the results consistent, where did you encounter difficulties, and how did you solve them? Use this section to talk about your research in a transparent and honest way. It’s an opportunity to show that you have dealt with the topic seriously and in depth, rather than just choosing the easiest way.
At the end, summarize your work clearly and concisely, and answer the research question posed at the beginning. You can also express your personal opinion as to whether you have achieved the result you expected or whether your research has come to a surprising conclusion.
Whether you have to present your sources at the end of your viva is something to discuss with your supervisor or read up in the regulations. If in doubt, however, it’s better to be on the safe side with a list of sources.
Viva Presentation Example
Since every viva is different, there is no universally applicable example of a great PowerPoint viva presentation. A quick search online, though, will bring up numerous examples of well-structured and convincing PowerPoint presentations in your field. You can find inspiration in them, and perhaps model your own presentation on them, but of course your presentation will be unique, adapted to your research question and your audience. Make sure that your narrative path is clear throughout the presentation (as it was in your thesis). It might be possible to ask your supervisor to show you good viva presentation example from previous years or to give you tips on where you should focus your attention.
General Tips for Successful Presentation
Almost there! You’ve created and double-checked your PowerPoint viva presentation and you’re feeling confident about your research work. For many people, though, creating the content is the easy bit; it’s the thought of speaking in front of others that terrifies them. It’s just a fact that in order to defend a thesis, you first have to be attacked.
- You need therefore to be prepared for critical questions and comments. Think through what possible aspects of your work might attract criticism, and prepare your rebuttals in advance. It helps to let friends or family read your work and ask questions.
2. The same friends and family can be amazingly useful as a practice audience. Giving your presentation a few times for yourself and for others in a relaxed environment will help you to feel more confident in your official presentation. Your trial audience may discover inconsistencies you’d missed, and can often provide valuable feedback on how your slides look, your speaking style or your body language.
3. Body language is very important when you’re giving your presentation; it can affect your persuasiveness. Stand upright (or sit if you need to). A small amount of movement can emphasize your engagement with the subject, but try not to look restless. Getting your words across means you mustn’t turn your face away from the audience. Small gestures can underline your words, but too much fidgeting will look like nerves. Practising giving your presentation will soon get your body language expressing ease and confidence.
4. Many people tend to speak far too quickly in presentations, probably to get the whole thing over as quickly as possible. This is understandable, but means the audience misses half your words! Try to breathe calmly and speak evenly. Time can seem to speed up when you’re in a stressful situation, so speak more slowly than you think right. And taking a proper breath in between phrases will help ground you. Your test audience can give you very good feedback here. When you practice your presentation, use a stopwatch to make sure that you stay within the given limits. Once you know that you won’t overrun even when speaking calmly, you can avoid the temptation to rush during the official presentation.
Whilst of course you’re going to think carefully about what you want to say, DON’T try to learn your entire presentation by heart. Even if you managed it, it would end up sounding artificial, and you can be thrown badly off track if you can’t think of a word or if someone interrupts with a question. The best strategy is generally to memorize a few key points and otherwise speak freely.
Take a deep breath before you start and remember that you have no reason to be nervous. Nobody knows the topic of your work as well as you do, you have done a lot of research and are now an expert in the field.
If the examiners seem receptive to it, a little small talk before you start can help you to relax. And once you start, remember that you have practiced and are well prepared to give an impressive viva presentation!