How to Give an Oral Report on a Paper -- Updated 06/25/2012
When you give an oral report it is critical to explain "what they did" and "why they did it." These steps are often neglected, so they are emphasized here. Even if you want to go on and do an extensive analysis, you have to explain how they got the results first. That's why the instructions below focus on how to get the "what" and the "why" across; how to do an analysis of the results is important too, but is not discussed below.
If you need help deciphering the paper, see the handouts titled "Paper Questions" and "How to Take Notes on a Paper." The instructions below focus primarily on paper questions 1-3; If you want to go on to do an analysis, look at paper questions 4 & 5.
1) Identify the question*
Usually you report on a paper in order to answer a specific question; this is not necessarily the question the authors had in mind. So be sure to get your question straight and to stick to the information in the paper that answers your question. Be selective - your entire report should take 15-20 minutes (if you are focusing on one question).
2) Explain how the author's approach is supposed to answer the question.
When you prepare a paper you often spend hours figuring this out, but then you tend to get it so clear in your mind (and it seems so obvious) you don't explain it. So don't forget to explain "why" before explaining "what".
3) Explain their procedures
Explain what they did in a way that is as clear as possible and that includes all critical details but omits all unnecessary details. It usually works best to explain the details one experiment at a time. If you try to explain all the experimental procedures at the beginning of your talk you will probably bore everyone to death. It usually helps your listeners a lot if you write the basic steps on the board, or project them on a screen, as you go along. It is very hard to keep an experiment straight in your head without anything to look at. If you use Power Point or the equivalent, be sure to walk your listeners through the information on the slides as carefully as if you were writing it out.
4) Present the results
Be sure to stick to the important results, i.e. the ones that answer your question. Also be sure to translate the results into English, no matter how clear they seem to you.
5) Explain how the results do (or do not) answer the question:
Don't just say "the results are as expected"; explain why the results are (or are not) as expected. This may not seem necessary to you (especially if you explained point 2 properly) but remember that you have been thinking about this paper for a week and your listeners haven't.
THINGS TO WATCH FOR
1. There is a temptation to repeat everything in the paper non-selectively for fear of omitting something important. This temptation should be avoided like the plague. Decide what is important and LEAVE OUT the rest.
2. Don't be hypercritical or super credulous. There is a tendency to assume that either everything in print is true, or to assume that every paper is full of mistakes (and it is your job is to point them out). Neither of these assumptions is valid. So don't spend too much time talking up their conclusions or listing your objections to their methods, conclusions. etc. -- unless you are specifically asked to evaluate their results. When you give a report, it is usually better to emphasize the results, including how and why they got them, and not to focus too much on the authors' interpretation of the results. The evaluation of data is very important, but is often best left for other occasions.
* Note: These guidelines were written for a course in which each oral report addressed one question. If you are giving a report on an entire paper, or a series of experiments, then you can break the content down and present it one question at a time, following the procedure outlined above.