Tips for oral presentations

In any presentation, the delivery is almost as important as the content. If you cannot relate to your audience, they may not hear what you have to say.

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Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Getting practice

For many, public speaking and presenting in a group environment can be daunting. The best way to overcome the fear and to learn is by doing.

Presenting

Nervousness

Many people are nervous about oral presentations. Apparently, public speaking is one of the greatest fears people have.

Nerves can be a good thing as a bit of adrenaline can help good performance. However, too much nervousness can make it difficult to organise thoughts and retrieve ideas. To understand presentation anxiety and find ways to deal with it listen to the Radio National broadcast on performance anxiety in which Dr Susan O’Neill, psychologist and musician, talks about musicians’ performance anxiety. Most of what is covered applies to oral presentations.

Some tips to overcome nervousness or problems associated with it:

  • Remember that nervousness is normal. Allow yourself to be yourself, practice some breathing techniques. Breathing deeply will calm you down and help to control the slight shaking that you might get in your hands and your voice.
  • Practice: use all possible opportunities to speak in public. Start practising in a familiar environment, in front of family or friends. Join seminar practice sessions organised by the University.
  • Be sure to be really well prepared and organised. If you have prepared the talk well, anxiety or nervousness should not stop you. If your overheads are out of order, or your notes are disorganised, you may get flustered.
  • Smile! Nobody can see you are nervous. Your audience will react warmly to you if you smile and at least look relaxed.
  • Treat your audience like friends. Start with something the audience might enjoy or find useful.
  • Set up some interaction with the audience early on in the presentation. Ask a question for instance.
  • Slow down! When people are nervous, they tend to get confused easily. Your mind may start to race and you may feel panicky. Make use of pauses: force yourself to stop at the end of a sentence, take a breath and think before you continue.
  • Remember also, that some of the most accomplished public speakers feel nervous before and during a talk. The skill comes in not communicating your nervousness, and in not letting it take over from the presentation. Over time, you will feel less nervous and will able to control your nervousness.
  • Remember that in practice, in terms of content, explaining something to 20 people in a room is fairly similar to explaining things to one person.
  • The way you perform is the way your audience will feel. Giving an oral presentation is a performance – you have to act like an actor. If you act the part of someone enjoying him/herself and feeling confident, you will not only communicate these positive feelings to the audience, you will feel much better too.

Playing the part

Presenting in public is a bit like acting – you have to play the part. To better do that you may want to consider:

  • Your body language, and
  • How you relate to the audience.

Body language

When you are speaking in front of an audience you become an object of scrutiny. The larger the audience, the less individuals feel the need to provide reassuring feedback to the speaker. This makes speakers very self-conscious. Tips to remember:

  • Stand straight and comfortable. Do not slouch or shuffle about.
  • Look at your audience. If you remember to stand with your feet pointed towards the audience, you will avoid turning your back on the audience.
  • Hold your head up. Look around and make eye contact with people in the audience.
  • When talking make sure you look at all people in the audience, do not just address the one person nodding!
  • When you are talking to your friends, you naturally use your hands, your facial expression, and your body to add to your communication. Do it in your presentation as well. It will make your presentation more interesting.
  • Dress to look your best, but also to adapt to your audience.

Language

Spoken language is different from written language.

  • Words are short, less technical and familiar
  • Sentences are shorter.
  • Speech is usually repetitive. Only a few ideas need to be communicated and repeated consistently so the audience will remember them.
  • Speech makes extensive use of examples and anecdotes.

Keep it simple. The aim is to communicate, not to show off your vocabulary.

Emphasise the key points. Make sure people realise which are the key points. Repeat them using different phrasing.

Using your voice

  • Speak loudly: aim to be heard in the back row.
  • Speak slowly and clearly. Don’t rush! Speaking fast doesn’t make you seem smarter; it will only make it harder for other people to understand you. Sometimes, when nervous, people tend to speak too fast. Remind yourself to slow down. The use of supporting material can also help you slowing down.
  • Vary your voice quality. If you always use the same volume and pitch (e.g. all loud, or all soft, or in a monotone) your audience will switch off.
  • Slow down to emphasise for key points. Supporting material can help.
  • Key words are important. Speak them out slowly and loudly.
  • When you begin a new point, use a higher pitch and volume.
  • Use pauses – don’t be afraid of short periods of silence. (They give you a chance to gather your thoughts, and your audience a chance to think.)
  • Check the pronunciation of difficult words beforehand.

The audience

It can be hard to keep an audience’s attention. Since the brain processes information more rapidly than the speaking voice does, listeners tend to wander off in their own thoughts.

While people are there to listen to you, they are more worried about their needs- what they want to know- than about yours- what you want to tell them.

Make your material meaningful to a diverse group. Remember that people make sense out of new information by relating it to what they already know may help.

Speak to your audience, don’t read to them! If you simply read out a paper instead of giving a presentation, your audience will probably understand very little, lose concentration quickly and may even go to sleep! Use cue cards, keywords or overheads as prompts and speak to the audience. Include everyone by looking at them and maintaining eye contact.

  • Be aware of how your audience is reacting. Do people seem interested, bored, confused? Check for signals, such as people leaning toward you or sitting back with arms folded. Stop if necessary and explain a point again, grab people’s attention.
  • Get the audience to participate. Only ask people to do things that are perceived as relevant, non-threatening, enjoyable, easy to explain and feasible in terms of time, audience size and venue.
  • Be open to questions. If someone raises a hand, or asks a question in the middle of your talk, answer it. If you cannot answer it, turn the question back out to the audience and let someone else answer it! Questions are good! They show that the audience is listening with interest. Don’t regard them as an attack on you, but as a collaborative search for deeper understanding.
  • Make sure you remain in control of the presentation, do not let the audience take over.

Discussion time

  • In seminars, when feedback is very important, you may want to ask a friend/colleague to take notes, as you may be too overwhelmed to take good note of what is said.
  • Clarify and summarise questions that seem complicated.
  • When a question is asked, unless you are in a very small group, restate the question to make sure everyone heard.
  • Be honest if you cannot answer, eventually ask the audience for an answer or offer to find the answer later on.

Preparing your presentation

Know the purpose of your presentation.

In a progress seminar, you might want to show the audience that:

  • your topic is important
  • you have accumulated enough knowledge about the field
  • you know how you will tackle the gap/ questions you have set to answer

Indicate that you have control over your work, while being honest about the unknowns. If the seminar presents work-in-progress there are bound to be many unknowns.

At a conference, you may want to raise awareness of your research and network.

Timing

Rehearse your presentation (yes, good presenters rehearse) and get the length right

People will find it irritating if you go over time. Work on an average of 100 words per minute and allow for the fact that visual aids and digressions might take time. Try to remember that 5 minutes is just enough time to deal with one main idea (accounting for introduction, repetition, summaries). If you give too much information, your audience will get lost. A trick to make sure that you keep on time is to have spare material (extra examples, minor points) that can be omitted if you go over time. Mark them in your notes as optional.

Visual aids

It is very helpful to use visual aids in your presentation, as it helps people to understand. People learn visually as well as orally. What people see generally also tends to have more impact than what people hear.

Be clear about what you want visuals to do for you: are they meant to capture attention? To reinforce meaning? To signpost the talk? To provide light relief?

Also think about practical considerations, such as availability and affordability. How much time will it take to prepare those visuals? Will they be easily visible (consider venue and size of audience)? Will using them delay or distract you?

Practice operating the equipment before using it.

Overheads and PowerPoint presentations

Keep your design simple, uncluttered, with plenty of space.

Rule 166:

  • 1 idea per slide
  • 6 lines per slide
  • 6 words per line

Ensure the slide is readable: large enough font, use caps when needed, use only 2 fonts (heading and text).

  • Check grammar and spelling – everybody will read your slides and spot mistakes
  • Identify author and organisation on first slide
  • Put contact details/questions and answers/ conclusion/thanks on last slide. First and last slide may remain visible for longer than the other slides, so make sure they are informative and interesting.
  • Font size: less than 24 point is too small to be reasonably read in most situations. Best is 28 or 32 point size, with titles 36 to 44 point.
  • Typeface – use a sans serif (easier to read)
  • Make sure the background image does not interfere with the readability of the foreground content.
  • Add sounds, action and colour appropriately – remember content is more important than form. Do not have slides appear in fancy ways. Using appear is often best.
  • Blank the screen when you don’t want people to look at your PowerPoint presentation. Press the B key on the keyboard to have a black screen. Press the B key again and the image is restored. OR press the W key to have a white image.
  • You may want to draw on your screen. To do so press Ctrl-P and using the left mouse button, draw on the slide as you wish. To erase what you have drawn, press the E key. To hide pen, press the A key or Ctrl-H.
  • Don’t read word-for-word. People can do that themselves.
Handouts

Handouts can be a great idea or a waste of paper. They are probably good if you are providing information students might want to follow up on.

Think about whether you want to distribute them before or after your presentation.

The whiteboard

If you really must use a whiteboard, come prepared with the right pens (use pens clearly marked ‘Whiteboard Marker’ don’t use anything else) and write in large neat writing.

If possible, put your information on the whiteboard before the talk begins, otherwise you will have to turn your back on the audience and break your eye contact with them, which is never a good idea. Writing on a board is also time-consuming. Use alternative visual aids wherever possible.

Checking out the facilities

Whenever possible, check the facilities of the room where you are going to deliver your talk.

  • Does the computer turn on and off?
  • Where is the plug for the computer? Do you have the right cables?
  • Is there a whiteboard?

Button-important-iconNothing is more irritating than a presentation that is delayed because of technicalities such as a computer that does not work. Be prepared.

Structuring the presentation

Your talk should be focused and coherent:

  • Try to have one central proposition, supported by clearly defined ideas
  • Make sure there is a logical connection between the different parts of the talk
  • Set yourself the objective that an average audience member should be able to understand and repeat your arguments
  • Have a clear structure – everything should develop smoothly and fit together. You need a clear introduction, body and conclusion.

The introduction- tell them what you are going to tell them:

Introduce yourself, build a rapport with the audience and tell them what you are going to tell them. First impressions usually determine the audiences’ response.

  • The introduction serves to capture your listeners’ attention and make a link between you and the audience. Try to start with something everybody would listen to: begin with a question, a funny story, a startling comment, or something that will make them think.
  • The introduction is where you state the purpose of your presentation. It tells the audience what the presentation is about, what the main argument is. It then locates the specific topic within a wider context.
  • Explain why your topic is important.
  • The introduction should also contain an outline of your talk. The main points of your talks should be introduced. It should indicate how the presentation will develop. Foreshadowing your structure helps the listeners to understand where you are at. Clearly indicate the structure by using words such as: I will concentrate on the following points – First of all – Then – This will lead to – And finally.

Keep it simple. The more you say, the less will be retained . Displaying an outline can be useful: you can keep referring to it as you move through the presentation.

In brief participants needs to know:

  • why they need to listen
  • what they will be listening to
  • where the presentation is going.

The body – tell them:

  • Present your main points one by one in logical order.
  • Pause at the end of each point (give people time to take notes, or time to think about what you are saying).
  • Make it absolutely clear when you move to the next point, say it. For example: The next point is that …OK, now I am going to talk about …Right. Now I’d like to explain …Of course, we must not forget that …However, it’s important to realise that…
  • Use clear examples to illustrate your points. New knowledge is best assimilated when hooked onto something familiar. Look for useful examples and evidence. Give concrete examples, abstractions are often hard to follow. People relate more easily to everyday examples. Evidence and examples that can be presented visually work very well. You also may have to provide background information. There is a balance to maintain between what you can assume the audience to know and what you cannot assume the audience to know.

The conclusion – tell them what you told them

It is important to leave the audience with a clear summary of everything that was covered. At the end of a presentation, summarise the main points again. Use appropriate vocabulary (signposts), so people know what you are doing, e.g. to sum up, So, in conclusion ; To recap the main points.

You can also restate the purpose of your talk, and say that you have achieved your aim:

…. you can now see that…

My intention was …, and it should now be clear that …

Thank the audience, and invite questions: Thank you. Are there any questions?

toolboxResources

Remember that the University Research Education Program offers regular training on presenting and that mock seminars can be organised at any stage.

Books on oral presentations are available from the Library. Many websites also provide tips on giving good oral presentation.

Jones, Simon L.Peyton, Hughes, John and Launchbury John (1993) How to give a great research talk

Reynolds Garr (2008). How presenting well can make a difference (video)