Oral presentations

The ability to clearly convey ideas through speech is an important practical skill both in college and in future careers, but the ability also demonstrates a fundamental understanding of a topic. Your ideas and creativity are only realized when you can communicate them.

Just as with a paper, it's important to know the audience for and purpose of your presentation. A presentation at a conference of experts will likely be different than a presentation for a public who might not immediately understand the significance of your points. The organization of oral presentations is also often similar to that of papers. You will typically have:

  • an introduction, where you get the reader's or listener's attention and let her know what it is you are going to show,
  • a single focus, question you will answer, or point you will make (a "thesis"),
  • several clearly delineated sub-points that make up the body of your paper or presentation,
  • and a conclusion in which you sum up.
However, a paper and a presentation also have their differences. A paper is generally somewhat longer and more in-depth than a presentation. Also, the language in a paper is more formal and can be somewhat more complex (though never unclear!). The language of a presentation must be more immediately grasped -- the listener cannot go back and review a paragraph like a reader can.

The structure of a presentation must also be quite clear because listeners don't have the cues of paragraphs, among other things, to help. Thus good speakers often explicitly tell us their overall point as well as their sub-points. As good speakers begin every new section in the speech, they often explicitly tell us the next idea or topic. In the conclusion, speakers can review one more time the sub-points and how they have proven or contributed to the thesis.

Most oral presentations will be extemporaneous. That is, you won't be reading a manuscript word for word or reciting one from memory. You can have some cards or a phone with your outline and perhaps some notes to help jog your memory, but you should choose the exact wording at the time you speak. Extemporaneous doesn't mean that you are "winging it" -- you should carefully prepare and practice your speech, but it might be a little different each time you give it.

The timing of a speech is critical in most situations. In this class, each speech should last no more than eight minutes. Longer speeches will be penalized. Practice carefully so that you know exactly how long it will take. (Never look at your watch or pull out your phone while you're speaking, though!)

While most of the success of a speech depends on the clarity and organization of your information, delivery is also important. So, here are the:

Top Ten Tips for Presentations

  1. No ums, uhs, or y'knows. In everyday speech, people usually insert "placekeeper" words and sounds when pausing--"um," "er"--to let people know that they are not yet finished, to solicit agreement, or simply to fill time while we think. Avoid doing so in formal oral presentations, even if it means having several seconds of silence while you form your next sentence. Of course, it's best not to have silence at all, and the better you prepare, the less likely you are to have such pauses. Here are other words and phrases to avoid: "basically," "you know," "kind of," "okay?"

  2. Look 'em in the eyes. Do not simply "scan" the audience, but look at each person for several seconds as you speak. It's all right to glance at your notes as necessary, but try not to keep your eyes on your notes for more than a few seconds at a time. Ideally, you want to hold your notes up in front of you when you look at them, so you don't have to bow your head down as you talk.

  3. Stand (or walk) tall. Always stand and stand up straight. Plant your weight on both feet. Do not shift your weight back and forth. Do not hide behind a desk or lectern. It's OK to walk, but don't pace: walk with purpose to another spot and stay there for a while. On the other hand, don't be a statue.

  4. Hand jive. It's good to gesture, as long as the gestures are not so constant that they lose their effectiveness. Gestures should never distract, but always appear natural and spontaneous. Otherwise, simply keep your hands by your sides or holding your notes. Don't put your hands in your pockets, and don't make invisible quotation marks with your fingers.

  5. Speak up! Speak loudly and clearly. Aim at the person in the very back of the room. Know that you must articulate more deliberately than you do in normal conversation. Try to vary the pitch and tone of your voice -- most Americans speak in the very bottom of their vocal ranges.

  6. Never apologize.

  7. Happy to be here. Always look confident and happy to be speaking. Don't groan or give a nervous laugh when it's your turn to speak. Likewise, don't give a big sigh of relief when it's over.

  8. Exhibit A. Whenever possible, do not pass out multiple copies of supporting materials while you are speaking. If you need to demonstrate something, project an image that can be easily seen by the whole audience.

  9. Inhale! Taking a deep breath before you start helps calm your nerves and sends much needed oxygen to your brain. Speak from your diaphragm.

  10. ...and the number one most important tip for a good presentation is...

  11. PRACTICE! That means saying your presentation out loud many times, both by yourself and in front of friends.

Despite the ubiquity of Powerpoint or Google Slides, many presentations have no need of presentation software at all. However, for this class, I ask that you use at least one slide that includes your name and the title of your presentation. Remember that slides are most useful to present visual (or audio) information, and not every slide has to have text. With these important points in mind, here are the:

Top Ten Tips for for using (and not using) Presentation Slide Software:

  1. It's about the pictures: Use slides primarily to present important visual (or audio) information, not textual information.

  2. No fancy fonts: Don't use unusual type. Designers often use thick sans serif fonts for titles and short texts.

  3. No clip art: Avoid distracting visual material.

  4. Minimalist text: Restrict most text to simple titles that may serve as landmarks. Do not display whole paragraphs.

  5. Bullet point 1: Don't use bullet points (or keep them simple).

  6. We can read for ourselves: Don't read from your slide.

  7. What?: Don't turn around and look at your slide while speaking.

  8. Can you go back to...? Avoid presenting a single idea over multiple slides.

  9. Only what's necessary: Don't use a slide if you don't need to. Don't be afraid to have blank slides while you talk.

  10. Remember the KISS rule: "Keep it Simple, Stupid".