Oral Presentations: Tips on How to Deliver a Speech for School or Work

JerzWriting > [ AcademicTechnical ]
This document briefly describes how to write and deliver a formal oral presentation on an academic or professional subject. It should be useful for anyone who wants to know how to speak in public.

Note: by “technical information,” I don’t necessarily mean computers or microsurgery; giving an oral presentation on any subject–your garden, a music album, or a novel — can be “technical” whenever its primary purpose is to communicate complex information.

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The content is the most obvious component of any oral presentation — after all, if you are talking, you had better have something worthwhile to say.  But an oral presentation — no matter how well-written — is only as effective as its delivery.

The people in the audience want you to succeed, but if you cannot hold their interest, the value of your presentation is questionable.

1) Make Eye Contact With Your Audience.

I once sat through a four-hour training session, during which this was all I could see of the instructor.

Humans respond to eye contact; we expect to be able to see when you are excited, when you are making an important point, when you are looking to us for approval, when you are winding up to make a big point.

Go ahead and write your whole speech out so you can read robotically if you blank out, but you should practice your speech so you know it well enough that you can glance up from your notes and  look at your audience as you speak.

Position your visual aids or keyboard so that you never turn your back to your audience.

NoDon’t hide behind the computer monitor when you run your PowerPoint presentation.

NoDon’t stare down into your notes, either; your audience isn’t down there.

2) Start with Your Strongest Points.

I regularly watch speakers ad-lib too much during the introduction, and rush through the most original, most thoughtful points that they had saved for the end.

In rare cases — such as when you are facing a hostile audience, you might want to start out by emphasizing where you agree with your audience, and then carefully working your way towards your most divisive, most daring claims. But usually, you should come right out and make your strongest case first.

Your speech is not a mystery story.

3) Determine Your Goals

Why are you delivering this oral presentation?
Be honest with yourself.  If your answer is “to get a good grade from my professor” or “because my boss told me to,” you need to be aware of that fact now, because your audience will certainly figure it out soon enough.
What does your audience want?
The needs of the audience are always important to a technical writer.  An oral presentation brings you into direct, face-to-face contact with that audience.
A speaker has a captive audience.
Yes, people can sneak out the back of the room if they are terribly bored, but the audience wants you to succeed.  To repay the attention of a captive audience, you should be informative, interesting, and even a little surprising — especially if you are communicating a particular message that you want your listeners to take home with them.
Give a “Take-Home Message”
On Saturday Night Live years ago, a character named Fr. Guido Sarducci pitched the “Five Minute University,” which was supposed to teach you everything that the average college graduate remembers, five years after graduating.  The entire economics course was “supply and demand.”  I suppose the entire technical writing course would be “know your audience”.  Many speakers put this “Take-Home Message” up as the final slide of their talk.  What is the one thing you want your audience to remember?

4) Organize Your Material

Introductions and background sections are boring.
Don’t waste everyone’s time by giving us an entire lab report, or by dropping the names of all the authors you’ve consulted.  A presenter who spends 15 minutes describing experimental procedures or positioning themselves theoretically — but only 5 minutes presenting and analyzing the results of their original work — has missed the point.
Get to the point.
An oral presentation is not a timed essay test, in which you get points for spewing out as many details as possible. Most people in your audience probably won’t care how much your rats weighted, or what brand oscilloscope you used, or what version of MATLAB is running on your computer.  If anybody is dying to know about such details, let them raise their hand and ask you.  If the question is actually important to your talk, you’ll probably be able to answer right away.  If you can’t, promise to check your notes and follow up via e-mail, and then go right back to your presentation.
  • Most audience members will probably have been annoyed by the interruption.  They will be delighted that you didn’t take the questioner’s bait.
  • The questioner will probably be pleased to have stumped you.

5) Keep the Audience Involved.

Graphics, inspirational quotations, and anecdotes are all well-respected methods of maintaining audience interest.  Overheads of Dilbert and The Far Side, fancy computer transitions between slides, and vaudeville tricks work in small doses, but they get old pretty quickly (see Don McMillan’s hilarious “Death by Powerpoint“), and they eat up time that you could use more effectively.  A less showy method of maintaining audience interest can be as simple as giving a kind of road map to your presentation (see the “Road Map” section, below).

No Don’t think about delivering a speech“. Most  inexperienced speakers who approach a professional oral presentation this way end up cutting themselves off from their audience.

  • Don’t try to recite from memory.  If you spend your energy worrying about what you’re supposed to say next, you won’t be able to pay attention to whether the audience can hear you, or whether the overhead projections are focused.
  • Don’t read word-for-word from a stack of papers.  If you bother to show up to hear a person speak, how do you feel when the speaker mumbles through page after page of written text? Do you feel you should have just asked for a copy of the paper in the mail? When you present, make every effort to include your audience; after all, they are the reason you are speaking in the first place. If you do feel that you must write out your speech word-for-word, you should be familiar enough with it that you don’t need to look at the paper all the time.
Yes Instead, think about “talking to people“.TV talk show hosts don’t think about talking to millions of people at once… they think of talking directly to one individual person who wants to be part of a conversation. Make your audience feel welcome.

  • Make frequent eye contact.
  • Remember that your audience wants your conclusions.  Many, many speakers spend too much time on background, which forces them to rush through their final statements.
  • Rehearse  your explanations of charts and diagrams, your demonstrations of software, or your visits to web pages just as thoroughly as your introductory and concluding statements. When you “wing it”, you will tend to eat up too much time.
  • Know the venue.  Find out how to shut off the lights, to lower the screen, to focus the overhead projector, etc.
  • Prepare for disasters.  The network may crash, your monitor may start to flicker, or you may drop your notes. These things happen.   Prepare a low-tech backup — overhead projections or paper handouts, a discussion question to engage the audience, whatever.

Note about slides: I often see PowerPoint or transparency presentations in which the speaker makes slides that present the outline but none of the content. Such slide shows are terribly boring.

YesUse visuals to help you explain, not as substitutes for explanation.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand confusing or pointless words are no help!

If you put up a slide with a series of question, each of the next slides should answer one question at a time.  Don’t just put up a slide with “Introduction, Discussion, Conclusion” or some other completely generic titles.

Your slides should present an abbreviated version of the content (not just framework) of your talk.

  • Don’t clutter up your slides. (Keep to one short idea per slide. Ten words is plenty!)
  • People can read faster than you can speak, so don’t bore the audience by reading a slide full of text word-for-word.
  • Spinning and bouncing text impresses nobody.  (The people in your audience probably see dozens of slide shows every month. They want to evaluate your ideas; proving that you can select a text transition from a drop-down list is not going to earn you any points or win you a contract.)

7) Watch the time!

  • To help pace yourself, at the top of each page of your notes, write down what time it should be; as you turn each page, you can glance at the clock and see whether you are on track.  (The first time I gave this advice to a technical writing class, I mimed the action of “looking at the clock” — and noticed that I was running ten minutes behind, eating into time that I had promised to a student for an in-class testing session.  That was a rather humbling experience!)
  • If you are running behind, don’t talk faster — cut.  Figure out in advance which examples, which anecdotes, which subsections you can drop, without damaging the whole presentation.
  • I was at a conference in 1998 where the first speaker talked for 40 minutes —double her allotted time.  Why the moderator allowed this is a mystery to me.
    • None of the other speakers on the panel felt like cutting their talks to compensate.
    • The result was that the last scheduled speaker — who had paid for an international plane ticket and a week in a hotel — did not get to speak at all.

8) Take questions in the middle, not at the end?

The benefits include:

  • If you spark a good Q & A session, your audience will remember and appreciate it.
  • If nobody has any questions, you can just fill up the space with more of your own material.  That would be much harder to do if you have already wrapped up your talk and had nothing left to say.
  • If you really know your material, you can adjust your conclusion to address the questions raised by the audience.  Even if someone in the audience steals a little of your thunder by bringing up points you were saving for your big finish, you will appear smart for having predicted that audience response. At the same time, someone in your audience will feel smart for having anticipated what you were going to say.

9) Oral Presentations: A Road Map

If you have access to an electronic presentation software package such as PowerPoint, you can often load templates that will guide you through the process of writing a presentation.  If that is not practical for you, this document provides a basic outline that you can use as a starting point for your own presentation.

To ensure that the audience pays attention to what you are saying, distribute handouts that present the basic facts (names, dates, timelines) and your main points.  You can keep the conclusion just slightly mysterious, if you don’t want to give everything away immediately, but the idea is to free the audience from the feeling that they have to write everything down themselves.   Simply printing up all the overhead slides wastes a lot of paper.
Set up before the audience files into their seats. If you have scheduled a presentation for a class, don’t sit in your seat like a lump while your professor calls the roll and hands out papers. Few things are more boring than watching a presenter log into the computer, fiddle with the video data projector, hunt around for the light switches, etc.
As the audience files into their seats, have a title card displayed on the screen — or at least write your  name and the title of your talk on a blackboard.  In a formal setting, usually a moderator will usually introduce you, so you won’t need to repeat everything the moderator says.  Avoid canned introductions like “Principal Burch, members of the faculty, and fellow students, we are gathered here today…”.
Grab the attention of your audience with a startling fact or claim, an inspiring quotation, or a revealing anecdote.   This is not the time to try out your nightclub act; the “grabber” is not just comic relief, it also helps you set up the problem that you are going to address.  If the audience will be diverse and general, you can use the “grabber” as a metaphor, helping the audience see why the topic is so important to you, and how it might be important to them, too.  If your audience shares your technical specialty, and thus needs no special introduction to the topic, feel free simply to state your purpose without much to-do; but bear in mind that even technical audiences don’t want to be bored.
Road Map:
Once you have established the problem or the main point of your talk, let the audience know how you are going to get to a solution.  You might put up a series of questions on a slide, then as your talk progresses, proceed to answer each one.  You might break each question down into a series of smaller questions, and answer each one of these in turn.  Each time you finish a subsection, return to the road map, to help your audience keep track of where you have been and where you are going..
To give your presentation closure, return to the “grabber”, and extend it, modify it, or otherwise use it to help drive home your main point.  Recap your main points, and demonstrate how they all fit together into a thought that the audience members can take with them.

10) Sample Organization:

  • Introduction:  "I am Pinky J. Witzowitz from the U.S. Department of Bureaucracy, and I have been asked to speak for 20 minutes on 'The Government's Plan for Preventing Situation X in America's Heartland.'"
  • Grabber
    • "Situation X is the worst thing that can happen to you and your family." [Startling claim; follow up by citing the source of this quote, or giving evidence that supports it.]
    • "It happened once to a family in Dubuque, and they were never heard from again." [Anecdote; follow up with details.]
    • "I am here today to tell you how to prevent this terrible tragedy from striking you." [Demonstrates relevance; move directly to your road map]
  • Road Map:  Put up a slide with questions, and promise to answer each one during the course of your talk:
Example A:
“…Situation X in America’s Heartland”
Example B:
“Recruiting Volunteers for Organization Y.”
  1. What is Situation X?
  2. Why should I care about Situation X?
  3. What factors contribute to Situation X?
  4. What can I do to avoid Situation X?
  5. Finally, what is the U.S. Department of Bureaucracy doing about Situation X?
  1. What is the present state of our volunteer corps?
  2. What are our most involved volunteers like?
  3. How can we attract more of these kinds of people?
  4. Should we try to make Organization Y attractive to other kinds of people as well?
  5. Volunteering in the new millennium.
  • Questions/Comments from the Audience? Even though most people save the question period until the end, they lose the opportunity to modify their conclusion to address the interests of the audience.
  • Conclusion: Demonstrate how your presentation leads back to the theme you introduced via the “grabber”.
    • Recap:  Our earnest “Situation X” speaker might give microencapsulated answers to all the questions on the main road map: "We have learned that Situation X is a blah blah blah; that we should all care about it because yada, yada, yada..."
    • Wrap it up: After reminding the audience how all these factors fit together, the speaker might say, "Now that you understand how the U.S. Department of Bureaucracy helps you keep Situation X out of your life, please take one of our pamphlets home to your family and put it by the telephone where you can get it in an emergency; your family will thank you."

Invite Questions:  If there is time, and if you haven’t already done so.

Dennis G. Jerz , 01/27/2009 07:24:28
Oct, 1999 — first written
03 Dec, 2000 — posted here
03 June 2003 — tweaked and updated
30 Oct 2011 — updated and added video links

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