09 Apr 2010 [ Prev | Next ]

Practice Oral Presentations

Deliver a two-minute speech that makes an argument you are planning to incorporate in Paper 3.

For this practice speech, what you say is less important than how you say it.

  • DO prepare, but DON"T try to memorize, and DON"T read word-for-word from a script.
  • DO time your speech so that you don't run over or under.
  • Slide shows (such as PowerPoint presentations) can be very useful in the right context.  But this assignment does not ask you to create a slide show.  (In fact, I am not a big fan of the sins that PowerPoint tends to encourage... see "How NOT to use PowerPoint.")
  • Remember that your audience wants you to succeed. In general:
    • speak up so the back row can hear you
    • make eye contact
    • try not to fidget
    • know your material well
    • be interesting (lists are boring; choose fewer examples, or just a single case study, and go into greater depth)

This assignment applies to your class participation grade. I will give you feedback in the following areas:
  • voice: volume, pace, and tone
  • non-verbals: eye contact, posture, gestures, etc.
  • preparation: timing & apparent comfort level
  • content: depth and quality of argument

Additional Tips

For a course I used to teach on technical writing, I prepared a handout on oral reports. Many of those points apply to academic reports. I've included some of those key points below.

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.

Face Your Audience.

Make frequent eye contact. Write your whole speech out so you can read robotically if you blank out, but know your material well enough that you can look at your audience as you speak.

The STW oral presentation assignment does not require any visual aids. (If you do choose to use visual aids, make sure that you don't turn your back on your audience, and that you don't stare at your computer monitor or keyboard instead of making eye contact.)

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.

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.

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"

A talk show host doesn't think about talking to millions of people at once... these expert TV personalities think of themselves as 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 big beefy laborers may unplug your expensive equipment and cart it away because you didn't hire a unionized operator.  These things happen.   Prepare a backup -- overhead projections or paper handouts to distribute.


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