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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 “formal presentation,” I don’t necessarily mean a Shakespeare monologue or a scientific treatise on robot-assisted microsurgery. Giving an oral presentation on any subject–your favorite book, current events, a family story–can be “formal” and “technical” whenever its primary purpose is to communicate complex information.
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 a presentation is only as effective as its delivery.
Part 2: Delivering the Content
Part 1: Planning the Content
1) Determine Your Goals as a Speaker
- Why are you delivering this oral presentation?
- Be honest with yourself. If your answer is “for a grade” or “my boss told me,” your audience will certainly figure it out soon enough. What do you want to accomplish?
- If this is a class assignment, look very carefully at the assignment instructions. If your instructor wants you to analyze, don’t fill time summarizing. If you’ll be evaluated according to how much evidence you present, don’t fill time sharing your personal opinion.
- If this is a work assignment, what is at stake, and what resources are available? Are you assessing work you did over the past year or proposing a project for next year? Are you justifying a decision you made, or giving background information to assist a decision-maker? Who gave this presentation last time, how well was it received, and what’s different now? (Who would know?)
- How can your audience help you meet your goals?
- A good speaker keeps in mind the needs of the audience. Who is your audience? What does your audience want?
- Your most important auditor may be your professor or your boss, but that person will measure your performance — at least in part — according to how the rest of the audience responds.
- Why are the other people in the room there? They may only be there because they are on the list of speakers for the day, but they want to do a good job (or get a good grade). How can you latch on their goals, in order to help you demonstrate the value of your speech?
- How can you use your knowledge of what they care about to help you meet your goal? (Again, who would know the information you need?)
2) Prepare your material
Good speakers usually aim to look like they are speaking effortlessly, tossing off words as they come to mind. What you don’t see is the preparation that paved the way for the polished performance. It’s all an act! You can do it too, if you plan ahead.
Once you know what your goal is, and you know what your audience wants, you can start strategizing. There is no single strategy that will guarantee success. How you plan depends on many variables.
How many minutes long is your speech? About how many words do you speak per minute?
Will your audience be lost if you use jargon? Will they feel talked down to if you spend time defining terms they already know?
Do you expect that your audience will disagree with you? (If so, you might need to give more examples and more evidence and spend more time addressing reasonable objections in order to sound convincing, which may mean talking a little faster.)
Do you expect your audience already agrees with the position you will take? (If so, they may check out if your speech simply rehashes arguments they already accept without question. What can you say to an audience that already agrees with you? Why would you listen to a speaker who is restating things you already accept as the truth?)
Graphics, inspirational quotations, and anecdotes are all well-respected methods of maintaining audience interest. However, images of Dilbert and The Far Side, fancy computer transitions between slides, and vaudeville tricks get old pretty quickly (see Don McMillan’s hilarious “Death by Powerpoint“), and they eat up time that you could use more effectively.
|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.|
|Whether your goal is to convince your audience to accept your position on a complex topic, to provide as much useful information as you can to the decision-maker who needs to know it, or something else, keep that goal in mind first. How will the words you say help you and your audience to reach some mutual goal?|
|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.|
3) Study a Model
The internet is of course full of examples of good speeches, but the YouTube users who vote on videos may not have much in common with the audience who will hear your oral presentation.
Do you have access to speeches that your discourse community values? Your instructor or supervisor may not have ready access to video recordings from last year’s class or last quarter’s budget meeting, but you can pay attention to the speaking techniques deployed by people with authority in your field.
For instance, I have a colleague who never says, “This is taking too long, and I’m watching the clock, so let’s get on with it already.” Instead, this person says, “I’m conscious of everyone’s time, so shall we move on to the next item?”
Bear in mind that
- if you have been assigned to deliver a speech that defends a position on a topic (such as, whether Huckleberry Finn should be taught in middle school)…
- but your instructor usually refrains from stating any one answer is the best (preferring instead to present several viewpoints and letting the students decide for themselves)…
- then your instructor’s open-ended lecture (intended to spark a discussion) is not a good model of a position statement (intended to showcase your ability to latch onto a specific solution).
While this handout aims to provide general tips, you should ignore any general tip that contradicts something specific you learn about the goals, context, or genre of the specific speech you are preparing.
Successful oral presentations typically share some basic characteristics, owing to the nature of the spoken word.
- Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
- Tell them.
- Tell them what you told them.
When we read, we can go back and reread passages we skimmed over the first time, and we can skip ahead when we’re bored. In a live oral presentation, the audience can’t re-read or skip ahead. If the audience doesn’t know why they are listening to your anecdote about winning the spelling bee, or why they should care what version of the software was installed on the computer that you used to crunch your numbers, their attention will wander and it will be hard to get it back.
When we listen, we gratefully cling to orientation phrases that help us understand what the whole shape of a speech is, where we are within the overall structure, and when we are transitioning from one section to another.
Your specific occasion for delivering a speech may involve specific contextual details that don’t mesh with the general advice I’m providing here.
- 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.'"
- "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]
- Main Content: Put up a slide with topics to cover, a specific problem to solve, or a series of questions to answer. Promise that your talk will address the material on that slide. You might even return to that slide each time you start a new subsection, with the current place in the talk highlighted.
|Main Content Example A: |
“…Situation X in America’s Heartland”
|Main Content Example B: |
“Recruiting Volunteers for Organization Y.”
- 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.
4) Arrange with Your Strongest Points First
- Your speech is not a mystery story.
- I regularly watch speakers ad-lib or chatter too much during the introduction, and just when they think it’s time to get to the good stuff, they realize they are almost out of time, and they have to rush through the material 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 make your strongest points first. (While an online handout is not the same thing as a speech, I tried to follow this principle by at least listing all 10 of my oral presentation tips at the top of the page, before I went into details about any one tip.)
- 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, or by reading word-for-word what you’ve written on the slide.
- A 15-minute speech that devotes 12 minutes to establishing that the speaker has prepared adequately (describing experimental procedures or summarizing background readings) but only 3 minutes presenting and analyzing original results of all this effort 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.
- Use the question period wisely.
- When have lots of dry details, but you’re not sure your audience will care about them, you can always say “I can give more details if you like, but here’s the main point.” If anybody really wants to know all the 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 answer right away, or you don’t want to take the time, just promise you’ll 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.
- Give a “Take-Home Message”
- What is the one thing you want your audience to remember? Many speakers close their talks with a slide bearing a “Take-Home Message.”
- Comedian Don Novello’s character Fr. Guido Sarducci pitches 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.” If you can boil your whole presentation down into one clear “take-home message,” your audience will have an easier time remembering your point. (And if they remember it, they are more likely to be influenced by it.)
5) Practice, Practice, Practice.
Set a timer, and deliver your speech to a willing co-worker or family member, your pet fish, or the bathroom mirror.
My students are often surprised at how hard it is to fill up 3 minutes for an informal practice speech early in the term, and how hard it is to fit everything they want to say into a 10-minute formal speech later in the term.
Once you have the right amount of content, make a video recording of yourself practicing. If you plan to show a video clip, or ad-lib an explanation of a diagram, or load a website, or pass out paper handouts, or saw an assistant in half, actually do it while the camera is rolling, so that you know exactly how much time it takes.
Time it out.
- Script out a powerful introduction and conclusion.
- Know how long each section of your speech should take.
- Decide in advance:
- which example or anecdote you will cut if you are running long?
- what additional example you can introduce if you need to fill time?
If you know your conclusion takes you 90 seconds to deliver, make sure to start your conclusion when you have at least 90 seconds left.
At several key points during your speech, maybe while you are playing a video or while the audience is taking in a complex image, glance at the clock and check to see — are you on track?
If you notice you’re starting Section 3 60 seconds later than you had intended, try to make up for time by rushing through your second example in section 3 and cutting the third example in section 4, so that you still have the full 90 seconds at the end to deliver that powerful conclusion.
- Do you know how to connect your computer to the overhead projector? (If you don’t know, who does?)
- What will you do if you can’t get your computer connected to the projector? (Back in 2003, when I applied for my current job at Seton Hill University, I was asked to give a teaching demonstration. I couldn’t get my laptop to work with the overhead projector, but I had posted the most important links on my blog, and I had brought along a printout of my speech, just in case. My preparations have paid off, because I got the job.)
- In the room where you will be speaking, will you be using a microphone, or relying on your unamplified voice?
- Will you be able to walk around with the microphone — perhaps to gesture at details in the slides — or is the mic attached to a stand? (Do you need to borrow a laser pointer, or get a volunteer to advance slides for you?)
Part 2: Delivering the Content
6) Make Eye Contact With Your Audience.
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.
|Don’t hide behind the computer monitor when you run your PowerPoint presentation.|
|Don’t stare down into your notes, either; your audience isn’t down there.|
|Position your visual aids or keyboard so that you don’t turn your back to your audience.|
7) Engage with the audience.
Pay attention to the audience, and they will pay attention to you.
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.
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 the whiteboard. 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…”
If it’s likely that many people in your audience use the same social media network, consider encouraging them to post their thoughts there. When you introduce yourself, give your social media handle and suggest a hashtag.
Consider distributing 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. (Note: Simply printing up all the overhead slides wastes a lot of paper.)
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.
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.
8) A Slide Show Is Not a Speech
Don’t read word-for-word with your nose buried in 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. (And hold the page up when you glance at it, rather than bending down to look at it.)
|Use uncluttered slides to aid your spoken words.|
Your slides should present an abbreviated version of the content (not just the bare framework) of your talk.
If you begin with a slide that lists a series of topics or questions, your audience will expect the rest of your talk to work through that list in more detail (just as this web page began with a list of tips, then followed up with details about each tip.)
If each page throws up more lists, your talk will seem random.
Larry Lessig (an ethicist, open-source culture activist, and politician) has developed a very sparse PowerPoint style that assists his spoken voice. His slides sometimes contain just a single word, and he times the slides so that the written words (and occasional images) emphasize the spoken words. (See: Lessig Presentation style.)
|Spinning and bouncing text impresses nobody (and fools 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 cool transition from a drop-down list is not going to earn you any points or win you a contract.
9) 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!)
See the “preparation” section above. If you have already practiced your speech and timed out the various sections, you’ll know whether you are running long. If you are, don’t talk faster — cut something that you already marked out as optional.
Decide 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.
10) 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.
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
31 May 2016 — major update; separated into “preparation” and “presentation” sections.
26 Jan 2018 — blackboard -> whiteboard
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