Jerz > Writing > [ Academic | Technical ]
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 1: Planning the Content
Part 2: Delivering the Content
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, Pinterest clip art, 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.|
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
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.
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.
|Main Content Example A: |
“…Situation X in America’s Heartland”
|Main Content Example B: |
“Recruiting Volunteers for Organization Y.”
| || |
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.)
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.
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.
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.|
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.
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.)
|Vague and pointless slides are alienating.|
Rather than a slide labeled “Introduction,” ask a question that actually introduces some idea.
Rather than a slide labeled “Case Study 1,” give a startling fact from the case study.
|Cluttered and wordy slides can be overwhelming.|
By the time you get to the end of the slide, we will already probably be liking cat pictures on Instagram.
|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.
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.)
The benefits include:
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
|Writing That Demonstrates Thinking Ability |
Many writers have no trouble summarizing the content of a conversation or repeating facts, but they they freeze up when asked to formulate a theory or critique an argument. Jerz and Bauer
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