Oral Presentations

Written by Nellie Perret, Academic Success Centre

Like anything else, oral presentations become easier with preparation and practice.

I. Sign up early.

Although doing your presentation first isn’t a great idea because you don’t have the chance to note the strengths and weaknesses of other presenters/presentations, be careful not to wait too long.

  • If you go early, you have a greater chance of being “original”—sometimes, if you delay your presentation, you get a “great” idea…and then someone else grabs it first.
  • Often the beginning of a semester is less crowded with other assignments, tests, etc. than the middle or the end. It’s useful to do your presentation when you’re not panicking about getting other things done.
  • It’s nice to get oral presentations out of the way–that way you can relax and enjoy the other guy’s show!

II. It helps to know what’s expected of you

Before you start researching your project, it’s a good idea to ask your professor the following things:

  • How much time do you have for your presentation?
    1. Will you be expected to leave some time to address the questions of your professor or classmates?
  • What form is your seminar supposed to take?
    1. Are you expected to read from a text? If so, are you expected to hand out copies of your text to your professor and classmates for consideration?
    2. Are you allowed to read from a text?
    3. Are you expected to use notes?
    4. Are you allowed to use notes?
    5. Are you expected to use various media—slides, an overhead projector, hand-outs—to illustrate points you are making?
    6. Are you allowed to use various media to illustrate points you are making?
    7. If you are expected or allowed to use media, who is going to arrange for such things as a projector and slides; an overhead projector and transparencies; the reproduction and distribution of hand-outs?
    8. Is there a particular style of oral presentation that your professor expects? (Is it acceptable to simply come with a number of provocative questions? Are you in fact going to be expected to engage your peers in a discussion? Or are you only responsible for conveying a certain amount of information?)
  • Are you expected to use secondary sources?
  • Are you allowed to use secondary sources?
  • What criteria are being used to evaluate your presentation? (Delivery? Information? Ability to field questions? etc.)

III. Choose your topic carefully.

  • When selecting the topic for your presentation, it’s frequently a good idea to find a particular—frequently an oblique—angle, a clear and narrow focus for your material.

IV. Define the scope of your research.

  • It’s important to figure out how much material you actually need to have.
    1. It’s better to have too much material and to cut it down during your “rehearsal” sessions than to find yourself standing there with nothing to say. BUT don’t prepare a full-length essay. Remember that the good delivery of an oral presentation takes time. You want to speak slowly and clearly—you may occasionally want to repeat material for emphasis—so, in general, it will take quite a bit longer to read a paper aloud than it will to read it to yourself.

V. Organize your talk as you would an essay.

  • Clear and logical organization is even more important in seminars than it is in written papers.
  • Start out with a very clear thesis statement in which you outline your subject and the main points you will be addressing—in the order in which you will be addressing them.

VI. Try to make use of supplementary media to illustrate or illuminate aspects of your talk.

  • The use of visual or auditory material to highlight points in your seminar will encourage your audience to attend to and remember what you are saying.
  • It will also divert a roomful of staring eyes from looking at you to looking at something (anything!) else for some of the time.
  • Supplementary media can include slides, overhead projections, hand-outs, segments on videotape and so on.
  • Find interesting, unexpected and unusual material—but be sure that it does have direct relevance to your topic.
  • Be sure, too, that you have the mechanics of your media worked out in advance—don’t waste time trying to figure out how to use a slide projector or putting slides or overheads in upside down!
  • Be sure to leave time, too, for a little bit of fiddling with equipment and for the visual images to sink in—remember that this may take time away from your oral presentation, so adjust your visual aids—and your presentation—accordingly.

VII. Leave time to rehearse your presentation.

  • It’s extremely important to leave yourself sufficient time before your presentation for rehearsal. You need to know
    1. how much to write—or how many notes to have—to fill the time;
    2. how to hold your notes so you don’t just bury your head in them and read;
    3. how quickly—or slowly—to talk;
    4. whether you need to make notes on the blackboard; etc.
  • Start out rehearsing by yourself.
    1. Be sure you have a clock handy so that you can time yourself.
    2. If you don’t have enough material, look carefully at what you do have and mark places where you could expand upon points or develop more complex concepts.
    3. If you have too much material, look to see where you can cut your paper down. Don’t actually delete “superfluous” material. Often, ‘though it’s not ideal, you speed up when you’re nervous—you might find yourself able to cover more material than you did in rehearsal. (NOTE: One way to deal with this is to highlight central points; then, if you find you have extra time, you can make use of elaborating or supporting material.)
  • Practice the presentation at least three times.
    1. Reading over your notes silently is not enough; you must run through the speech out loud.
  • Be sure you know how to pronounce all the words in your paper. If you’re not sure, look them up in a dictionary and make your own phonetic notation to let you know how to pronounce them (i.e., “mnemonic” becomes “nuh-mon-ick”).
    1. Say each word you’re uncomfortable with 5 to 10 times to make sure you have mastered it.
    2. If you keep making mistakes on any word or phrase, replace it!
  • Turn your paper or notes into a script. For instance, note
    1. where you’re going to be emphatic;
    2. where you’re going to repeat points;
    3. where you might make a (seemingly) casual remark, etc.
  • Make sure you know your material well enough to talk comfortably without depending too much on notes.
  • After mastering your wording, give your presentation in front of a mirror (or a video tape recorder).
    1. Pay attention to any distracting habits that you might have (shuffling your feet, waving your hands excessively, playing with your hair).
  • Finally, you may want to try your talk out on a very supportive and honest friend, brother, sister, dog…

VIII. It’s important to feel comfortable about the way you look, and to be relaxed and confident, during your presentation.

  • Make sure that you are well-rested and relatively stress-free on the day of your presentation.
  • Leave lots of time to shower, eat and get dressed.
  • Be sure that you have planned in advance what you are going to wear.
    1. You don’t want to be surprised to find that you have nothing clean or that you can’t find a pair of matching socks.
    2. Don’t go out and buy something new to wear. You might be unpleasantly surprised to find that your new sweater drives you crazy because it’s made of a particularly itchy yarn
    3. Above all, choose something that makes you feel comfortable and attractive.
  • You may want to plan to bring something into the class with you: a cup of coffee, cough drops—but nothing too distracting—to fiddle with.

IX. Treat your presentation like a well-planned performance.

  • Set the stage carefully.
    1. Be sure you get to the class in plenty of time to see to any arrangements that need to be made (check the operating condition of VCRs, etc.).
    2. If you find yourself getting nervous, practice relaxation techniques: deep breathing, the “wet-dog” shake, focusing, etc.
    3. Figure out before you start talking where you’re going to situate yourself for the presentation: standing at the front of the class, sitting on a desk, etc.
    4. Decide what you’re going to do with notes: Is there a lectern? A desk? Are you going to just hold them?
  • Stay in control.
    1. Talk slowly.
    2. Talk clearly (enunciate).
    3. Talk loudly.
    4. Make eye contact.
    5. Avoid staying in one place. Try not to simply stand or sit in one spot; it’s a good idea to walk around a bit, to gesture and change the direction of your focus in order to keep all of the audience interested.
    6. Be sensitive to your audience. If you notice that people are looking bored or distracted, change your position, the speed or volume of your voice

X. Handle questions with confidence.

  • Don’t panic (!) when you’re asked a question. Give it careful—but quick—consideration and answer it to the best of your ability.
  • It’s acceptable to tell someone that you don’t understand his or her questions. (This is also a good way to stall for time!) Ask them to rephrase or clarify it—or rephrase it yourself and ask them if that is what they meant.
  • It’s also all right to admit that you’re not sure about the answer to a question—sometimes a lively discussion can ensue if you turn the question over to the class.
  • Try to give everyone who wants to ask a question a turn. Don’t just “call on” friends.

XI. After your seminar, take time to assess your “performance.”

  • Ask friends in the class and the professor for their honest opinions.
    1. Pose specific questions: Did you cover enough material? Did you allow enough—or too much—time for questions and discussion?
  • We improve only by asking for, and positively acting on, constructive feedback.