How to Give an Oral Presentation

There are few abilities that will benefit you more than good communication skills. Being able to give an effective oral presentation will be a tremendous asset for you no matter what you do following graduation from college.

To some extent oral communication skills reflect an individual's personality. While it is helpful to pay attention to how others present themselves orally, it is usually not a good idea to try to copy someone else's style. What works for someone else, may not work for you. It is good, however, to learn by watching others present. This does not mean to copy others but to learn from others by seeing what they do, and do not do, well. Although there is no single, surefire method for giving an effective oral presentation, there are a few principles that one should follow. Below are some suggestions:

Organize and Create Your Presentation. Creating an organized oral presentation can be guided by following some simple steps.
First, create an outline for your presentation, just as you would for a paper;
Next, select the graphics you will include in the talk and put them in order according to the outline;
Then, develop a phrase, concept, sentence, or take-home idea to go along with each visual to make sure the audience grasps the importance of it;
Finally, consider a closing summary or synthesis of the ideas you want to emphasize most.

Use Visual Aids and Technology. Visual aids should be used in most oral presentations. These may include handouts, overhead projections, or computer-driven graphics. Visuals not only contribute to your presentation by helping the audience grasp the meaning of your presentation, but they also help listeners stay interested by giving them something to which they can relate. By using their eyes and ears, the audience stays more focused on the topic. Be sure to minimize the number of text-only slides and emphasize graphic slides. Clifton, 1978, can provide helpful insights into this process. Furthermore, learn how to use the microphone, if available. Practice with the computer system and the laser pointer in order to be proficient before the first slide comes on!

Know Your Audience. Know your audience! Without a doubt, one of the most important things to keep in mind before giving a presentation is who will be listening to it. Will it be a group of peers, a class of high school students, your church congregation, or experts in the field? Also, it may be important to consider why the audience is there. Is the audience expecting something from you? If so you must find a way to include their expectations in your presentation. To be effective, attempt to assess your audience‟s knowledge, experience and interest in the subject. In what aspects of your subject will they be most interested? If you talk over the audience's head, you will lose them. New information will keep your audience‟s attention. It is your job to develop their interest. There are many ways to lose your audience. If you do not consider your audience before preparing your presentation, you will not be as effective as you could have been.

Generate Momentum. Nothing will lose an audience more quickly than a talk that does not seem to be going anywhere. The audience should feel some momentum when listening to a presentation. A presentation should have a clear beginning, a middle, and an ending, and the listener should always feel that progress is being made along this path. It is not always necessary to describe to the listener the path that will be taken (e.g., „first I will explain this, then I will compare this, and finally...‟), but you need to provide the listener with periodic road signs. Examples of road signs are comments such as: „To answer these questions, we conducted the following experiment', „We have several interpretations of our findings', „In conclusion‟. Such comments indicate to the listener that the talk is about to move another step along the path. Moreover, they actually tell the listener what the next section of the talk concerns.

Know Your Presentation. You cannot know your presentation and the material you are presenting too well. This does not mean that you have to include absolutely everything you know in the presentation. This will prepare you for follow-up questions and give you the confidence to present the information without the audience „losing faith‟ in you or your talk. Rehearsing just a few times can make the presentation less stressful and more enjoyable because you know approximately how long the talk will be, and you have been able to correct any „bad‟ or unclear parts of the talk. Also, this gives one the opportunity to add anything that was inadvertently left out. In some formal settings it is acceptable, even advisable, to write out your presentation and to read it before the group. This, too, requires rehearsal – even more than the less formal presentation.

Be Enthusiastic. As a speaker, it is your job to create a sense of energy throughout the room. If you are not interested or excited about your topic, at least pretend that you are. You can be sure people will lose interest if you seem bored by your own presentation. Without a doubt, an animated speaker will have an easier time capturing and holding the audience's attention. Vary your inflection, the loudness of your voice and the length of your pauses. A relentless monotone is sure to promote daydreaming among your audience.

Also some “Do’s”. Dress accordingly (this goes along with knowing your audience); speak clearly; keep an eye on the clock; practice ahead of time; be responsive to the audience (if you sense you are losing your audience move along a little quicker to the next section); use appropriate hand gestures.

And some “Don'ts”. Don't speak too quickly; don't speak too softly or tentatively; don‟t wave the laser pointer wildly – point at the particular spot of interest; don‟t jiggle the change in your pocket (or use any other distracting habits). Turn OFF your cell phone! Avoid the tendency to insert phrases such as “umm”, “like”, “yuh know?”or “OK?”; they are bush league idiosyncrasies that convey no information. Learn to make a quiet pause in your speaking as you finish a topic or consider your next topic. Audiences do not expect “stream of conscientiousness” brain dumps so be quiet for a moment and prepare your next thoughts, “yuh know?”

And finally, try to have fun. Yes, believe it or not, engaging an audience with some new information, a new perspective, perhaps with a few jokes interspersed, can be a very enjoyable experience. Good luck!! References: Clifton. H.E., 1978. How to keep an audience attentive, alert, and around for the conclusions at a scientific meeting. Journal of Sedimentary Petrology, 48(1):1-5. This UFI (Useful Flier of Information) was originally developed and written by M. A. Davis at Macalester College and revised by Jesse Emilo at St. Lawrence University during Geowriting, Sept. 13, 2004 and by J.M. Erickson and his Geowriting class Nov. 17, 2010, for the benefit of students.