Giving an oral presentation

What is an oral presentation?

Oral presentations are amongst the most common form of assessment at university along with written assignments and examinations. A formal oral presentation will almost certainly be required during your studies in the Faculty of IT. This could include presenting a summary of issues, reporting on an assignment,  reporting  on  progress in your research, or responding to a set task. Oral presentations are done either individually or in a small, pre-selected group.

What does it include?

There are three main elements to any oral presentation: the words you say, the manner in which you say them and the visual support you provide. You will be assessed on all three elements. You will usually be expected to respond to audience questions at the end of your presentation and may be assessed  on  your response. Any content which you have sourced from reading material must be cited and referenced accurately.

What is its purpose?

The main purpose of most presentations is to persuade the audience of the validity of an argument you have prepared. Presentations are an effective way to demonstrate your research and preparation in a concise and focused format, and involve skills that you will need in your future workplace. Even a  job  interview is essentially a presentation about a very familiar topic - yourself.

What do academics expect you to demonstrate in your oral presentation?

  • deep understanding of the topic through explanation of it to others
  • exposure of your work to the scrutiny of teachers and peers
  • improvement in your ability to articulate an argument
  • contribution to the learning of your peers
  • demonstration of research skills
  • communication of your work to a wider audience other than via written work
  • skills to defend an academic position
  • development of workplace skills and skills necessary for lifelong learning. Group presentations afford the chance to develop skills in the areas of negotiation, leadership, and organisation as well as interpersonal skills: all highly prized by employers.

Structure and cohesion

Oral presentations need to be structured similarly to essays in that they require a clear introduction, body section and conclusion. In other words, you need to tell your audience what you're going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you told them. Your introduction establishes  the  tone and is therefore key. Elements you may provide:

  • an introduction to the speaker(s). Include a title slide listing the presenters' names
  • some background information (you need to 'set the scene')
  • definition of key terms
  • a statement of the relevance and significance of your topic to the overall field of study
  • a clear statement of the overall argument
  • a clear outline of what you'll cover in the presentation.

The body section will depend entirely on your topic and its scope. Let your research and your purpose guide you. If presenting an argument, consider presenting the reasons for your academic position in order of importance.

Your conclusion is the last thing you'll say (besides answering questions) before your tutors make their final judgement on your grade. Remind the audience of your purpose and how you achieved it, and offer some of your own final insights into the topic. After all, you are now an expert on it!

Presentations can be difficult to understand if they are not cohesive. Good presenters always guide their audience carefully with 'signposts': language and delivery strategies that alert attendees to your purpose and progress at every stage. Take a look at how Steve Jobs uses these 'signposts' (from 1.55 - 2.30).

Tone

It is important to carefully consider your audience when preparing and delivering an oral presentation. While the language may be less formal than that used in academic writing, a level of formality is still expected even if you are being assessed by an audience made up of fellow students andtutors/lecturers.  The  language of the discipline should be incorporated, but it should not be a strain for your peers to understand it. Be sure to define key terms that may be unfamiliar to your audience.

Design of visual support material

It is important to consider your slides from your audience's point of view. You should make your slides SIMPLE, RELEVANT, and CLEAN. Tips include:

  • Keep the design of your slides simple and professional. No more than one relevant image per slide
  • Use a sans serif font such as Arial - it is easier to read from a distance
  • Make sure your font is at least 20pt in size - smaller fonts are harder to see
  • Use a high-contrast colour scheme (e.g. black on white or white on dark blue)
  • Try to ensure that each slide only has one main point or message
  • Make sure all of the headings for your diagrams are clearly visible
  • Use bullet points instead of full sentences
  • Keep any text effects relevant and simple. Use them to reinforce meaning, e.g. use 'Appear' for each regular bullet point and 'Zoom' for impact
  • Use graphs/charts to present complex information, but be sure to explain their relevance and significance clearly and thoroughly.

How can I make my presentation interesting and engaging?

While some humour is helpful, it's not actually necessary. Think of orators like Barrack Obama or Steve Jobs - they rarely if ever use wit, yet they are renowned for their public speaking ability. What is necessary is engaging your audience, grabbing and holding their attention and keeping them interested and involved in your research and argument. Some strategies that can be used to do this:

  • consider asking a few questions of your audience (be sure they are the kind of question that will get a response! Think about points or issues they have in common)
  • be enthusiastic - this is your chance to shine, and enthusiasm is infectious!
  • demonstrate from the beginning how your topic affects your audience
  • explain your interest in the topic
  • be sure to provide a clear outline of your presentation so that attendees can accompany you on your journey
  • use positive body language and maintain eye contact with your audience

Nerves and being prepared

Everybody feels nervous before a presentation, even the most confident public speaker. Being nervous means you care about the quality of your work. Harness your nerves and use the adrenalin to energise your speech. The best way to control nerves is to be prepared. Know your presentation very well, rehearse  it  thoroughly  and this will minimise the chance of anything within your control going wrong.

It is a good idea to check the venue beforehand to make sure that the setup is as you expected and the equipment is working. It is also a good idea to have a backup of your presentation in your email in case your USB is faulty.

Delivery

Audiences will make a judgement on your effectiveness as a presenter within the first minute of your speech. It's often said that 50% of a presentation is judged on content and the other 50% on delivery. Here are some tips on how to deliver your presentation effectively:

  • speak clearly... and not too fast or too slow
  • check and rehearse the pronunciation of words you are unsure of
  • maintain eye contact. Try not to focus on your tutor(s) to the exclusion of others. For the audience to feel engaged, it's important for you to at least glance at each part of the room regularly
  • use your voice to its full advantage. This means speaking loudly enough that everyone can hear, but don't shout! Direct your voice so that the furthest person from you can hear you as though in a conversation with you
  • stand straight, shoulders back and minimise hand movement/gestures (they can be very distracting)
  • have a small bottle of water in case you need a drink
  • be aware of any verbal tics you have. Words like ah, um and ya know can result in the audience paying more attention to them than what you're saying. Record yourself rehearsing and consciously eliminate these tics if they are prominent.

Dos and Don'ts

  • DO NOT read from the slides on the screen. You need to be connecting to the audience.
  • DO have notes that you can refer to...but DO NOT read them word for word
  • DO rehearse your speech as often as needed. Use a friend, housemate or family member as your trial audience. If this is not practical, video yourself using your phone or webcam. Pay attention to how long you speak (time limits are usually strictly enforced)
  • DO NOT put too much information on a slide or fill the screen with words - the audience will read them and ignore you. DO NOT make text smaller to try and squeeze it onto a slide
  • DO dress appropriately depending on the formality expected of the presentation

Question time:

  • DO NOT try to answer a question you don't understand. Ask for clarification. Remember you are in control
  • DO predict the kinds of questions you may be asked and practise answering them
  • Remember to always be polite and friendly

More information

Devising and Giving Oral Presentations

Online tutorial on Oral Presentations

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