The oral presentation
Part of your education at university is to develop good speaking and presentation skills, which will be useful in both your academic and professional life.
You may be required to develop and deliver an oral presentation by yourself or with other students, and to answer questions from the audience about your presentation. To do this successfully you need to plan before you start developing your presentation.
This tutorial will guide you through the process of planning, developing and delivering an oral presentation.
To get a good mark for an oral presentation, you need to put a great deal of thought and effort into planning the presentation and designing the visual aids, as well as practising the presentation until you are fluent.
This tutorial will cover:
Planning your presentation
How does the experience of listening to the performance differ from reading the text? Drag each of the description cards below into the appropriate box: reading or listening.
Did the different ways of experiencing the speech affect your reaction to it? What are the implications of this for planning a presentation? Consider structure, content selection, delivery and timing.
Purpose of the assignment
Your lecturer will have set the assignment with one or more particular educational purposes in mind, apart from assessing your knowledge of the topic. For example:
- to develop or assess your critical thinking or analytical abilities
- to improve or assess your information research skills
- to practice or assess your verbal communication skills.
If your presentation is being assessed, read the assessment criteria carefully. Keep these in mind when selecting your content and planning how to present it.
The topic of your presentation will usually be explained in the assignment instructions. However, you also need to be clear about the objective (what you want the presentation to achieve), which will affect the way you present it. Common objectives are:
- to inform or educate the audience on a topic
- to convince the audience that your point of view is valid
- to assure the audience of your knowledge or expertise
- to persuade the audience to take a particular action.
Most presentations involve a combination of these.
To clarify in your mind the purpose of your own presentation, write it down in a simple sentence or a few dot points. Your purpose statement forms a framework for your planning and will help you address your task.
If your purpose statement includes phrases such as: persuade the audience to...; convince the audience that...; inspire the audience to..., you are probably on the right track. If your purpose statement includes a phrase such as: to inform the audience about..., you might want to consider whether there is a further purpose; why do they need to be informed?, how do you expect them to benefit, or what do you expect them to do with the information?
Know your audience
As well as your own purpose in presenting, you need consider your audience’s purpose in listening. Who are they? Why are they there? The content, scope and style of your presentation will be affected by your audience's characteristics and needs, as well as your overall purpose.
Consider the following:
|Audience characteristics||Audience needs|
Expert or non-expert?
Your peer group (First-year students, postgraduates, academic staff)?
General public or a community group?
A client in the industry (as part of a mock pitch)?
What do they already know about your topic?
What do they need to know?
What do they want to know?
What do they not need to know?
Your audience's characteristics and needs influence the depth and amount of detail to include. With an informed audience, for example, you can skim over the basics, but if they don't know much about your topic, you need to provide background information.
Developing your presentation
Like stories, essays and reports, formal presentations are structured. They have a beginning (introduction), a middle (body), and an end (conclusion). These three sections should flow logically from each other. This needs extra care in a group presentation. These should be clearly linked.
If group members have prepared their sections independently, the group should do the fine-tuning together, making sure that:
- there is no overlapping or repeated content
- the various sections are of similar depth and breadth
- visuals are used in a consistent way
- there is an overall cohesion to the presentation.
Your introduction should capture the attention of your audience and 'hook' them into your topic. You could start with an image, an anecdote, or a problem that will not only introduce your topic but also engage your audience’s interest.
Some useful opening phrases include:
"This is the story of…"
"There are over 31 species of…"
"Have you ever wondered what would happen if…"
Avoid "Today I’m going to talk about…". This is a dull, predictable beginning and unlikely to engage your listeners.
Once you have your audience’s attention:
- State the main focus of your talk
- Briefly explain the structure
One way of doing this is to start with the context or background, then explain the specific question or problem and how your presentation will provide an answer or solution. Finish the introduction by outlining the structure of your talk.
"I’m going to look at some possible explanations..."
"There are three main components…"
"I’ll begin by describing…"
"Then I’m going to demonstrate how…"
"This will lead to…"
"Finally, I will focus on the following questions..."
Here are some examples of presentations that have very good beginnings. They introduce the topic in context, convey its importance and engage our interest.
An interesting/amazing fact
Watch the first 20 seconds of Shaz's presentation
A compelling story
Watch the first 24 seconds of Natalia's presentation
Watch the first 28 seconds of Evie's presentation
Body of the presentation
The body of the presentation develops the topic by expanding the plan in a logical sequence.
Because listeners’ attention can fluctuate it is important to regularly remind the audience of the structure of the talk and where you are within the structure. You should also verbally mark transitions, key points, examples, etc. Some useful phrases include:
The conclusion should be clearly linked to the introduction, showing how it has addressed the issue. Mention the implications of the conclusions you have drawn and suggest a way forward if appropriate. End on a strong note and aim to leave a lasting impression on your audience. Indicate clearly to your listeners that you are concluding.
Some useful phrases to signal that you are concluding include:
"To sum up...' / ‘In summary"
"To recap the main points…"
"So where does this leave us?"
"Our main point is that…"
"We have raised the following questions:…"
"Our study has shown that…"
"We believe our study may be the first step in…"
"Thank you for listening. Are there any questions?"
Preparing your presentation
Visual aids stimulate interest and make it easier for the audience to understand your presentation. Visual aids can include models, prototypes, posters, video clips and images.
Using presentation software
Nowadays there is a tendency to use presentation software such as PowerPoint as a matter of course. What do you think is the main purpose of such software?
Do not confuse your software slides with your presentation. The presentation is what you do and say. Slides, when used, should support or illustrate what you say.
They can help the audience :
- understand abstract concepts
- visualise structures or processes which are hard to explain with words alone (charts/diagrams)
- compare information (tables, graphs).
Slides should be concise, simple and relevant, and complement (not repeat) what you say. Text should be used sparingly.
Technical problems sometimes arise when you are presenting so you need to have a backup plan. Photographs or handouts may have to substitute for your slides in an emergency.
Designing presentation slides
There is an art to designing effective presentation slides. Consider the following design features.
Don’t have so many slides that you have to race through them. This indicates poor planning. Generally, one slide per minute is about right, but of course you can vary how long you spend on each.
Delivering the presentation
Effective delivery of a presentation involves:
- suitable dress and grooming for the context
- confident but not cocksure demeanour
- engaging style that is friendly but not too familiar
- relaxed but dignified posture and gestures
- clear, audible speech
- plenty of eye contact.
The content of your presentation is not the only thing that you communicate to your audience. Their reaction will also be affected by your manner of delivery.
What effect did the presenters' behaviour have in the two videos? For each of the possible audience responses listed below, select the behaviours that could elicite that response.
How to be confident, relaxed and fluent
We all feel nervous presenting in front of others, especially when we are being marked. A little nervousness can inspire the extra effort needed to do well, but debilitating nerves have the opposite effect.
What do you notice about his use of notes? How do you think he came to be so confident and fluent?
The only ways to overcome nerves are:
- to know your content so well that you barely need notes
- to practise your talk aloud and in front of a mirror
- not just once but over and over
- to ‘road test’ your presentation in front of friends or family.
Practice should include not only what you are going to say, but also how you are going to present yourself. Consider:
Check pronunciation of difficult vocabulary. Incorrect or stumbling pronunciation will diminish your credibility.
Guiding the audience
Use signalling words and phrases to indicate the purpose of each part of your presentation and how it relates to the overall topic, and to guide your audience through the transition from one section to the next.
Long presentations and group presentations
In a long presentation keeping the audience involved can be a challenge.
Here are some strategies to try:
- Divide the presentation into stages (i.e. Introduction, Information Stage 1, Activity 1, Information Stage 2, Activity 2, etc.)
- Consider providing tasks for the audience; this provides a change of pace and reduces the pressure on you
- Possibilities include questionnaires, problem solving, role-plays, discussion points
- Add variety by including individual, pair or small group tasks
- Give answers or feedback at the end of each activity
Keeping track of time is another challenge. You may be penalised for going over time, or be unable to finish. It is important to:
- time each section of the presentation allowing for transitions, questions and activities, if used
- rehearse the presentation thoroughly and practise keeping to time.
Group presentations require extra thought, preparation and practise to create a cohesive and professional impression.
- Rehearse group presentations with all members present.
- Time the full presentation including handovers.
- The first presenter should introduce all group members and outline the structure of the talk.
- Each presenter should play an equal part in the presentation.
- Script and practise the handovers between presenters.
- Format all presentation slides and handouts in the same style.
Get off to a strong start by putting your best speaker first.
Here are some challenges that arise when delivering a group presentation and some suggestions for addressing them.
Answering audience questions
Question time can be the most daunting part of a presentation. The following strategies can help:
- Listen carefully then repeat or paraphrase the question so you are sure you understand it and so everyone in the audience hears it.
- If it is a long question, try breaking it up into sections, and answer them one by one.
- Don’t be afraid to ask the audience member to repeat or rephrase the question if you don’t understand it.
- Allow yourself time to think so that your answer is coherent and to the point.
- If you don’t know the answer say so.
- Ask if anyone in the audience can answer it.
- Offer to find out the answer and let the questioner know.
- Ask the questioner if they can offer any guidance.
- Never let someone think they have asked a ‘dumb’ question. Acknowledge that the question is worth asking by using a phrase such as: ‘That’s an interesting point’.
Consider what questions you might be asked and prepare your answers. Having a slide ready makes an excellent impression.
Here are some final tips to help make sure all goes well:
- Before the day of the presentation:
- Practise in the actual venue so that you are confident with the equipment.
- Make sure the computer will open your file.
- If you are using your own laptop, ensure you are able to connect it to the projector.
- Check the layout of the room; where should you stand to avoid blocking the screen?
- Will you need to dim any lights, or close the curtains?
- On the day of the presentation:
- Arrive early to set up and check the technology.
- Have a friend or IT professional on hand to help if things go wrong.