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Tips and Strategies for Public Presentations
PhD Subprogram in Social-Personality Psychology, CUNY Graduate Center
Gender Equity Project, Hunter College
Public speaking can be an exciting and rewarding experience, or an intimidating and anxiety-provoking one. It is an important activity for academics to be good at because it is one way for others to learn about your work and for you to receive immediate feedback on it.
It is also a difficult experience to avoid! The following tips and strategies are intended to increase the likelihood of your doing it well and enjoying it. They will help you improve the quality of your presentations and reduce any anxiety you may have about speaking in public.
The tips are divided into 5 phases of presentation making, but the same three tasks guide each phase: prepare, organize, and practice.
I. Getting started
Decide whether you are willing and able to give the presentation. a.
Will the presentation benefit you and your career or should you turn it down? b.
Do you have enough material and data for a talk? Do you have the time to prepare and plan a good presentation? c.
Does the date of the presentation conflict with other important events in your work or personal life? If you must travel to give the talk, can you afford the time away from your other work?
Take the time to seriously consider these and other issues. Consult more experienced colleagues. Be sure that you can devote sufficient time and energy to give a good talk. A mediocre presentation is worse than no presentation.
Find out as much as possible about your audience. a.
Who is likely to attend the talk (students, faculty, administrators, mixed crowd)?
What points do you want to get across during your presentation? How can you make them accessible for the majority of the audience? c.
Will the audience regard you as a credible speaker or will you have to establish your credibility?
Good presentations are tailored to meet the interests and knowledge level of the given audience. People who come to your talk are already interested in what you have to say. Your job as speaker is to keep them interested.
Make an outline. Outlining will help you organize the material you want to present and decide what the main points of the talk will be. You may find that you have too much or too little information for the time allotted to your presentation. A good outline can help make the process of editing or expanding the content of your presentation easier.
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II. Structuring the talk
Once you have outlined the material for your talk you may notice that it falls into a 3part structure common to many presentations and papers;
. If it does not, you may want to consider using this simple structure. It will help you to create a streamlined and effective presentation.
—Within the first 3 minutes of a talk you want to capture the audience’ s attention, introduce your topic, and establish your credibility. This is a lot to accomplish in such a short time, but strong openings make for strong presentations. a.
Try to start with an interesting fact or figure that will both grab the audience’s attention and establish your expertise in the topic area.
Briefly outline the content of the talk for the audience. If they can anticipate what information is coming next, the audience will find it easier to follow your presentation.
Some people recommend starting with a personal story, witty comment, or joke. However, do this only if it is appropriate given your topic and if you feel
2) secure speaking to groups. Otherwise, it wastes precious time.
—Although this will be the longest part of the presentation, it is also the least demanding. You are an expert on your topic. All you have to do is share your knowledge with the audience. a.
You need not write out and memorize your entire presentation. Instead, try preparing note cards containing the main points. Or, create slides that outline the talk for the audience and use the “notes” function in Powerpoint as your guide. Whatever method you use, try to avoid reading anything verbatim unless you can write in a conversational tone and read with good
intonation. Reading can get monotonous and tedious for both you and the audience.
Use your outline to create a sub-structure within the body of the talk.
Organize the material in a way that is logical. For scientific talks this often means following the
format used in writing papers.
Remember to adjust the technical content and level of your talk to your c.
audience. Fellow scientists are likely to be more interested in a detailed discussion of method than are administrators.
Conclusion—The close of the talk is as important as the opening. Summarize the relevant theoretical background, your main points, as well as any findings or new ideas you presented. Try to leave the audience with a “take home message”, a short statement that ties together the entire presentation.
The audience will not retain many of the details from the body of the talk. But an attention grabbing opening and a strong conclusion will help them remember your main points and major findings.
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III. Preparing for the presentation
Being adequately prepared for your presentation will significantly increase your confidence in your ability to give an effective presentation and make it more likely that you will enjoy the experience.
1) Once you have organized your talk, practice. Practice is the best preparation you can give yourself. It will dramatically improve the quality of your presentation. a.
Familiarize yourself with the organization and details of the presentation by giving practice talks to yourself. The more you practice the less you will have to rely on written notes. Practice until you feel your talk has a natural and relaxed flow. b.
Time yourself to make sure that your talk does not go over its time limit. The worst sin you can commit as speaker is to exceed your allotted time. Almost as bad is speeding through your presentation in order to finish on time.
Practice in front of at least one or two other people. Ask for feedback and make use of it. This will help you to identify and revise weak spots you may
3) not notice on your own.
If you are using audio or visual aids be sure to have them ready in advance of the presentation. a.
Go through your aids. Are your slides in the correct order? Is your Powerpoint b.
presentation in the correct format? Are your videos cued to the right spot?
Will you have enough copies of your handouts?
Be sure that the place where you are giving the talk has technical support for the media you plan to use. Are you taking a PC to a primarily Mac campus?
Will your programs be compatible? Does the location have the video equipment you need? If possible, make sure that all the equipment you will need is actually working and that technical support will be available during your talk in case you need it. c.
Be prepared to go low-tech in case something goes wrong. Have overheads as a back-up plan in case you can’t use Powerpoint. Or, bring along a hardcopy of your slides in a 4-6 slide per page format. If need be, you can duplicate these and use them as handouts. Being prepared to handle technical mishaps will make you appear more professional, and help you feel more secure about your presentation.
If possible, survey the location of the talk ahead of time. Does the room have everything you need? Is there a microphone, a podium? Is the room temperature comfortable? A cooler room is somewhat preferable; it will keep the audience from feeling drowsy.
4) Be sure to arrive at your presentation well rested and well fed. Being too tired or too hungry will make it difficult for you to relax and concentrate during your talk.
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5) Dress comfortably and appropriately. Don’t wear overly restrictive clothes or uncomfortable shoes. The more relaxed and comfortable you are the more smoothly your presentation will go.
Preparedness is a key factor in giving effective presentations and enjoying them. The better prepared you are before your presentation the better you will feel about giving it.
IV. Talking to the audience
Talking to a group of people can be an exciting and energizing experience. And, if you are adequately prepared, little can go wrong with your presentation. The key to giving a good talk is being relaxed and keeping the audience engaged.
1) How you give your talk is almost as important as what you say. The audience will find it easier to listen to you the more relaxed you are speaking to them. a.
Do not try talk to the entire audience. Pick a few friendly or familiar faces from the crowd and speak as if you were talking to them. Make eye contact
with these people and other members of the audience, but avoid staring.
Avoid mumbling and project your voice. If you need to, have the volume of the microphone adjusted. Never cover you mouth or face with your hands; this muffles your voice.
Let your body move naturally with the flow of your talk. Avoid keeping your c.
hands in your pockets, holding onto the podium, or standing in one spot.
Project confidence even if you do not feel it. Try not to fiddle with your hair, clothing, or materials. Nervousness and fidgeting distract the audience and make it hard for them to concentrate on what you are saying.
Establish an appropriate pace for your talk. Your audience will get bored if you speak too slowly, but they will miss important points if you speak too quickly. Vary your pace as you go. Talk faster when covering basic ideas, slow down for vital information.
3) Use smooth and logical transitions. The audience will get lost if changes in the content of your talk occur too abruptly. Successive elements of your talk should be clearly linked so that the audience can follow the flow of your presentation. If you’re not sure that you can generate transitions spontaneously, prepare and practice them along with the structure of your talk. Practicing your talk with a small audience will help you determine if your transitions are appropriate and effective.
4) Stand to the left or right of visual aids so that the audience can see them clearly and you can refer to them easily. The audience will get frustrated and tune out if they cannot see the material relevant to what you are saying.
5) Do not go over your allotted time. Leave enough time for your conclusion and for questions, even if it means cutting out some details.
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It is important to be calm while you are speaking to the audience. Give yourself a few minutes before they arrive to mentally prepare for your presentation. Standing too stiffly, talking too softly or too slowly, blocking visual aids, and rushing through your talk will all cause the audience to lose interest in your presentation. Being relaxed will help you to keep their attention.
V. Handling questions
Taking questions can be the most challenging part of a presentation, because it requires you to relinquish some control to the audience. However, remember that even while you are taking questions, you are making the same well-organized points you prepared for.
1) Listen to each question carefully, in its entirety. Do not attempt to answer a question until the questioner has completed asking it. This will show professionalism and respect for the audience, as well as limit misunderstandings.
2) Make sure you are clear about the question being asked. Ask the questioner for a clarification if you need one. Restate the question for the entire audience to hear.
This will give you the opportunity to check your interpretation of the question with the questioner and give you additional time to think about your response.
3) It is acceptable to offer “I don’t know” or “I can’t answer that right now” as a response when you do not have an answer to a particular question. The audience will not expect you to know everything. Declining to answer a given question is better than offering a poor answer.
While you cannot anticipate exactly what questions will be asked, practicing your talk in front of others will help you prepare. Remember that one reason for giving a talk is to learn from the questions and comments of your audience. Some questions may be difficult or hostile. Trust your expertise in your topic area and do not be intimidated by tough questions or thorny audience members. Take advantage of the opportunity to engage intellectually with others who may not necessarily agree with you; they may present an invaluable learning experience. Keep in mind that the person asking a hostile question does not necessarily represent the rest of the audience. A calm response, even if it does not convince the questioner, will demonstrate to the rest of the audience that you can handle questions professionally.
In summary, there are three steps you can take to create a rewarding public speaking experience: prepare, organize, and practice. When you outline your talk, tailor it to the interests and knowledge level of the audience. Organize your presentation into an opening, a body, and a conclusion. Practice your talk so that it flows freely and naturally and you get accustomed to speaking in front of others. Prepare as much as possible in advance. Make sure audio and visual aids are ready and working, and have a back-up plan in case of technical difficulties. Finally, be mentally prepared for your talk, dress comfortably, eat well, and relax. The better prepared you are for your presentation the more enjoyable it will be.
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Possible Further Reading
[Two of the sources are unusual. Their inclusion should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the organizations that are mentioned.]
Calandro, A. (1998). Who me ? Speak in public?
[This has a lot of basic tips that were incorporated into the current paper.]
Radel, J. (1999).
Kansas Univeristy Medical Center on-line tutorial series. http://www.kume.edu/SAH/OTE/jradel/effective.html [This is best for people with very little previous experience giving talks.]
Miller, L. (1999).
The skills of public speaking.
Prepared for the National Bahá’i Committee for the Advancement of Women. http://www.bbfa.org/resources/tools.html [This has many good suggestions after one gets past the religious framework.]
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