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General guidelines i


01 Why do I have to give oral presentations?
02 Why train in oral presentation skills?
03 Planning
04 Preparation Yourself   /   Your material   /   Your notes   /   Visual aids, handouts
05 Practise
06 Presentation Posture   /   Pace   /   Voice projection   /   Eye contact
07 Sources and further reading

01 Why do I have to give oral presentations?

Oral presentations are a common and accepted part of many degree schemes. The ability to deliver an effective presentation is one of those key skills that you will be expected to have obtained and be able to employ in multiple settings throughout your career, whether it be in academia, private business, politics, the public sector, or the arts.

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02 Why training in oral presentation skills?

Preparing and delivering an effective oral presentation requires the development and use of a set of skills that are distinct from those required to write a good essay or dissertation, for example.

Handbooks and training manuals point out that communication is:

    • 7% verbal
    • 38% vocal
    • 55% non-vocal

Since oral presentation is all about communication, this means that preparing an effective oral presentation demands attention to all these aspects of communication, not just the verbal content of the oral presentation.

It means that, aside from the content of your presentation and your verbal skill in presenting it, you also have to think about vocal and non-vocal communication and presentation skills; about your audience and how your presentation will be received and assessed; and about how you present yourself.

For this reason, oral presentations require specific kinds of:

    • Planning
    • Preparation
    • Practice
    • Presentation

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03 Planning

Why, What, Who?

One handbook sums up the type of planning that is required for an effective oral presentation in the three questions: Why? What? Who? (Townsend 1993).

The point is that, first of all, you need to think about why you are giving the presentation. Is it:

    • To provide information? (e.g. a summary of or report about a book)
    • To defend a position? (e.g. for or against Britain joining the euro)
    • To start a discussion? (e.g. set out the points to be covered; provoke)
    • To persuade? (bring the class to your point of view)
    • To teach? (cover a particular topic comprehensively)
    • To fulfil a course requirement?

Whatever the answer, you must be absolutely clear about your purpose or objective in giving the presentation, and organise it accordingly.

You also need to be clear as to what you want to get across to your audience. You should determine and focus on the main message(s) of your presentation and on how you can best communicate it to your audience. Once you are clear on this you need:

    • Something to catch and hold the audience's attention. This can be a visual aid or an organising device of some kind (slides, OHP, flip chart, graphics, etc.). It could be an analogy, an example or a story to make a bridge between your message and the audience's experience, knowledge or interests.
    • A clear account of your main message - your presentation should be organised around this.
    • No more than 4-5 key points clearly set out and organised. Think about the time that you have been given for the presentation and how much your audience will be able to absorb in that time.

In addition to thinking about why you are going to give the presentation and what your key points will be, you need to think about and tailor your message to your audience:

    • Who will be listening to your presentation?
    • What do they already know about the subject?
    • Are they interested? Do I need to create an interest?
    • How fast/easily can they absorb my key points?
    • What do they expect me to say?
    • What is their mind-set?

You may have been given guidelines for your presentation. If not, or if they are not clear, ask for guidelines or clarification.

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04 Preparation

Preparation is everything. If you know your subject well and have planned your presentation along the lines suggested above, you are well on the way to giving a good presentation. However, preparing an effective presentation also includes preparing:

    • Yourself
    • Your material
    • Your notes
    • Visual aids, handouts

Yourself: Many students become nervous and anxious about oral presentations and try to avoid them. This is understandable when you remember the way communication was described above. To a certain extent, when you are giving an oral presentation you are presenting, not just your material, but yourself as well. This is less the case in a university environment than on the job or the job market, so university is a good place to address any anxieties you may have about giving oral presentations. For more about this, read Rowena Macaulay’s advice on developing effective presentation skills, particularly on the myth of the critical audience. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

    • Good planning and preparation go a long way to building confidence from the outset; this also includes rehearsing your presentation prior to delivery.
    • Your audience at university will generally be on your side: they will want you to succeed.
    • Acknowledge your nerves and try to manage them by taking calming action before the presentation (by stretching your muscles, breathing exercises, meditating, taking a brisk walk, etc.).
    • Identify your nervous symptoms in advance (e.g. fiddling with hair, pacing, avoiding eye contact, talking too fast, hugging your body, etc.) and practise delivery without them.
    • If you are not already familiar with the room in which you will be giving the presentation, visit it beforehand and stand where you will be standing.

Your material: know it, understand it, organise or structure it. Just as a good essay requires an introduction, argument and conclusion, a good presentation requires an opening, a core message and an ending.

    • Opening: Divide your opening into two sections:
    • i. General: build a rapport, get your audience’s attention.
      ii. Proper: introduce the subject, explain what you will be covering, outline your main message.
    • Message: Only 4-5 key points, link each point to the main message and to the next point. Summarise a section at a time. Give frequent examples. Illustrate and support with evidence and visuals.
    • Ending: Summarise and conclude. A recap, not a repeat. Emphasise major points. Make a suggestion or proposal for further research. Thank the audience for listening. Make sure there is a definite ending. It should have an impact, like the opening.

Think about TV News:
The Headlines (what is coming up)
The Content (the stories)
The Main News again (what you have said)
And finally (a nice ending)
(Hill, 1998)

Your notes: Use keywords, drawings and cards. Don’t write an essay or a speech (unless this is specifically required). Type in large print (to act as prompts). Do not read: hold notes in front of you. Become very familiar with them.

Visual aids, handouts:

    • Make sure that any necessary equipment is available, that it works, and that you know how to use it.
    • Transparencies and handouts should be prepared (word-processed) and printed in advance.
    • Use consistent print and check your grammar and spelling.
    • Transparencies or power-point projections should be kept short and simple: use headings and a few main points, facts or figures.
    • Use them to emphasise what you are saying.
    • Don't stand or walk in front of the screen. Handouts should not, unless specifically required, be a verbatim account of your presentation or have an essay style. They should contain a summary of your message and the key points of your presentation - in point form with appropriate headings and sub-headings.
    • Be aware that visual aids or handouts given in advance may distract attention from your delivery.

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05 Practice
    • Practise your presentation out loud for timing so that you will stick to the assigned time. You may be assessed for time management.
    • If at all possible, practise in front of an audience: friend(s), fellow students on the course, study skills advisor, etc.
    • Ask for feedback on your delivery, clarity, relevance, impact, organisation, logical flow, convincing evidence, opening and ending, pace, mannerisms, etc.
    • Record or tape your presentation and play it back to yourself.

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06 Presentation

If you have done your planning and preparation, if you know your material and have organised or structured it appropriately, if you have practised your timing and delivery, you will already have laid the groundwork for a successful presentation. Rely on these and the confidence they bring. Also, pay attention to the following:

Posture: Preferably stand (straight, not slouching). This sets you apart from the audience, enhances the ‘performance’ aspect of the presentation and is considered more professional. It allows you to remain mobile, important if you need access to visual aids and if movement helps keep your body relaxed.

Pace: Speak slowly, considerably more slowly than in normal conversation. Pause at appropriate moments.

Voice projection: Speak up and out to your audience in a voice louder than your usual. Check your pronunciation beforehand and don’t swallow words. Vary your tone and pitch. Repeat key phrases with different vocal emphasis.

Eye contact: Look up and out to your audience. Rather than focus on a point on the back wall or a friendly-looking member of the audience, try to make eye contact with audience members — try to scan the group in an even way.

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07 Sources and further reading

Drew S & Bingham R (1997). Student Skills: Tutor's Handbook. Aldershot: Gower Publishing Ltd.

BPRO (1998). How to be a Confident Presenter, A Course Manual.

Hill W (1998). (1998). ‘Sharpen your short presentations’. AUA Workshop, AUA Conference.

Townsend J (1993). The Business Presenter’s Pocketbook, 5th edition. Alresford, Hampshire: Management Pocketbooks Ltd.

‘Developing Effective Presentation Skills’. Department of Sociology, University of Essex

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Authored by Dr Theresa Crowley, Department of Government





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