Nervous about an upcoming presentation? Wanting to give your absolute best? Learning how to deliver an effective presentation is a key skill that is not only useful for your studies, but also for your career. Although presenting can seem daunting at first, it gets easier with practice.
In some ways, a presentation has a similar structure to a report or an essay – it should include an introduction, main body and conclusion. If you are unsure about how to begin, a good way is to introduce yourself (even if you think your audience know who you are!) and outline which topics you are going to discuss in your presentation. Sometimes using a quote is an excellent way of beginning the discussion. A good rule of thumb is to aim for one slide per minute.
Depending on the context of the presentation, you could consider giving out hand-outs, if you believe this will enhance the audience’s understanding. Aim to avoid unnecessary jargon and acronyms that could obfuscate your meaning. Again, using anecdotes and humour can be useful as a way of getting the audience to warm to you, but should be used in moderation.
If you are presenting with someone else, make sure that you are clear about how the talk will be divided and who will be in charge of each section.
If the presentation is being assessed as part of a university context, look at the marking criteria before you start planning your speech. Refer back to the criteria throughout to ensure that you are meeting these specifications.
If you are giving a lengthy presentation, it is going to be very difficult and time consuming to attempt to memorise your speech. This is where cue cards come in handy. On a small piece of card, make a note of the key phrases and facts within your presentation. This enables you to quickly glance down at your cue cards whenever you feel unsure about what you’re saying next. Cue cards also look more professional than carrying around a large sheaf of pages with your notes.
Practice makes perfect
Once you have finished your presentation, it’s time to practice, practice, practice! Ideally these practices will be in front of family or friends, who will be able to give you feedback. It can also be helpful to practice in front of the mirror.
Whilst practising, keep a careful eye on the time. If you have been given a time limit, there is no guarantee that you will be allowed to speak beyond your allotted time. Beforehand decide what could be skipped if you do find yourself running out of time.
Be aware that after your presentations your audience may want to ask questions. If you can anticipate some of these questions ahead of time, you can start to think about potential answers. If you need to think for a moment before responding, or ask for clarification on what is being asked, this is fine.
If you are struggling with nerves significantly, you could consider joining Toastmasters. This is an international organisation that helps its members develop their communication and public speaking skills, with many branches in London.
Whilst practicing, be mindful of eye contact. Too little eye contact suggests nervousness, whilst too much may be intimidating. Look around the room while you are speaking to avoid focusing on one listener. Stand up straight and try to be aware of what you are doing with your arms. If you have ever watched a TED talk, you will have seen some extremely presenters speak; think about how they stand on the stage and try to mimic this.
Even if you are nervous, try to smile and appear enthusiastic about what you are presenting. Dressing smartly may make you feel more confident and give the audience a positive initial impression. Many people have a tendency to speak faster when they are nervous; breathe and aim to speak slowly and clearly.
Aim to vary the tone of your voice; a monotonous tone may send your audience to sleep.
Avoiding ‘um’ and ‘er’
These are known as filler words and often occur when a speaker is nervous or thinking about what to say next. Although they are a natural part of speech, try to avoid these if you can. It can help if you know your presentation very well in advance – this is why practising is important.
Some people have a tendency to repeat certain idiomatic phrases when they are nervous - for example, ‘obviously’ and ‘to be frank.’ Ask your friends and family if you are unsure if you do this. It can be useful to be aware of your own foibles when it comes to speech.
PowerPoint is a common tool for using presentations, but there are certain pointers to follow. Try not to include too much text on to individual slides, as the audience will not read it. Likewise, if you include too many flashy transitions and animations, this can be off-putting.
If you have ever watched a presentation whereby the speaker simply reads off slides of text, this is known by death by PowerPoint. Try to avoid this by planning your presentation first and creating the slides second – PowerPoint is a visual aid and should not be the focus. Be aware of where you are standing; inexperienced presenters are apt to accidentally stand in front of the PowerPoint.
Although PowerPoint is the most common piece of software used for presentations, there are many other alternatives, including Prezi and Keynote.
If you have used PowerPoint and saved it on a USB, that’s great – but what if happens if you lose your USB? To be safe, it is advisable to save your PowerPoint in a variety of locations, to avoid any mishaps on the day.
After the presentation
You might feel like you flew through the presentation in an awe-inspiring fashion, or perhaps you dissolved into a puddle of nerves. Whatever the outcome, always seek feedback. This is your best way of improving for next time. Remember that ultimately your lecturers want you to succeed.
Taking the opportunity to develop your ability to speak in front of people, is one of the most valuable things you could do while studying at University. This could build upon skills that you have developed previously, through prior study, giving presentations while at work or even through being involved with a community organisation.