I vividly recall my first speech in my public speaking class. The instructor taped our speeches and made us watch the recording. I remember hearing my voice cracking and watching my neck and then my face turn bright red.
By the end of the semester, while I can’t say I was completely comfortable, my last speech was markedly better than my first. I ended up majoring in communication and taught public speaking for close to 20 years, and I always began the first day of class with the story of my first public speech.
Being able to give an effective presentation is essential to your career success. During your graduate program, you’ll present in class and at conferences, and at some conferences there is recognition for giving a strong presentation. When you are on the job market, you’ll probably be required to present as part of the interview -- even for jobs beyond the professoriate. Moreover, giving presentations may be a large part of your job duties.
This may all sound quite intimidating to many of you. But you, too, can master the art of presenting with a few concepts I’ve learned and used over the years.
Keep the audience in mind as you prepare. To do this, ask yourself three questions.
- What do I want them to know/do by the end of my talk?
- What do they already know about my topic?
- What does this have to do with them in particular?
Questions one and two are closely related. Two common mistakes speakers make are not having a clear vision for their intended outcome and trying to cram too much information into the presentation. If you think about it, the goal of any presentation is to encourage more discovery and dialogue. Consider a conference presentation: the goal is to pique interest so they want to have a conversation with you after the presentation and then read your paper later. When you choose the content to share, start with what they know now and what it is possible to explain to them in the time allotted.
A tip I always gave to my students was to cover less information in more depth, rather than trying to cover too much without enough depth. Speakers who try to cover too much information ultimately end up speeding through part of the presentation to get through the content they prepared, and as a result, they lose audience interest.
The most important piece of advice is to consider how the content relates directly to your audience members. I’ve had multiple coaching sessions with people who buried the lead -- meaning it took me asking probing questions to get at why their topic should be of interest to me. As I told my students, there are no boring topics, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bore people with how you present one. Think of the hook for your audience and start there. If you get their attention at the beginning, you have a better chance of keeping it until the end.
Remember the audience is on your side. All of us have been in the audience when the presenter was overcome with anxiety. Remember how you felt. You weren’t filled with glee, were you? Most likely you felt tremendous empathy for the speaker and were hoping they could pull it all together. It is uncomfortable for everyone when a speaker is struggling, and no one wants to see that.
If you view your audience as allies rather than judge and jury, it can allay some of your fears. But don’t take the horrible advice you may have heard to picture your audience in their underwear or, worse yet, naked. That will not help relax you. What will help you relax is to scan the room before you begin and find a couple of friendly faces in the audience. They are the people you can return to for reinforcement when you begin to feel anxious.
Look at the audience. A common refrain from my most nervous public speaking students was always that looking at the audience would make them more nervous, and that was why they stared at the podium or their notes throughout the speech. If you are in front of an audience, it is because you’ve decided this is the best way to present your information as opposed to letting them read it by themselves, so you owe them your attention if you want theirs. Looking directly at your audience will reduce your anxiety, because you will see they are engaged with your presentation and offering you their support.
Don’t look above their heads and don’t just randomly move your eyes back and forth. Take the time to actually make eye contact with different people in the room. Looking at your audience will show you are working to engage with them, and it will result in them seeing you as a more effective presenter.
Be judicious in your use of PowerPoint/Prezi. We’ve all been victims of PowerPoint/Prezi poisoning. Those technologies have become a crutch for people and have resulted in making people who use them worse presenters and their presentations less engaging. As you develop your presentation, focus on the content first and then decide what needs to be on a slide. Try to make your slides visually appealing and use the rule of seven. The rule of seven is used in billboard advertising, since that’s the number of words you can read going past a billboard at 65 miles per hour. I recently coached a student who had close to 50 slides for a 20-minute presentation, and they were all very text heavy. There is no way to get through that many slides with that much information and have the audience comprehend anything you said or showed.
If you are just going to read your slides to an audience, send them the slides and let them read it. Be sure to practice using your slides. The temptation is to face the slides while you are presenting the information, but when you do that, you lose eye contact with the audience. It’s also harder for them to hear you, because you’re projecting your voice to the screen. Using a blank slide can give the audience a rest and redirect attention back to you. Most important, be prepared to give your presentation with no visuals, as technology is not always reliable.
Create effective speaking notes. It may be necessary to sacrifice a few trees to make good speaking notes. You need to use a size large enough to see, generally no smaller than 14, and a readable font style. You can use different-colored fonts for different points or use highlighters to note things you really don’t want to miss.
You also need adequate white space so you can write delivery notes on this document. Indicate when to refer to your slides, write reminders to look at the audience and indicate where you may want to pause or modify your voice for added emphasis. When you are speaking, your voice and gestures serve as your punctuation, so plan to use them to their best effect.
Try to write your notes to reflect the way you speak rather than the way you write. Spell out challenging words phonetically. And, when possible, use an outline rather than verbatim. I realize that, in some fields, conventions dictate that you must use a manuscript, and some people are more comfortable with a manuscript. Yet you can still use the tips above to ensure a more engaging presentation of your manuscript.
Practice, practice and practice some more. It is always important to practice your presentation in advance, especially when using a manuscript. Some of my students thought that would be the easier way to give their presentation, but giving a good manuscript presentation is hard. A helpful tip is to practice the different parts of your speech individually. That allows for more flexibility when presenting, since you won’t be so dependent on the linearity of your presentation. This is relatively easy when working from an outline, but it may take some thought when working with a manuscript. Practice the middle parts first and then the introduction and conclusion.
As you practice each part, time yourself to see how long it takes you to get through it. This will help you determine if you need to edit it, and when you deliver your remarks, you’ll be able to track your use of time more effectively.
In fact, as you practice, you may want to make adjustments to your speaking notes to make them more effective for you. Try to notice which words are good triggers to jog your memory. Also indicate what you can cut if necessary and highlight that in your notes. Clearly mark in your notes where you should be when you have 10 minutes left, five minutes left and one minute left. That will tell you when you need to slow down or if you need to cut some material to finish on time.
A major cause of speaker anxiety is the fear of the unknown. While you’ll never be able to anticipate everything in advance, you do have a lot of control over your presentation. Careful preparation leads to success, and the more opportunities you accept to present your work, the more comfortable you can become. Public speaking doesn’t need to be something you fear more than death.