By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Know how to overcome nervousness and anxiety associated with public speaking and giving class presentations.
- Effectively use the six-step process to prepare for and deliver a class presentation.
- Create effective visual aids for use in class presentations.
- Work with a group to successfully plan and deliver a class presentation.
Because you will most likely be asked to give a presentation in one of your classes and your future career may also involve public speaking, it’s important to develop skills for this form of communication.
Public speaking is like participating in class because it often involves sharing your thoughts, ideas, and questions with others in the group, but in other ways public speaking is very different. Standing in front of the class to speak changes the psychology of the situation for many students. Although there is time outside of class to prepare for and practice the presentation, many students experience great anxiety when they have to speak in front of others.
A few people seem to be natural public speakers, but most of us feel some anxiety about speaking to a group. This is completely normal. Take comfort from knowing that almost everyone else is anxious about giving class presentations too. Also, know that you can learn to overcome your anxiety and prepare in a way that not only safely gets you through the experience but also leads to a successful presentation.
The following are proven strategies for overcoming anxiety when speaking in public:
- Understand anxiety. Since stage fright is normal, don’t try to deny that you’re feeling anxious. A little anxiety can help motivate you to prepare and do your best. Remember, anxiety usually eases up once you’ve begun.
- Understand that your audience wants you to succeed. They’re not looking for faults or hoping you’ll fail. Other students and your instructors are on your side and likely won’t even see your anxiety.
- Reduce anxiety by preparing and practicing. The next section discusses the preparation process in more detail. The more fully you prepare and the more often you practice, the less anxiety you will feel.
- Focus on what you’re saying, not how you’re saying it. Keep in mind that you have ideas to share, and this is what your classmates and instructors are interested in. Don’t obsess about speaking, but focus instead on the content. Think, for example, of how easily you share your ideas with a friend or family member. The same can work with public speaking if you focus on the ideas themselves.
- Develop self-confidence. The more you practice, the more confident you’ll become.
Guidelines for Presentations
Preparing and delivering a presentation is a process very similar to the learning process. The process breaks down into these six basic steps:
- Analyze your audience and goals
- Plan, research, and organize your content
- Draft and revise the presentation
- Prepare speaking notes
- Practice the presentation
- Deliver the presentation
Step 1: Analyze Your Audience and Goals
Who will see and hear your presentation and why? Think about what your audience ready knows, and doesn’t know, about your topic. If your topic relates to subject matter in class lectures and readings, consider what background information they already have. You might begin your presentation by explaining how your specific topic fits with subjects discussed in class, but be sure to focus on your presentation on new ideas you have discovered.
New terms and concepts may become familiar to you while doing your research and preparation, but remember to define and explain them. Consider how much explanation or examples will be needed for your audience to grasp your points. If your topic involves anything controversial or may provoke emotion, consider your audience’s attitudes and choose your words carefully. Thinking about your audience will help you find ways to get their attention and keep them interested.
Be sure you are clear about the goals for the presentation. Are you primarily presenting new information or arguing for a position? Are you giving an overview or a detailed report? Review the assignment and talk with the instructor if you’re unsure. Your goals guide everything in the presentation: what you say, how much you say, what order you say it in, what visual aids you use, whether you use humor or personal examples, and so forth.
Step 2: Plan, Research, and Organize Your Content
Starting with the assignment and your goals, brainstorm your topic. Jot notes on specific topics that seem important. Often you’ll do reading or research to gather more information. Take notes as you would with any reading.
Organizing a presentation is similar to organizing topics in a class paper and uses the same principles. Introduce your topic and state your main idea (thesis), and then go into more detail about specific ideas before you conclude your presentation. Look for a logical order for the specifics in the middle. Some topics work best in chronological, or time, order or with a compare-and-contrast organization. If your goal is to persuade the audience, build up to the strongest reason. Put similar ideas together and add transitions between different ideas.
While researching your topic and outlining your main points, think about visual aids that may help the presentation. Also start thinking about how much time you have for the presentation.
Step 3: Draft and Revise the Presentation
How much you write depends on your own learning and speaking style. Some students speak well from brief phrases written in an outline while other students find it easier to write sentences out completely. There’s nothing wrong with writing the presentation out fully like a script, but remember you’ll want to keep yours eyes on the audience and not read directly from the script.
You can’t know for sure how long a presentation will last until you rehearse it, but you can estimate the time while drafting it. On average, it takes two to three minutes to speak what can be written on a standard double-spaced page, but with visual aids, pauses, and audience interaction, it may take longer.
Never wait until the last minute to draft your presentation. Arrange your time to prepare the first draft and then come back to it a day or two later to ask these questions:
- Am I going on too long about minor points? Could the audience get bored?
- Do I have good explanations and reasons for my main points? Do I need more data or better examples? Where would visual aids be most effective?
- Am I using the best words for this topic and this audience? Should I be more or less formal in the way I talk?
- Does it all hold together and flow well from one point to the next? Do I need a better introduction or transition when I shift from one idea to another?
Visual Aids in Presentations
Except for very short informal presentations, visual aids are usually expected and add great interest. If encouraged or allowed to include visuals in your presentation, plan to do so, and consider all possible types:
- Charts or graphs
- Photos or other images
- Video clips
Plan to use the available technology, whether it’s a document camera, PowerPoint slides, Prezi, a flip chart, or posters. Then, design your visuals carefully by following some basic rules:
- Use a simple, neutral background. A light-colored background with text in a dark color works best for words; a dark background used like matting works best for photos.
- Minimize the amount of text in visuals. More than eight words per slide is usually too much. Make sure text is large enough for the audience to read.
- Use images only when they support your presentation; don’t use clip art just as decoration.
- Avoid sound effects. Use a very brief recording only if it directly relates to your main points.
- Use animation sparingly and only if it helps make a point. Special effects such as dissolves, spins, box-outs, or other transitions, can be distracting.
- Be careful not to use so many visuals or move through them so quickly that the audience gives all its attention to them rather than to you.
- Practice your presentation using your visual aids because they affect your timing.
- Explain visuals when needed but not when they’re obvious.
- Glance briefly at visuals to stay in synch with them so you can keep your eyes on your audience.
Step 4: Prepare Speaking Notes
Speaking notes are a brief outline for your presentation. Whether you write them on index cards or sheets of paper, be sure to include important facts and data as well as keywords for your main ideas, but don’t write too much too soon. If you forget things later when you start practicing, you can always add more to your outline. Be sure to number your cards or pages to prevent a last-minute mix-up.
Think especially about how to open and close your presentation because these two moments have the most impact of the whole presentation. Use the opening to capture the audience’s attention.
Here are some possibilities for your opening:
- A striking fact or example (illustrating an issue or a problem)
- A brief interesting or humorous anecdote (historical, personal, or current event)
- A question to the audience
- An interesting quotation
Then relate the opening to your topic and your main point and move into the body of the presentation.
The closing mirrors the opening. Transition from your last point to a brief summary that pulls your ideas together and then leave them with an ending that has some impact. Strong ways to end include a challenge to the audience, a strong statement about the topic, a personal reflection on what you’ve been saying, or an urge to action.
Step 5: Practice the Presentation
Practice may be the most important step. It is also the best way to gain confidence.
The first time through, focus on putting your outlined notes into full sentences in your natural speaking voice. Glance down at your notes only briefly and then look up immediately around the room to avoid reading our notes out loud. Practice two or three times just to find the right words to explain your points and to feel more comfortable working with your notes. Time yourself to see if you are meeting the time requirements for the assignment. Once you feel you are speaking well from your notes, work on polishing your delivery. You might want to record or videotape your presentation or ask a friend or roommate to watch it and give you constructive feedback on your presentation skills.
As you practice, pay attention to these aspects of how you speak:
- Try to speak in your natural voice. If you will be presenting in a large room without a microphone, you will need to speak louder than usual, but still try to use a natural voice.
- In usual conversation, we speed up and slow down as well as vary the intensity of our words to show how we feel about what we’re saying. Practice changes in your delivery style to emphasize key points.
- Don’t keep looking at your notes. It’s fine if you use words that are different from those you wrote down as long as the ideas remain the same.
- Be sure you can pronounce all new words and technical terms correctly. Practice saying them slowly and clearly to yourself until you can say them naturally.
- Don’t forget transitions. Listeners need a cue when you’re moving to a new idea, so practice phrases such as, “Another important reason is . . . ” or “Now let’s move on to why this is so . . . “
- Watch out for filler words and sounds, such as “like,” “you know,” “well,” and “uh.” They’re very distracting to most audiences.
- Pay attention to body language when practicing. Stand up straight and tall in every practice session so you become used to it. Unless you have to stand at a podium to use a fixed microphone in, practice moving around while you speak; this helps keep the audience watching you. Use hand and arm gestures if they are natural for you. Most important, keep your eyes moving over the audience. Practice smiling and pausing at key points.
Step 6: Deliver the Presentation
Be sure to get enough sleep and eat a healthy breakfast. Wear appropriate clothing and comfortable shoes. If you’re still nervous before your turn, take a few deep breaths, and rehearse your opening lines in your mind. Smile as you move to the front of the room, looking at your audience. Remember they are on your side. At the closing, deliver your last line with confidence. If appropriate, ask if there are any questions.
You may be assigned to give a presentation in a small group. The six-step process discussed previously works for group presentations, too, although group dynamics often call for additional planning and shared responsibilities:
- Schedule a group meeting as soon as possible to get started.
- Make sure everyone understands the assignment, and discuss who should do what. While everyone should talk about what content to include, you will each take on specialized roles. One or more may begin research and gathering information. Others who are good writers may volunteer to draft the presentation, while one or more others may develop the visual aids. Those who have public speaking experience may volunteer to do all or most of the speaking unless the assignment requires everyone to have a speaking role. You also need a team leader to keep everyone on schedule, organize meetings, and so on. Make sure everyone understands his or her tasks.
- Group members should stay in touch. For example, the person developing the visuals should be talking to those doing the researching and drafting to see what visuals are needed and get started finding or creating them.
- Before preparing notes, meet again to go over the content and plan for visuals. Everyone should be comfortable with the plan. Make final decisions about who will do each section of the presentation and set the time for each segment. Every speaker should prepare their own notes.
- The whole group should be present for practice sessions, even if only a few are speaking. Those not speaking should take notes and give feedback. If one student is doing most of the presenting, an alternate should be chosen in case the first choice is sick on the scheduled day.
- During the delivery, especially if using technology for visual aids, one student should manage the visuals while others do the presenting. If several students present different segments, plan the transition from one to another so that the presentation keeps flowing.
Additional Resources for Class Presentations
“How to Give a Bad Talk.” A humorous look (with some very good advice) on what not to do when preparing for and giving a class presentation. http://pages.cs.wisc.edu/~markhill/conference-talk.html#badtalk
Class presentations on YouTube. Search YouTube with the phrase “class presentation” and look for video examples of actual students giving class presentations. Observing and critiquing the presentations of other students is a good way to get started preparing your own.
Here’s a good example of a student group presentation on a topic we can all relate to (how body language works):
- Public speaking skills are important because you will likely give presentations in class and perhaps in a future job.
- Overcome anxiety about public speaking by understanding your feelings, preparing well, practicing your delivery, and focusing on your subject.
- Use visual aids to support a presentation, creating visuals that are relevant, attractive, and powerful.
- The success of a group presentation depends on effective group meetings, successful division of roles, and repeated group practices.
1. If you have given a class presentation in the past, what worked best for you? If you have not given a presentation yet as a student, what aspect do you think will be most difficult for you?
2. Name two important things you can do to reduce anxiety about a class presentation you will have to give.
3. Describe how best to use body language (facial expressions, eye movements, gestures, etc.) when giving a presentation.
4. If you were assigned to give a group presentation using any topic in this textbook, what would be your preferred topic? Your preferred role in the preparation stages? Your least preferred role? Why?