Perfecting your Presentation for Class or Conference

Not all graduate work is confined to perfecting your paper in the privacy of your own work space, quietly handing it in to your instructor who quietly returns it to you. It's only a matter of time before you are asked to display your ideas publicly in the form of an oral presentation. But if you plan to continue your career in the work force, or to stay in academe, you will quickly find that oral presentations are a fact of life. It's best to be prepared for them.

You may be asked to present an entire paper at some point, but more likely you'll begin with a proposal or an abstract. First, some definitions:

proposal - suggests something you wish to do. A proposal can suggest specific solutions to a specific problem, or more generally can state a project you intend to pursue.

abstract - essentially the same as a summary. A dissertation abstract, for example, compresses the entire dissertation into around 250 words.

Whichever of these forms the basis for your oral presentation, some basic rules apply. And of these, the most important one is: Know, really know, what you are talking about. The best presentation comes from a person who is confident she or he knows the material. Nothing can substitute for this.

The second most important rule for oral presentations is that less is more. In other words, "the key to holding an audience, particularly one with limited time to absorb the speaker's ideas, is to be coherent and to communicate simply; otherwise, their minds will wander." And how do you do this? You (1) know exactly what you want to accomplish with your talk; and (2) you limit yourself to a few major points that can be clearly explained and reinforced through details, examples, and, if appropriate, a variety of media. In general, you won't have a great deal of time, so you must make the most of what you have.

That said, let's look at the four forms of oral presentations:

  1. 1) Memorized speech. Useful for very short introductions, but they tend to be boring and monotonous if carried on too long.
  2. 2) Reading from a written manuscript. Guarantees that you won't forgetto mention something, but also guarantees boredom. Little audience appeal.
  3. 3) Impromptu Remarks. Delivered on the spur of the moment without planned time to prepare. The lesson is, always be prepared!
  4. 4) Extemporaneous talk. This is the one we're most concerned with - a talk that has been planned and rehearsed, where the speaker follows a written topic or sentence outline when speaking.

It's important to be aware of those points your audience is most likely to be interested in and to emphasize the same points in your presentation. You must present them in an organized manner, so an outline (topic or sentence) is essential. If you will be using a podium, a sheet or two of paper will probably do the job. Otherwise, if you're free standing, note cards are easier to use, and less obtrusive.

Presentations, unless they're exceptionally short, divide into three sections:

  1. Introduction - Here's where you establish (a) the purpose of the oral presentation, (b) why it is relevant to the audience, and (c) major topics to be covered. This is your preview. Use it also to define any ambiguous terms and to check your audience's comprehension before proceeding.
  2. Main body - This is the heart of it all, where you make your points, include examples, cite authorities, and refer to visual illustrations. The key here is to be organized, i.e., to fit your material into one of a number of organizational patterns. Here are some main patterns:
    1. Ascending or descending order of importance. Ascending means you are building up to your thesis, often useful in persuasion; descending means you present your thesis first, and then explain it.
    2. Cause-and-effect pattern. Useful when you want to demonstrate the relationship between specific events.
    3. Chronological pattern. Useful when the audience needs to understand a sequence of events.
    4. Comparison and contrast pattern. Particularly useful when you need to explain something complex and relatively unknown; you can make it seem familiar by comparing it to something that is familiar.
  3. Conclusion - Summarize your main points to fix them in your audience's mind. Call for any questions. The audience should feel that the presentation is about to end.

If this is meant to be a fairly elaborate presentation, consider various forms of media as an addition. At minimum is a handout, but you might also consider using a chalkboard, flip chart, pad or easel, overhead projector, 35 mm slides, videos, CD's, etc. Just remember that your time is limited, and you need to stick to a few major points. Use media only if it will genuinely add to the information and the impact of your presentation. It is an addition, not a substitution for the material in your talk.

Above all, practice your presentation, ideally on real people who can react to it and point out weaknesses (as well as strengths!) to you. Focus on your enunciation and diction, be sure you can be clearly heard, stand tall with your hands under control, and glance around the room frequently to make eye contact. If you're using any sort of equipment, actually use it when you practice so you're comfortable with it and you have confidence that it works.

A word on team presentations: Sometimes you may be presenting as part of a group. All of the above advice applies, but here are a few additions:

  • Put one person in charge of introducing the overall presentation to provide continuity.
  • Consider letting that same person present the conclusion, to wrap up the team effort.
  • Put one person in charge of any visual equipment you plan to use.
  • Let one person be in charge of moderating questions.
  • Watch your time.

Remember to practice, practice, practice! That is still the best way to ease a case of true nerves and let yourself be comfortable.