15 Strategies for Giving Oral Presentations

Most college students will need to bolster their public speaking skills at some point.

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More than death and taxes, the thing people fear most is speaking in public. Needless to say, college students are not immune from this terror, which, for you psychology hounds, even has a name: glossophobia. Unfortunately, in college, it's not always so easy to avoid public speaking. Some schools have required courses in speech. And even in colleges where speech isn't a subject, there often is a broad variety of courses that incorporate presentations or reports–and sometimes full-length seminars–into the regular class activities. Still, there's no need to lose your breakfast (or lunch or dinner) over your upcoming presentation. Our 15 tips for improving your public speaking will make even a garden-variety speaker into a real Cicero:

1. Do your homework. Nobody can give a good presentation without putting in some serious time preparing remarks. Many gifted speakers look as if they're just talking off the cuff, saying whatever comes to mind. But, in truth, they've spent considerable time figuring out what they're going to say. You should, too.

4-Star Tip. It's always a good idea to try out your presentation on your professor (or TA) before giving it in class. Office hours work well for this.

2. Play the parts. Good presentations are structured in sections. Many presentations need only two or three main points. Organizing your points into a few main parts and telling your audience what these parts are–both before and as you go through your presentation–can be the difference between a winning presentation and a loser.

3. Do a dry run. It's always good to do a run-through (or even a couple of run-throughs) the night before the presentation. This can help with both your timing and your manner of presentation. Be sure to make mental notes if you went on too long or got nervous or stuck. Some people find it useful to have a friend pretend to be the audience: He or she can build up your confidence and maybe even ask a question or two.

4. Look presentable. No need to wear a suit, but it's hard for people to take a presentation seriously when you look like someone who just rolled out of bed.

5. Talk; don't read. Nobody enjoys seeing a speaker burying his or her face in a script, reading stiffly from a piece of paper. Try to talk from notes, or, if you use a written-out text, try to look down at it only occasionally. It's less important that you capture the text word for word than that you present the main ideas in a natural and relaxed way. (Your practice sessions should help you here, since they enable you to better remember what you want to say.)

6. Take it slow. The single biggest mistake inexperienced speakers make is going too fast. Remember that your audience is hearing the material for the first time and isn't nearly as familiar with the topic as you are.

Extra Pointer. If you find yourself running out of time, either drop or briefly summarize any leftover material. If your presentation includes a discussion period, gesture at the points you haven't fully covered and suggest them as things that could be discussed later.

7. Use aids. For certain sorts of presentations, visual aids–such as PowerPoints, handouts, even things written on the board–can help your audience locate and grasp the main points. Just be sure to explain these materials fully in your presentation: No one is happy to see an outline that can't be made heads or tails of.

Extra Pointer. Some presenters find the "speaker notes" feature useful in PowerPoint (you see a pane with your notes that the audience doesn't see). It sure beats flashcards.

8. Don't bury the crowd. Including massive numbers of quotations or unfathomable amounts of data can overwhelm even the most attentive audience.

9. Be yourself. As important as the content you present is your authenticity in presenting it, so don't try to be someone you're not. You'll never succeed.

10. Play it straight. There's no harm in including a little humor in your presentations, especially if you can carry it off well. But in most college presentations, clowns will get C's.

11. Circle the crowd. A very important part of public speaking is to make eye contact with people seated in all parts of the room–even those nodding off in the back. That shows people that you're interested in communicating with them–not just getting through this experience as quickly as possible. And it wouldn't hurt to go out from in back of the podium or desk and walk around the room a little. Sharing space with the audience can also communicate your interest in sharing your results with them, something you surely want to do.

12. Appear relaxed. You don't have to actually be relaxed–few speakers are–but at least try to appear as relaxed as possible. Bring along some water or a drink, take short breaks from time to time, and think pleasant thoughts. No one enjoys speakers who are trembling and sweating bullets.

Professors' Perspective. Some professors throw up before having to lecture. It doesn't happen often–thankfully–but take consolation in knowing that even very experienced speakers find it tense to give a lecture.

13. Finish strong. Always be sure to have a satisfying conclusion to your presentation in which you make clear to the listeners what they now know. It creates a warm feeling in the minds of your listeners and shows them that they've really learned something from your talk—which they probably have.

14. Welcome interruptions. Some speakers are terrified that someone will interrupt them with a question or comment. Actually, this is one of the best things that can happen, because it shows that someone in the audience has engaged with what you're saying, and, if you have the time to offer a brief response, it can actually lead to genuine progress on the point you were making. And two-way conversation (assuming you're minimally good at it) is always a tension-reducer.

15. Know when to stop lecturing. Certain presentations–especially in advanced or upper-division classes or seminars–can require you to present some material, then lead a discussion. Be sure to attentively listen to any comments or questions your classmates might raise before starting on your answer. And in a discussion period, never lecture (only discuss), and be sure to answer exactly the question asked (don't offer up more canned–but irrelevant–material). In many classes, how you discuss is as important as how you present.

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