Oral presentation

You should cite this article if you use its information in other circumstances. An example of citing this article is:
Ronny Gunnarsson. Oral presentation [in Science Network TV]. Available at: http://science-network.tv/oral-presentation/. Accessed June 23, 2017.

Some people are almost born to be interesting presenters while others struggle to talk in front of others. Everyone may not be a good presenter from the start but everyone can improve and become better! Most people can become fairly interesting presenters if they make the right preparations. This takes time but it is usually a very good investment.

The aim with this web page is to discuss why do an oral presentation, how to prepare for it and how to make it interesting. Please start by having a look at this video. It can be used as an example to discuss principles for how to facilitate an oral presentation.

Why an oral presentation?

Why an oral presentation? Isn’t it impractical to gather a lot of people in one place? Would it not it be easier to simply make a nice PowerPoint presentation or a neat Word document and e-mail it to those you would like to influence? Perhaps create a website like this one? Those you want to influence can read your material whenever it suits them. Convenient and easy! There are two good reasons for having an oral presentation:

  • A one-way communication is more given, i.e. it follows to the letter the planning made by the presenter. Nothing unexpected will happen. Personal presence in the same room provides a good opportunity for dialogue (videoconferencing might have a place here but physical presence in the same room is definitely superior). A dialogue opens up for the possibility that the presentation takes an unexpected (and perhaps better) turn. Dialogue, with its subsequent unpredictability, makes the presentation much more interesting and fun for both the audience and the presenter (provided the latter feels comfortable with the uncertainty).
  • Written or electronic presentations are rarely read by the persons you want. At worst, your information may not be read at all! Something is needed to increase interest in what you want to convey, and a good oral presentation usually works well.

Why this presentation?

Is your next presentation an initiative from you or is it imposed by someone else (perhaps a mandatory requirement in a University course)? Let us discuss these two quite different scenarios.

Your initiative: The first and most important question is why you should have this particular oral presentation. Do you aim to convey some simple and straightforward information or do you aim to influence people’s opinions on a deeper level? What do you want to achieve with your presentation? An interested and engaged presenter is contagious. Are you interested and engaged in the topic and do you have a relevant message to deliver? If not refrain from having the presentation.

Initiative from someone else: If you have to talk over a subject that is of limited interest to you try and find some detail in the topic that interests you. Work hard on this and give the presentation an angle where some of your own enthusiasm can be seen by the audience (or assessors?). This may sometimes be hard but is rarely impossible.

Preparations before the presentation

The preparations aim to give you confidence to allow deviations from your plan and to be able to manage the subsequent unpredictability.

Define the overarching theme (message)

Write down the take home message you want to convey. This should be one or two (maximum three) short key messages. Your presentation should circle around this illuminating it from different angles.

Describe a suitable route consisting of key concepts

Once you have determined your overarching theme the next step is to define a suitable route. Think of it as a bus journey with a number of bus stops. Which route is best to reach your the goal? Please plan the opportunity for dialogue on one or several occasions during the route. Once you have determined the route make a script with short keywords and no sentences. Remember that “the secret of being a bore is to tell everything” (Voltaire 1694-1778).
A script should not be a detailed text written down word for word. It should only be an ordered list of keywords. If you keep your talk five times in a row it will be a little different each time if you use a script listing a few keywords. You may even make a few minor mistakes. This is what makes your presentation alive. Reading from a detailed word for word script ensures no deviation and no mistakes to happen but it will likely make your presentation more predictable and perhaps boring. Hence, don’t write down a detailed manuscript.

The best is if you can memorize your key words. It is also advisable to always bring a note with your key words outlining the route of the presentation. This note should be a one pager note. Some presenters put up a large version (A4 or A3) of it high up at the back wall of the room so they can easily see it while making their presentation.

Know your audience

You must be aware of the auditorium’s level of knowledge . It is your duty to adapt to them, not vice versa. You may benefit from using complex terminology if everyone in the audience have the same skill level as you. However, it is more difficult if the auditorium have a very different skill level from yours. The most difficult situation is if some in the auditorium is on your skill level (or higher) while others are on a much lower level. Let this be a challenge! Strive to ensure both the novice and the experienced participant felt they have learned something new.

The venue

Practical details of the premises are often forgotten. There are often dedicated staff during large conferences managing this. However, quite often it may be up to you. How do you turn on the ventilation? If you find where to put on ventilation, does it work or will all be distracted by a troublesome chill/heat in the room? Where do you turn on the illumination? Where are the buttons to turn on and off the board lighting? Are the chairs arranged as you wish? If not can they be moved? Make it a habit to ensure you have some control over these practical issues. This is more important if you are having a presentation in an unfamiliar room.

Practice

If you are unsure practice your presentation a few times to curtains, wallpaper and finally friends or colleagues. Allow your presentation to be slightly different each time and allow minor mistakes.

The unexpected

Sometimes you may find that the length of your presentation has been unexpectedly cut down a few minutes before you are about to start (you may be the last speaker before lunch and all the previous speakers talked too long and the annoyed audience has not had any break for hours). All your planning is demolished! You are usually in deep trouble if you have prepared a detailed script with the aim to read this. However, you can quickly take a pen and strike out a few keywords on the bus route if you build a manuscript based only on keywords. Talk around the remaining keywords. It is your duty as a presenter to prepare yourself knowing that conditions can always change quickly.

An important preparation is to create a few extra slides to bring up in case you get tricky questions. You (and your friends or supervisors) can usually guess at least half of possible questions. This is described further below.

Your image of yourself as a presenter

What is your image of yourself as a “lecturer/presenter”? Do you believe that those listening to you feel it was well spend time? If you made decent preparations believe in your ability to deliver a presentation worthwhile listening to! You have something interesting to convey!

The structure of your presentation – What shall I say?

The following advice is tailored to the situation where you can completely decide the content of the presentation. You may have to adapt the advice below if you are forced to have a presentation as a part of an assessment using specific assessment criteria.

The longer your talk is the more reason to follow a pre-thought-out structure. The beginning is usually the most important part where it is determined whether the audience will listen to you or not. The structure below is merely a suggestion. You have to adapt this to fit your personality. What feels right for you?

Introduction

You should introduce yourself in the beginning and with one sentence tell the audience what your talk is about. At this stage you may want to encourage the audience to ask questions. Remember that a good answer to a question coming early in your presentation may be: “That is a good question, I will soon come to that” (given that the answer is coming later in your planned presentation).

Are you an engaging presenter?

The next step is to capture the interest of the audience. Getting everyone involved is difficult if you just start lecturing. Something unexpected often raises the interest. There are a few proven “oral teasers” that usually work well:

  1. In small audiences (<50-100) throw out a question to the audience. It should not be a rhetorical question, but one that they should be able to answer. Wait out the answer. Please write short summaries of the answers on a whiteboard. Use the results as part of your presentation. This may require slight modifications on the fly of your presentation depending on what emerges. This assumes that you do not have a detailed script but rather a short note with a few keywords.
  2. A simple variation of the above could be to make a statement and see how many agree or ask a question where the possible answer is binary (yes/no). The audience answers by raising their hands. This is suitable for larger audiences (>50-100).
  3. Shortly (in less than 30 seconds) describe a topic or a question and ask people buddying up in small groups of 2-5 people to discuss. Let them do this for up to five minutes. The topic that you throw out will naturally relate to what you have planned to talk about. This may be suitable for presentations longer than 20 minutes.
  4. Tell about an interesting example from real life. The example may be such that most people recognize it or alternatively it can it an example where almost no one recognizes it. Both variants increases interest, provided that your example is relevant to your presentation.
  5. A little odd, but sometimes an effective way to increase interest is to provoke. Say something, within the context of the presentation, that you know is a bit controversial. Your presentation can later return to the provocation and moderate what you said. If you choose this approach don’t exaggerate, only provoke within reason. It should be noted that this approach is a bit challenging and can go awry. It assumes that you really have mastered the subject and how to deal with criticism (see below).

Short disposition – declaration

Short presentations (<20 min) don’t need a declaration. Longer presentations, especially those above one hour, often benefit from spending 30 seconds to declare what you are going to talk about and in what order.
You may want the auditorium to have some influence by asking them if there are any special aspects of the topic they want to ensure you cover. You may want to write their response on a whiteboard. If you ask this please do it before you present your short declaration.

The body of the presentation

It is important to follow a sequence built up by a few keywords. You should almost be able to imagine a path consisting of these keywords lined up (some presenters even put a sheet of paper listing the keywords high up at the back of the room).

Longer presentations (> 20 minutes) usually require repeated “oral teasers” (see above) to maintain an active interest from the audience. Do not forget to split up very long talks (> one hour) with breaks to stretch the legs and go to the toilet. Trying to eliminate breaks to be time efficient means you can present more but the audience probably adsorbs much less.

If your presentation is about presenting a project the thread of key steps might look like:

  1. Start by describing the problem /topic and especially why it is an interesting and important problem / topic.
  2. Present possible solutions that may be available. Comment on the results of previous studies and describe the current perceptions of the problem and its solution.
  3. Tell why your project started and the aim of it.
  4. Present the methods you used.
  5. Describe the results you found.
  6. Now, you have laid a good foundation for the benefits of your new results. Please be specific and tell who / which can benefit from the results and in what way.

Summary / conclusion

After your body make a short (maximum 2 minutes) summary in a few bullet points. If you now realize that you forgot to say something, leave it out unless the information is absolutely essential.

Termination

Say that you have finished talking and you want to thank the audience for their attention. You may also want to add that you are happy to answer any questions or listen to any comments. Remember that from you hinted that you are approaching the end you have about 45 seconds to finish before parts of the auditorium is starting to get annoyed so make your termination short.

You have probably known for quite some time how much time was at your disposal. If you conclude using phrases like: “Time does not permit me …”, “I am afraid I have to stop now” or “If I had had more time I would …”, it shows you have not prepared to manage time efficiently. Hence, avoid using these phrases. You may sometime experience that your time was unexpectedly cut. In this case accept reality, remove a few keywords and talk about the rest.

Questions and discussion

It is usually a good idea to allow questions or comments after your presentation and you should allocate some time to this. Repeat any questions if your audience is larger than 15-20 people before answering them. There are two reasons for this: a) to ensure you perceived the question correctly and b) to ensure that everybody heard the question. Questions that are questions are usually not a problem. Questions that is a covered criticism is trickier (see below). It is a good idea to have spare slides for potential questions that may come up (see below).

The performance – How shall I say it?

Rooming in

Your responsibility begins some time before the actual presentation. Do not assume that the person who organizes the presentation knows that you should press a button (or open a hatch) to engage the ventilation. Is the furniture placed as you want it? How do you dims light shining onto the canvas / screen where slides are shown? How do you start up the projector / monitor? Do they work or is any of this broken? How do you copy a powerpoint presentation to the computer in the room?

How often have you been to a presentation where the first ten minutes are spoilt sorting out practical problems? Practical problems are a natural part of the world we live in. Expect them and ensure you come to the venue / room / lecture theatre at least 15 minutes ahead to sort them out before the audience arrives. (You can perhaps skip this is if you are presenting in a room you know well ). It gives you much greater confidence as a presenter when you feel you have mastered the premises and the technology.

Please remember that a microphone might be a good idea even if the audience is rather small. Surprisingly often someone in the audience has a hearing disability and depends on hearing aids.

Where do you physically position yourself?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/boekentoren/

The presenter zone, the neutral zone and the audience zone (Photo by Boekentoren Universiteitsbibliotheek Gent)

We have the presenter zone (to the left of the pulpit above), the audience zone (to the right in the picture above) and the neutral zone in between. Starting your presentation in the neutral zone between the presenter zone and the audience zone is likely to facilitate a better contact with the auditorium. You may retreat into the presenter zone after the introduction (but it is better if you can remain in the neutral zone). It is often a good idea to go back in the neutral zone a few times if you for various reasons are stuck behind a pulpit, at least when you want the auditorium to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for a wireless microphone!

Who are you talking to?

A personal contact with the audience provides you with the best conditions to read how they react to your presentation and to tweak it. Furthermore, if you can give both yourself and the audience a sense of personal contact it makes your presentation more vivid and your message is passed on more effectively. So who are you talking to? Do you speak to one person, ten persons in one part of the room or the entire auditorium?  We humans are usually perceived as more personal when we speak to one person at the time. Hence, imagine that you choose one person in the auditorium. Look at that person and speak directly to him/her. You do not speak directly with the other people in the auditorium, but they are welcome to attend and listen to the conversation you have with this single person. Stay with this person for 1-2 sentences and then switch to another person in the auditorium. This ensures that your presentation has a sense of personal appeal but at the same time is not perceived as intrusive.

What should you look at during your presentation? In the floor or on the ceiling? Again imagine that you speak directly with a single person. It would be natural to look at the other person’s eyes! However, you should discretely alternate between the person’s right and left eyes to ensure that the other person does not perceive you as staring at them. This makes your connection to be perceived as non intrusive. A careful balance is to look at one and the same individual until finishing a sentence, then make a break of 1-3 seconds to see how the person you talked to reacted. Switch to another person. Sometimes it may be relevant to make a few seconds longer pause after finishing an important sentence. If so keep eye contact with the person you have just talked to. This conveys an unspoken “What do you think?”. We often call this “subtext”. A person may look away when you try to get eye contact. This may be a sign that that person feel uncomfortable. Respect this and change eye contact to another person. Is fleeting glances at the floor, ceiling lamps or windows banned? Of course not! But this kind of impersonal gaze should not dominate. It may be reasonable to try to have personal eye contact 70-80% of the time, the rest can be impersonal fleeting glances. Please note that reflections from overhead lights may make your eyes invisible to the audience if you have glasses. One way to reduce this problem is to bend your head slightly forward. This reduces light reflexes and facilitate eye contact.

Which voice level is appropriate? You are only talking to one person at the time so the appropriate level is what would be appropriate if you were alone in the room with that person. You may have to speak a bit louder than normal if there is no amplifier and if the other person is a little bit away from you. Pretend that it is just the two of you in the room.

Awkward arms?

Where do I put my arms and hands during the presentation? Arms and hands may by some inexperienced presenters be perceived as a major problem. A simple advice is to let your hands fall along the side of the body if you do not have a natural impulse to make a gesture. It is usually a good idea to go along with any natural impulse for a gesture if you get one.

Dress code?

Should you wear evening dress, jacket or ripped jeans? There is no given rule. Your dress should not distract too much. An evening dress can be appropriate in some contexts while jeans would be just right in another context. Ask yourself “would some in the audience (being of the same gender as you) be likely to buy clothes similar to those I have on me?” You are probably wrongly dressed for the occasion if the answer is no.

Using Powerpoint (or similar software)

Powerpoint has become very popular. Other software such as Prezi is also gaining popularity. However, there is a lot of things to consider when using this type of software. The main take home message is that you are the presenter, not the software you use to enhance your presentation. Specific advice for your slides:

  • Do not have a slide for everything you say
    Remember that slides are to support you but you are still the presenter. You do not have to have a slide for everything you say.
  • Do not write complete sentences on slides
    The audience will try to read all slides and listen to what you say at the same time. It will annoy the audience if that is not possible. A lot of text means that the audience will ignore either you or the slides, or sometimes both! Hence, slides should contain a minimum of text. They should rather have information that supports what you say such as pictures, figures, graphs or short key words, not full sentences. This is usually the most difficult challenge to accomplish. It also means that you can’t use your slides as a prompt just reading from them (…you can but this will mostly be perceived as very uninspiring and boring). Hence, do not write sentences on the slides (unless it is an important reasonably short quote). The slides are only there to support what you say, not to replace you.
  • Use a large font size
    You are sitting one person in front of your own computer while making the Powerpoint presentation. It looks good when you do this… …but… …a font size below 24-26 will often be impossible to read for the audience in a large venue. The quality of text may deteriorate further if your presentation is video-linked to another site. Hence, it is recommended to use font size 28 or 32 unless there are specific reasons for using another font size. This is also consistent with avoiding cluttering slides with sentences and lots of information.
  • Make tables readable and understandable
    You can usually not just copy and paste tables from publications. They almost always use a small font size and are often more cluttered. Hence, the best is to create your own tables in Powerpoint.The rule of thumb is to use a maximum of 6 columns and 6 rows. Including more information will confuse and annoy your audience. If you must have more split into several slides or create an innovative figure.
  • Consider colour blindness
    Some people are born with impaired colour vision and you should consider this when planning an oral presentation. The prevalence of color vision deficiency varies between different studies between 2-10% for boys and 0.1-3% for girls . The prevalence is higher in European white people and lower in African and Hispanic populations . Roughly 41% of those with a deficiency have a severe deficiency . The most common deficiency is inability to differentiate red and green colors . Hence, avoid slides where it is important to see the difference between red and green.
  • Background and objects
    When powerpoint came we used it as a sheet of paper with dark, usually black, text on crisp white background. This has been challenged and there is a debate whether you should have light objects on a dark background or vice versa when using powerpoint. The main idea is that the background should not stand out drawing attention. You want the audience to focus on you as a presenter and the objects you show on slides, not the background. A bright background would draw too much attention in a dark room. However, a bright background stands out less in a smaller room with bright illumination. In most situations you are probably better off using bright objects on a dark background. In smaller brightly illuminated rooms you may reverse this but still probably a good idea to avoid plain white as background.
  • Prepare extra slides for questions
    Write down possible questions you may get from the audience. Create 1-2 slides for each question and let these extra slides come after the slides for your initial presentation. Make a printout of all slides with 6 slides on each page. Number the slides (needs to be dome manually on the printout). You can now jump to a slide by pressing it’s number followed by the Enter key. If you get a question where you know the slide is number 32 just press 32+Enter. Having extra slides will make you more confident and also impress on the audience.
    You should remove the slide after answering a question. There are different ways to do that. One is to press “B” (for Black). This makes the current slide completely black. However, when pressing B again to go to another slide you may find that the previous slide first shows up. A better way is to let your first slide in your presentation be a completely black slide so your first slide used in your presentation will be number 2. When you are finished with your presentation just press 1+Enter. When you get a question (where you have a slide) just press the number of that slide and Enter. After answering a question press 1+Enter to make the screen black. Do not flick through 20 slides to get to the right one, use the trick to go directly to the right slide.

Please have a look at this presentation by David Phillips further exploring how the human brain perceives powerpoint slides:

Responding to criticism

During your presentation, or just when you are done, you can expect questions. A question that is a question is seldom a problem. However, sometimes the questions is a covered indictment stating “You are wrong!“. These indictments needs a careful and humble approach for two reasons. First of all, the person accusing you of being wrong may be right. Secondly, taking on a confrontation is unlikely to facilitate a constructive dialogue. The best initial strategy is to acknowledge and accept the criticism. Examples of good initial responses:

  • I appreciate that you brought up this question here … …However, …
  • I understand why you may think that … …However, …
  • I understand and appreciate your idea … …However, …
  • I understand that it might look like …However, …

What about the initial video example?

Was done well Could have been done better
The presenter requested a wireless microphone to enable placing himself more in the neutral zone. Eye contact with the audience could have been better.
An unexpected introduction made the audience curious. This was immediately followed by a practical relevant example involving the audience to make a decision. This example was referred to a few times during the presentation. Dark background on powerpoint slides might have been better.
Most powerpoint slides had few or no sentences. A few slides had sentences and these could have been avoided.
Overall powerpoint slides had a reasonably large font size. Using highlighting on slides to emphasize what was currently talked about could have been used more extensively.
Summary with conclusions were given at the end It would be worth considering omitting a few slides.

References

You should cite this article if you use its information in other circumstances. An example of citing this article is:
Ronny Gunnarsson. Oral presentation [in Science Network TV]. Available at: http://science-network.tv/oral-presentation/. Accessed June 23, 2017.

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