Oral Presentations

Oral presentations are a common requirement in many courses. They may be short or long, include slides or other visual aids, and be done individually or in a group. In your postgraduate studies, you may have the opportunity to deliver lectures, seminars and tutorials as well, and the more practice you have at any of these, the easier it gets. Planning and structuring an oral presentation is similar to the process of writing an essay, except you need to be conscious of a live audience and use spoken language instead of written. However, the final preparation and presentation differ significantly from editing and polishing an essay.

The major steps in oral presentations are planning, structuring, preparing and presenting. Let's have a look at the key concerns of each of the stages.

Plan

Like any form of presentation of your research, an oral presentation needs attention to research and planning. If you follow the usual sequence of idea generation, wider reading leading to narrowed focus, and consideration of your audience and purpose, the next stage, structuring, should be fairly smooth.

  • Purpose

    - What is the aim of your research? Why are you presenting it in oral form? What is important about your findings? What is the key focus of your presentation?
  • Audience

    - To whom are you presenting your findings? Are they more or less knowledgeable on the topic than you? Pitch your data to the appropriate level. What does your audience expect to gain from listening to you?

Structure

Also like an essay, an oral presentation needs an introduction, body and conclusion. In the introduction, you may like to include a brief (and relevant) anecdote or provocative question to engage your audience from the beginning. A question that includes your audience will make them want to follow through with you to find out the implications as they relate to them directly. The conclusion should point to further research or conclusive results if possible. Try to end with a clear concluding statement, something with rhetorical flourish perhaps, so that you aren't forced to finish by saying, "um, that's it."

Spoken v. written language

There are both subtle and significant differences in speech and writing, and it's good to know what they are when preparing an oral presentation. For one thing, a speech should sound more like natural speech.

  • First person

    One of the most obvious ways in which to achieve this is to speak sometimes in the first person - you can refer to yourself in an oral presentation, for example, "I'd like to start by..." or "Let me give you an example...", whereas in written projects it is best to keep the use of the first person to a minimum.
  • Jargon and nominalisation

    Because your audience needs to be able to follow you without being able to refer back to written text, try to unpack your language somewhat - don't be too academically dense or use too much jargon.
  • Signposting

    You will be accustomed to signposting in essays, where you foreshadow or guide your readers through your argument with phrases such as "The focus of this paper will be..." or "I'd like to move on to..." This technique is crucial in oral presentations, where the audience does not have the luxury of referring to the writing in front of them.

Visual aids

Powerpoint

The most common way to incorporate visuals or slides nowadays is through the use of Powerpoint. If you have the option (that is, you have Powerpoint on your computer and access to a data projector in the room), you should choose Powerpoint instead of an overhead projector (OHP) and transparencies. It is much easier to manage and more professional when used appropriately. Having said that, there are some very important tips of what to do and what not to do when using Powerpoint.

Do
  • Ensure in advance that the room has a projector.
  • Do a number of practice runs through the presentation before the real thing.
  • Be prepared for all technology to fail and either have backup transparencies for images or a full set of notes in order to give the presentation without any slides.
  • Limit how many slides you include - you usually need far less than you think you do. Again, practice will help you gain confidence to know how many are sufficient.
  • Only use keywords and simple phrases.
  • Use a large enough, easy-to-read font (and no Comic Sans!).
  • Label any graphs, charts, figures and diagrams (again in a readable font size).
  • Include images for visual interest occasionally if relevant.
Don't
  • Rely too heavily on the Powerpoint presentation, which may experience technical difficulties on the day.
  • Include slabs of text - not only is it distracting, you then are tempted to read it verbatim.
  • Simply read from your slides - let them be reminders and key points.
  • Use amusing fonts - stick to the basics such as Times or Arial.
  • Use unnecessary slide or text transitions - it's distracting and slow to watch letters appear one at a time.
  • Use Powerpoint sounds or any other sounds unless it's part of the presentation.
  • Choose a template that's busy and doesn't relate to the presentation.

Prepare

The more prepared you feel, the less nervous you're likely to be. There are a few key considerations in preparation for an oral presentation, namely time limits, speaking from notes, body language and use of voice.

  • Time limits

    Practise the presentation a number of times to get the pacing right and ensure you fit the information into the time provided. Do not go over time as that doesn't match the audience's expectations and can lead to impatience, boredom and confusion. Don't finish too early either or it seems that you don't have sufficient command of the material.
  • Speak from notes

    It is preferable not to read your entire paper as you will tend to lose eye contact, intonation and good posture. It's preferable to reduce the original paper to bullet points and then practise filling in the gaps while practising. Even if you know the material very well, it can help to have a few key points in note form in addition to the points on a Powerpoint presentation.
  • Body language

    Try to make a sort of roving eye contact with the audience whilst maintaining good posture and using appropriate gestures with your hands.
  • Voice

    Speak loudly enough for your audience to hear you clearly and slowly enough for them to easily follow your argument. Use silence and pauses effectively when making particular points, and maintain interesting intonation patterns - avoid speaking in a monotone.

Nerves

Everybody feels nervous at some point when asked to give an oral presentation. If you're feeling particularly nervous, take a few deep breaths and focus on speaking slowly. Also try to focus clearly on your message. Acting horribly nervous just makes you feel worse - it's a difficult cycle to escape. The best antidote to nerves is to act as though you feel fantastically confident - you'll be amazed at how much more confident it ends up making you actually feel!

Present

If you've prepared well, you should be ready for a confident presentation. By now you should have the presentation fitting comfortably into the time limits and you should be speaking fluently just from dot-point notes. When you're actually in front of the audience, remember your body language and voice projection. Try to relax and enjoy the experience of sharing information you've gathered and analysed - and don't forget to welcome questions at the end.