Part 8: Interpersonal communications
8.6 Oral presentations
Questions for reflection
- Who is someone whose presentation style you admire? Describe it. What do they do when they present that you like? Why do you like it?
- How do you feel when you have to present? Do you feel nervous? Excited? Stressed out? What do you do to manage these emotions?
- What do you do to prepare for a presentation?
- What strategies or techniques do you use when you present? How might this differ from one context, culture, or environment to another?
Many people have very limiting beliefs about presentations and their own abilities to give one. Examining your skills, fears, and preferences can be helpful in becoming more comfortable in presenting.
You don’t have to be perfect
Letting go of perfection can be the hardest guideline to apply to ourselves. It’s also in our nature to compare ourselves to others. You might forgive a classmate for the occasional “umm” during a speech, but then turn right around and spend a lot of mental effort chastising yourself for making the same error in your presentation. We all have distinct strengths and weaknesses. Knowing yourself and where you need to improve is an important first step. Recognizing that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and that you won’t become a world-class speaker overnight, may be easier said than done.
It may help to recognize that your listeners don’t want to see you fail; on the contrary, they want you to do well because when you do, they will be able to relax, enjoy, and understand your presentation. You might be surprised to know that not everyone counts each time you say “umm.” However, if you do tend to say “umm,” “ahhh,” or other filler phrases repeatedly, they can distract your audience from your message.
Organization is important
Have you ever thought of a great comeback to something someone said a while after they said it? Wouldn’t it have been nice to be quick and articulate and able to deliver your comeback right then and there? Speaking in public gives you a distinct advantage over “off the cuff” improvisation and stumbling for the right comeback. You get to prepare and be organized. You know you’ll be speaking to an audience in order to persuade them to do, think, or consider an idea or action.
What issues might they think of while you are speaking? What comebacks or arguments might they say if it were a debate? You get to anticipate what the audience will want to know, say, or hear. You get to prepare your statements and visual aids to support your speech and create the timing, organization, and presentation of each point. Many times in life we are asked to take a position and feel unprepared to respond. Speaking in public gives you the distinct opportunity to prepare and organize your ideas or points in order to make an impact and respond effectively.
Speaking in public is like participating in a conversation
This may sound odd at first, but consider the idea of an “enlarged conversation” described by Julia Wood (2001). She expresses a clear connection between everyday speech and public dialogue. Sometimes we take a speech turn, while at other times we remain silent while others take their turn. We do this all day long and think nothing of it. We are often the focus of attention from friends and colleagues, and it hardly ever makes us nervous. When we get on a stage, however, some people perceive that the whole game has changed. It hasn’t. We still take turns, and the speaker will take a longer turn as part of an enlarged conversation. People in the audience will still communicate feedback and the speaker will still negotiate their turn just the way they would in an everyday conversation. The difference is all about how we, as the speaker, perceive the context.
Some people feel that the level of expectations, the need for perfection, or the idealistic qualities we perceive in eloquent speakers are required, and then focus on deficiencies, fears, and the possibility of failing to measure up. By letting go of this ideal, we can approach the challenge with a more pragmatic frame of mind. The rules we play comfortably by in conversation every day are the same as we shift to a larger conversation within the context of public speaking. This viewpoint can offer an alternative as you address your apprehensions and can help you let go of unrealistic expectations.
What makes a presentation successful
A successful presentation occurs when the presenter and the audience connect. Authenticity and passion can resonate so much with an audience that it can outweigh elements otherwise considered pitfalls. What you bring to the audience affects what they get from your presentation.
Do you have a deep, low voice, or a high-pitched one? We all have a normal speaking pitch where we are most comfortable, but we can move our pitch up or down. Use pitch inflections to make your delivery more interesting and emphatic. If you don’t change pitch at all, your delivery will be monotone, which gets boring for the audience very quickly.
Do you speak softly or loudly? Adjust the volume of your voice to your environment and audience. If you’re in a large auditorium, speak up, or better yet, use a microphone! It’s not a badge of honour to avoid using a microphone; use one to help make your presentation accessible to those who may have hearing disabilities. You may need to use more volume to compensate for ambient noise like traffic or an air conditioner, or for presenting in room with a lot of hard surfaces (where the sound can bounce off and echo). You can also use volume strategically to emphasize the most important points in your speech.
Stress certain words in your speech to add emphasis to them, that is, to indicate that they are particularly important. You may also use a visual aid to emphasize key points by using photographs or charts.
Practice enunciating your words, which means practicing saying each word distinctly. If you speak too quickly, the end of one word can start to blend into the start of another. One way to compensate for this is to practice slowing down your rate of speech by taking a micro-break between each word. If you’ve ever been told you sound like you’re mumbling (early in my career, I was told this all the time!), it helps to focus practice moving your lips, jaw, and tongue as you say each word and to speak with more volume. These techniques can seem difficult to remember in the moment of giving a presentation, but it can get easier with practice (which I know from experience!).
Are you a fast or slow speaker? The pace that you speak at will influence how well the audience can understand you. Pause for breath naturally during your speech. Your speaking rate should be appropriate for your topic. A rapid, lively rate communicates enthusiasm, urgency, or humour. A slower, moderated rate conveys respect and seriousness. By varying your rate within a speech, you can emphasize your main points and keep your audience engaged.
Try to minimize the use of filler words, such as like, er, um, and uh, because they can be distracting if they are overused. One way to find out whether you use filler phrases is to record yourself presenting and then watch it. You might be surprised to find out you’re unconsciously saying something over and over–or that you only said twice what you thought you’d repeated a hundred times! Once you are aware of your tendency to use filler phrases, eliminating them can become a goal for improvement. A technique I find helpful is to try substituting a short pause in place of where I catch myself about to say a filler word.
Gestures and body language
A gesture is “a movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning” (OxfordDictionaries.com, 2015). You can use these to channel nervous energy into an enhancement of your speech, reinforcing important points, but they can be distracting if overused. If the audience is busy watching your hands fly around, they will not be able to concentrate on your words.
Watching a recording of yourself presenting can also be informative for other reasons. It can help you pick up on your body language cues that might be distracting for your audience. For example, you might see if you sway or rock; wring or rub your hands repeatedly; or fiddle with papers, pens, or other objects in your hands. Many of these habits are often carried out unconsciously because of nervousness. Once you’re aware of doing these things, you can work to eliminate them. But how do you stop, for example, swaying or twirling your cue cards if you don’t even realize you’re doing it? Preparation and practice are key.
Here are some techniques to try:
- If you are swaying or rocking out of nervousness, trying to stand perfectly still might be incredibly difficult. Instead, consider turning that swaying or rocking into a gentle pacing.
- If you wring or rub your hands, you can instead try gesturing as you speak.
- If you fiddle with any objects that are in your hands, then make sure you present with empty hands! For example, if you don’t have papers in your hand, you won’t be able to twirl them, and if you don’t have a pen in your hands, you won’t be able to click it open and closed.
By recording yourself presenting and practicing in front of friends or family, you can also gauge what level of eye contact you are making. If you find you’re presenting to just one or two people in the audience, you can try practicing looking in a “Z” gaze at the audience. Look first at the back left corner, then the back right, move to the front left, and then the right front. You can then move in reverse or start back at the beginning.
If you find you’re having difficulty maintaining eye contact with the audience, try looking between people in the audience, cycling between 3 or 4 different areas. While you still may not be making eye contact with anybody, you will at least be looking out at the entire audience rather than at your feet, your notes, or at the wall at the back of the room.
Silence is a powerful technique if used well, but it is often overlooked. They can add emphasis and dramatic effect when you are speaking. They can also allow your audience some time to process the information you are sharing.
There are many different presentation techniques that you can use, but there is no single technique that may be “correct” or “the best.” The key is to use the ones you think will help you connect with your audience and help maintain their interest in your presentation.
The following list describes some strategies you can consider using in your presentation. It’s important to note that this is not an exhaustive list or and it’s not an exhaustive or comprehensive discussion of these techniques.
Audience references – Highlight something common to the audience that will make them interested in the topic.
Current events – Refer to a current event in the news that demonstrates the relevance of your topic to the audience.
Question – Ask either a question that asks for a response from your audience, or a rhetorical question, which does not need a response but is designed to get them thinking about the topic.
Personal reference – Refer to a story about yourself that is relevant to the topic.
Storytelling – Include an anecdote, a narrative, or a story.
Storytelling can be a very powerful technique to help you connect with your audience. For better or worse, audiences are likely to remember anecdotes and narratives long after the statistics are forgotten. Human beings love stories and often will walk away from a speech moved by or remembering a powerful story or example more than anything else. A story can be a brief component in your presentation, or you can structure your entire presentation as a story.
From a Euro-Western dominant culture point of view, stories will often have linear structures, which is a “classic formula [where] a protagonist with goals meets an unexpected obstacle and a crisis results. The protagonist attempts to overcome the obstacle, leading to a climax, and finally a denouement. (There can also be interruptions and plot twists)” (Anderson, 2016, p. 65). However, this is but one perspective on storytelling. Storytelling structure, Protocols, and formats can differ from culture to culture.
For example, Dr. Jo-Ann Archibald, a member of the Sto:lo Nation and an Indigenous studies scholar at the University of British Columbia, describes how some Indigenous stories may not have a clear beginning, middle, or end (2012b). She also explains how Indigenous stories may have more than one meaning and they need to be told within context, including who the storyteller is, where that person is from, what culture is represented in the story, and the purpose of the story (Archibald, 2012b). Furthermore, Dr. Archibald describes how there may be Protocols around the telling of Indigenous stories, such as who can tell the story, to whom, when, where, and how (Archibald, 2012a).
Watch Dr. Jo-Ann Archibald (Q’um Q’um Xiiem, Sto:lo Nation) talk about Indigenous stories and their framework >>
Watch Dr. Jo-Ann Archibald (Q’um Q’um Xiiem, Sto:lo Nation) talk about including Indigenous stories >>
Furthermore, stories can be shared through spoken or written word, dance (such as the Lion Dance during Chinese New Year), music (such as hip hop), or visual means (such as art displays or interactive websites). ‘Welila’ogwa Irene Isaac, a member of the ‘Namgis First Nation and a contributing author to Knowing Home: Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science, Book 1, describes how other cultural practices can be forms of storytelling as well, saying that “central to the cultural and spiritual practices of the Kwakwaka‘wakw people is the Potlatch or Winter Ceremonies when stories are retold, dramatized, and shared” (2016, Chapter 14, para. 2).
What is important to take away from this brief discussion is that members of your audience may have different understandings of and experiences with what form a story takes, how it is structured, who can tell it, when it can be told, and how they (the audience) are to reflect on and interact with it. Before incorporating a story in your presentation, it’s critical to consider context; Protocols; your audience; and your own relationship to the story, the story creator (or owner), and the culture from which it originates.
Preparing to Present
Here are some strategies for preparing to present.
As you rehearse and practice your presentation, try to identify the weaknesses in your delivery to improve on them. Try practising in front of a mirror or even recording yourself and playing it back. It’s also helpful to get feedback from a supportive audience at this stage. Perhaps a few family members or friends could watch you give your presentation and provide some feedback. These sessions should help you get comfortable and help you remember what you want to say without having to constantly refer to notes.
If at all possible, access the room where you will be presenting. This way you can get a feel for its setup and decide how you will stand or move during your presentation.
If you are using technology to support your presentation (i.e., PowerPoint slides or a projector), test everything before you begin. Do a microphone check and test its volume, view your slides on the computer you will be using, check any weblinks, play videos to test their sound, or make a call to test the phone connection prior to your teleconference. Your audience will get restless quickly if they arrive and are expected to wait while you fix a technical problem. This can also make you seem disorganized and hurt your credibility as an authoritative speaker.
Well before the day of your presentation, ask yourself, “What could go wrong?” This might sound like a good way to stress yourself out, but it can actually be very helpful. If you anticipate the worst-case scenario and are prepared for it, problems on the day of your presentation are less likely to bother you.
Anderson, C. (2016). TED Talks: The official TED guide to public speaking. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
Archibald, J. (2012a). On including Indigenous stories. A video retrieved from https://vimeo.com/46515730.
Archibald, J. (2012b). On Indigenous stories and their framework. A video retrieved from https://vimeo.com/46993624.
gesture. (2015). OxfordDictionaries.com. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/gesture
Issac, W.I. (2016). Knowing Home: Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science, Book 1. An open textbook retrieved from https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/knowinghome.
Wood, J. (2001). Communication mosaics: An introduction to the field of communication (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
My sincere gratitude is extended to Andrea Niosi, an instructor of marketing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, for her generosity and constructive feedback in critically reviewing the storytelling topic included in this chapter.
This chapter contains material taken from several sources:
- Part 3 (Presentations) in the Professional Communications OER by the Olds College OER Development Team, which is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license. (You can download this book for free at http://www.procomoer.org/.)
- Exploring Public Speaking: The Free Dalton State College Public Speaking Textbook, 3rd edition, which is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
- Chapter 10.4 “Myths and realities of public speaking” in Business Communication for Success, which is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license
- Chapter 14 Storytelling is our Textbook and Curriculum Guide: Understanding Kwakwaka‘wakw Science Knowledge and Way of Life Through Story in Knowing Home: Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science, Book 1, which is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA International 4.0 license