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Giving an Effective Presentation (Part II): Practice, Practice, Practice!

April 2003

"The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public." -George Jessel -

Practice and Preparation
The importance of practice cannot be overstated. Totally extemporaneous talks run the risk of wandering. A lecture that is completely delivered from notes or filled with long pauses while you figure out what to say next make you appear unprepared or unfocused. The more you practice, the less you will have to actually think about during the actual talk itself. This will increase your confidence, decrease the inevitable jitters and allow you to focus on other details that are also important to a successful presentation.

Read through your text two or three times: Your goal is not to memorize the talk. You want to appear natural and lively during the presentation. Studies of communication show that:

  • 55% of interpersonal communication comes from facial expressions and other body language.
  • 38% comes from vocal quality or tone of voice.
  • 7% comes from the content, the actual meaning of the words.

Concentrate on your ideas and the flow of words. Pay attention to the words themselves. Are they the best words for getting your point across? By hearing yourself out loud, you might decide to discard certain concepts or change the order of presentation.

Focus on pacing and timing:

  • Smile at the opening and here and there in your presentation. This sends a powerful nonverbal signal to the audience that you are comfortable, self-assured and in control. An occasional smile will help you to relax and will increase your rapport with the audience. But the smiles must be genuine and at appropriate times in your talk.
  • Vary the pace of your words. Pauses are essential to a strong delivery. Pause after the introduction of a new key point and after displaying a new visual to give the audience a chance to make the transition.
  • Watch: your posture. Standing rigidly, gripping the sides of the lectern, tells your audience that you are far from relaxed and confident. Draping yourself over the lectern is too informal and conveys indifference.
  • Gesture to add emphasis to your words. This can even provide an outlet for nervousness, but use them judiciously. Too many and too flamboyant gestures will ultimately detract from what you are saying. The thing to remember is that, while you are speaking, you are in charge. You control the pace and the tone. You must gain the audience's confidence and capture its attention. It is up to you to interact with the audience and assess its reaction to your presentation. You are responsible for staying on schedule. You are presiding.

If at all possible, practice in front of an audience or videotape yourself. Work at looking relaxed. Stand with feet slightly apart and one foot slightly forward to prevent swaying and weight shifts. If you are using a pointer, hold it in the hand closest to the screen. Feedback from a volunteer audience can be invaluable. What did they find memorable--or forgettable? Where there any distracting mannerisms? Do your visuals support your point?

Practice ALL of your talk: It is easy to always start at the beginning and polish the first part of the talk. Make sure you run through the entire presentation at least two or three times. Try starting in the middle and working towards the end. Pay careful attention to the time. You don't ever want to run over. Practice speaking at a moderate pace. People have a hard time keeping up with more than 100 words/minute. Use pauses to allow your audience time to digest information. Repeat critical information. If needed, shorten your talk by removing information, not by eliminating words. Some more tips:

  • Use handouts! Supplement your presentation with additional details. Always make about 10% more handouts than you think you'll need. And make sure there is time for a few questions at the end!
  • Proofread your slides! Have a back-up and a plan B! The old adage, if it can go wrong it will, holds for presentations as well. Computers crash in mid- presentation, overheads fall on the floor, slide trays may be unavailable or forgotten….
  • Make Notes! Carefully prepared notes can be helpful or at least reassuring. Just don't read from them! Many people find that they don't actually need them once they begin speaking. Keep notes to a minimum. Index cards can be useful for this. Writing across the short side of the card, list the essential phrases or keywords needed to jog your memory. Practice a few times with the cards making changes as needed. Then, punch a hole through the bottom-left corner of the card and string the cards in sequence onto a clasp ring.

The Day of Presentation

Arrive early: If you have not already done so, check out the equipment. Being comfortable with the space and equipment will also help to alleviate nervousness. Before you begin speaking, take 3 or 4 slow deep breaths. When you walk out, don't hide behind your computer or lectern. Face your audience. Make eye contact. Don't wander around the room, don't look down. Remember, you want to convince the audience that you are qualified to speak about your topic and credible. Wandering and looking down, may be taken as nervousness and uncertainty.

Be prepared for interruptions: There may be late arrivals, a burned out projector bulbs, fire drills, etc.

Don't turn room lights off entirely: Don't leave the lights down any longer than necessary and remember to turn them back up!

Observe your audience: Pick one (or two) people easily visible to you, and "speak" to them. Don't ignore the rest of your audience. But concentrating on just a few may help with your nervousness, especially if they are friendly faces. At least, it will keep you in touch with your audience, and provide you with feedback. Pay attention to what seems to get their attention (or put them to sleep!).

Be lively, be natural: No matter what, talk delivered with passion and confidence will make a lasting impression no matter what the topic or slides. Pay attention to pacing. Most people tend to speak faster when they are nervous. Be careful of what you say. This may seem obvious, but don't criticize aspects of the trip, city, facilities, etc. during your talk. This is another way to alienate your audience quickly. For instance, they may or may not have chosen to live in this horrible climate, but you don't have to remind them how horrible it is. Remember that you are a guest.

Don't apologize for any aspect of your presentation: People expect your best effort; if you have to apologize, you haven't done your job properly. When you reach the summary and are about to finish, resist the temptation to add a few last impromptu words. They will be unpracticed, and will be the last thing many of your audience will hear you say. End your talk with the insightful, firm summary statement you have prepared.

Thank them when you are done: Make materials available. Make yourself available. Provide them with a method for reaching you. Get feedback -- Find out what they thought of you, what they learned, what they were hoping to learn but didn't, how you can improve your presentation, how to improve your communication skills.

Handle questions: It is up to you to decide whether or not to take questions during or after the presentation. In some cases, it will be proper to answer the question on the spot (for instance, if it helps to clarify a point you are making). Or, you may be addressing that point later, or want to cover it later on or after the meeting. Questions that address specific problems or arcane knowledge can be deferred until the end of the talk, or private discussion. Above all else, you must keep control of the discussion and timing of your talk.

Repeat the question so that the entire audience can hear and understand. Don't rush to answer. Take a moment to reflect. This not only buys you time to compose your thoughts, but shows your respect for the questioner. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification. If you can't answer a question, just say so. Don't apologize. You can offer to get back to the questioner later, suggest resources which would help the questioner to address the question themselves, even ask for suggestions from the audience.

If you do defer a question, follow through! Forgetting will damage your credibility.

Be simple and direct. Don't ramble! Avoid prolonged discussions with one person, overly long answers, and arguments! You must retain control of the flow of the presentation and not get off on tangents. Raise your hand, if needed, to signal the person to stop speaking. This is a simple but extremely effective gesture.

Don't get defensive. Don't be condescending. If someone asks about something that was covered explicitly covered in your talk, be gracious. It may have been that you did not explain it clearly enough.

If Things Go Wrong

Keep smiling: The best thing is to try and avoid having things go wrong by being prepared! As mentioned, arrive early or the day before to make sure that the equipment is working and that it synchs with your equipment or media. Have back-up copies of your presentation. Find out what media will be available (e.g., if you are using a laptop, bring a disk, USB key, etc... or make overheads). Sometimes the old technology (i.e., hard copies) works best.

Make 10% more handouts than you think you will need.

If your throat dries out: Have a glass of water available. Or try rolling a tiny piece of paper into a small ball and place it between your gum and your facial tissue in the back of your mouth. It should stimulate the flow of saliva. Try this in private first, however, so you are sure you are comfortable.

If people start talking while you are speaking: Ask in the following order, if there are questions or if you can do anything to clarify. If this doesn't work and you are standing, continue your presentation but try to move nearer to them. Usually people will stop talking if they have attention focused on them. Lower your voice or pause. Hope that someone else will stop them. When all else fails, try to acknowledge that things are out of control and ask the group whether a new meeting should be scheduled.

Links/References: These are the sites I found especially useful.

  1. How to Give a Bad Talk:
  2. The Virtual Communications Assistant:
  3. Effective Presentations:
  4. Tips for Preparing and Giving Scientific Presentations:
  5. How to Give a Talk: Changing the Culture of Academic Public Speaking: