Create a good impression in a presentation

Doing a presentation is like being marked for public speaking.

If you don’t like speaking in public, you probably cringe at the thought of working on a presentation.  If only you could write an essay instead…

But no, you’ve got to crack on.  The nerves are playing up and there’s ages until the big day.  You’ve still got to put the talk together, so it’s not worth worrying now.  But you do.  It’s a big deal!

On the day, it’s clear that most people aren’t too keen on the situation.  Many read from a script with eyes facing down at the page the whole time, read too quickly or quietly (or both), and start reading off bullet points from a projection while the audience looks at the back of the speaker’s head.

I can see why this happens, even with people who are usually comfortable with an audience.  It’s because the presentation is graded.  You’ll get a mark for the work, so you want to get it right.  And surely it’s the content that’s important?  Why mark someone up because they’ve been entertaining/engaging?  How does technique make a difference to the final grade?

It makes a difference because the better you present something, the more effective you’ll be in conveying the information to whoever is marking your performance.  You can reel off an amazingly detailed and thought through talk, but you need it to come across well in order that everything is taken in and appreciated.  That’s why it’s a presentation and not an essay.

From childhood to this day, I’ve experienced many different types of public speaking and presentation.  Some of it was a major success.  Some of it was a total disaster.  It’s true to say that I’ve learned as I’ve gone along.  I’m still learning.

From my past success (and failure) so far on an academic level, here is my take on how you can make your presentation shine:

photo by Macarena C

photo by Macarena C

QUESTIONS TO SHAPE WHAT’S TO COME

First off, answer these questions as best as possible:

  • Who is your presentation aimed at? – Is this for a lay person to understand a concept, is it for your peers (who will mark you later), is it for your tutor in the same way an essay is?  The content of the presentation will change depending on who you’re speaking to.
  • What is the point of the presentation? – Are you answering a question, researching a topic, or engaging in a debate?  Again, you need to be aware of this in order to be effective.
  • Is the talk supposed to be visual or not (or is it up to you)? – More often than not, you’ll be expected to use (and rely on) more than your voice.
  • How long have you got to speak (and how does this relate to the detail you need to go into)? – A 20-minute presentation clearly requires greater in-depth analysis than a 5-minute one.
  • What is the marker (tutor, students, guest) looking for? – If you don’t understand the purpose of the presentation, you can’t exploit that to gain the best marks.  If you’re unsure, find out!
  • What format will the presentation take? – Presentations can take many shapes.  In a group presentation, each speaker can take an individual subject, or they can chip in throughout.  Sometimes you’re looking at a traditional ‘introduction, middle, end’ structure (if it’s a group presentation, how do you handle that format?).  If you have a choice, take the format of the presentation seriously, because it has an impact on everything else.

photo by ian murchison

photo by ian murchison

BEFORE THE PRESENTATION

  • Treat the presentation like an essay at first. Deal with the presentation aspect once you’ve collated the information and made simple notes on what you want to say.  When you have the ideas written down, that’s when you can put it together to impress.
  • Understand what you’re delivering. When something doesn’t make sense, go over it again until it’s clear.  If it still doesn’t make sense, either simplify a bit or remove the problematic content.
  • Plan ahead for possible questions. A short presentation cannot answer everything and you’re not going to be asked trick questions.  The purpose of questions after a presentation is simply to make sure you understood the topic and any limitations and further possible routes of enquiry.  You don’t need to consider every possible question; just try to be aware of gaps in research and viewpoints you didn’t cover due to time constraints, etc.  If you planned the piece sensibly, there shouldn’t be much difficulty in briefly answering what’s thrown at you.  And if you don’t know the answer, be honest and say that.  Nothing looks worse than bluffing your way through something your lecturer is bound to have vast experience of…
  • Take the allotted time and consider how to shape your presentation and how many major points you want/need to cover in that time.
  • Find out where you’re presenting. It might not seem important at the time, but the more comfortable you are with the setting, the better you’ll be able to deliver on the day.  Even if you don’t find out until the day before, try to get a quick look at the room so you have an idea where you want to be and how you’d most like to put yourself across.
  • Keep one or two flash cards handy in case you slip up or lose your line of thought.

photo by Fabio Trifoni

photo by Fabio Trifoni

ON THE BIG DAY

  • Dress comfortably, but not scruffily. If you have to choose between smart and comfy, I’d err on the side of comfy.  I know you’ll hear a lot of advice saying you need to look smart, but if that’s going to cause you to botch up your performance, you’d suffer either way.  At least you have a chance of getting the talk right if you’re dressed comfortably.  If possible, dress up as much as you can, without looking too pompous!  Your main aim is to play the part and look the part.  If you don’t go to extremes on either side of that, there’s probably not much to worry about.
  • Speak calmly, but with volume. Even better, raise your voice slightly higher when bashing home the most important points.  Don’t shout, just practice taking your voice up a notch for effect.
  • Use the audience! They are your friend, not your enemy.  Boldly tell them how it is and look around as you speak.  Even if you don’t look in their eyes, you can scan the room and send your eyes elsewhere.  Just make sure you don’t look down the whole time and ignore the audience (especially whoever is marking the piece!).  The more time you spend looking out there, the better you’ll put yourself across.
  • Make your main point(s) clear and, if feasible, biefly close with the main points again.
  • Let visual aids and slides guide you, rather than dictate what you’re about to say. The aids aren’t meant to be a script, they are meant to highlight the main points for you to work around.
  • Create an impressive visual presentation. Check out Prezi and Ahead for alternatives to acetate sheets and Powerpoint slides.  They aren’t widely used at the moment, so they still have quite a ‘wow factor’ to them.  They’re not too difficult to learn and they should help make your performance look pretty outstanding (so long as you’ve put the work in!).
  • Bear in mind that perfectionism at this stage is not good for the talk and not good for the nerves! You don’t need to be faultless as you speak, but you do need to put key points across.  If you slip up on a minor detail, it is unlikely to harm your grade and it may even allow you to step in to correct your minor error it (showing your professionalism, not diminishing it) or acknowledge the slip up as a mistake later and blame it on the nerves (showing that you’re human).
  • Keep it varied, if possible. Some presentations are more like mini-speeches.  But hopefully you’re given the opportunity to use visual aids (or even audio) to put your point across.  Make the most of these aids by relying on them to break up your talk.  On the flipside, don’t have too many slides, or you’re asking for trouble.  Talk a bit, show a slide, talk a bit, show a picture, talk a bit, play a soundclip…if you can vary the output, it’ll keep everyone interested without you having to be a master entertainer.

One last thing.  When you’ve finished, don’t bother deconstructing your performance.  Your analysis will only stress you out.  Unless someone took a video of the presentation for you to watch back, you won’t know how you looked anyway because everything is different from the viewer’s perspective.  Just take it easy and be happy that it’s over.  Hopefully you’ll have done your best and walked away with a great mark.  Hopefully you’ll receive feedback on your performance along with your grade, which will help you for next time.  If you want more feedback, just ask!  Most tutors should be happy to give you advice on how to step up a gear next time.

6 comments

  1. Great post! I find that if I speak my way through a presentation at least once before I “go live” it makes a real difference.

    Another great thing to realize is that it’s ok to pause. A normal pause is never as long as it feels when you are doing it, and it works way better than stammering over your words.

    Lastly, eye contact and a smile make all the difference. Take time and try to connect visually with a few people in the crowd, and take note of your facial expressions. They all lend to making a great impression.

  2. Very good tips, Ibrahim. Thanks! A pause can also help for people who tend to rush through talks and speak too quickly. A natural stop to help calm the mind.

  3. When doing a presentation it’s also important to consider which communication tool to use. For linear text based presentations and print hand outs the classic Powerpoint is great.

    But if you need to convey and visualize complex concepts, processes, charts, and not least rich media it’s my experience that Powerpoint fails. I now use a new zooming presentation tool like Ahead (http://www.ahead.com). A bonus is that the presentation can immediately be shared online with your audience and the rest of the world.

  4. Lotte, I’m really impressed with tools like Ahead and Prezi. While they’re not in widespread use right now, this type of presentation looks ace. As you say, online availability is a bonus for many, although I guess not all students would be so happy with that!

  5. Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ School of Architecture actually introduces Ahead to all its students as the preferred alternative to PDF and PPT presentations when presenting the exam projects.

    The school finds an online solution much better than stand alone files because they’ve experienced that over a 6 year study period the students often lose their early year work. When it’s online everything is saved and can easily be found again.

    This way Ahead also works as a portfolio repository and presentation tool the students can show potential employers when leaving school.

    PS: I’m associated with the Architecture School and know the Ahead team.

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