The ability to speak clearly and fluently is a key requirement of all academic and professional contexts. To deliver your presentation effectively, you should consider the following:
- language (formality, clarity, signalling)
- voice (fluency, pronunciation, intonation)
- stance and body language
1. Language (Formality, Clarity, Signalling)
The language of presentations is often much more informal and less complex than that of written academic genres. The physical presence of the audience means you can build up a feeling of friendly solidarity with listeners through some more informal language that would be inappropriate in your writing (e.g., informal pronouns, direct questions, appeals to common emotions and values, etc.).
Avoid reading too many quotations or from pre-written scripts, as these may be hard for the audience to follow; especially if their first language is not English. Try to speak independently, using a sheet of notes or prompt cards only to help you remember the flow of points or key facts (see notetaking/speaker’s notes).
To help listeners follow your ideas and take notes, remember to use signalling language to indicate when you are moving between sections or points. Consider using “hypophora” or rhetorical questions where you go on to give the answer straight away.
2. Voice (Fluency, Pronunciation, Intonation)
Try to speak as “naturally” as you can; i.e., fluently, clearly, audibly loud, at a steady pace, and with correct pronunciation and intonation.
Fluency is a particular challenge when speaking a foreign language. Nevertheless, try not to:
- hesitate unnaturally (i.e., between words, within sentences, for too long)
- use “filled pauses” (er, um, y’know, isn’t it? etc.)
Also, remember that pronunciation errors can lead to serious misunderstandings. Try to research the correct pronunciation of any terms or names you have never said out loud (you can often check online).
You can vary your volume and tone of voice for emphasis and to maintain interest. For instance, if you know a term or word is likely to be unfamiliar to your listeners, you may emphasise it by saying it more slowly or repeating it before you give a definition. Try to use your natural speaking voice, however, and be aware if you tend to do any of the following under pressure:
- mumble (speak too quietly or unclearly)
- yell or bark (speak or shout too loudly)
- gabble (speak too quickly)
- drone (speak in a monotone)
English speakers do vary the tone and pitch of their voice quite a lot (e.g., more than Turkish speakers, but less than Chinese speakers). English listeners expect rising intonation in yes/no questions and to indicate a phrase or sentence is not finished. If you use too much rising intonation, r use it randomly, it can make you sound inappropriately uncertain. In the following sentences, the CAPITALIZED syllables have a slight rise in tone and pitch, whereas the italic syllables have a slight falling tone and pitch:
- “Many think it is not schools’ responsibility to provide extensive reading programs.” (end of sentence)
- “But is this corRECT?” (closed or yes/no question)
- “So, what are the key problems?” (open or wh- question)
- “There are three main problems; a lack of awareNESS, administrative disinterEST, and insufficient funding” (list of words, phrases or clauses)
If you are being assessed or graded on your speaking ability, remember that reading from quotes or a script can negatively affect your pronunciation and intonation.
3. Stance and Body language
Try to make eye contact with all your audience members – don’t speak to or read everything from the slides, and don’t stare at one person (they may start to sweat!). Also, if you are being graded, avoid staring at the instructor, who will be taking notes on your performance – seeing this may make you nervous!
When referring to visual aids like slides or a whiteboards, use the closest arm to point (to avoid turning your body away from the audience), or use the TTT rule:
- TOUCH what is relevant on the slide;
- TURN back to the audience;
- TALK to the audience (not the screen) (Williams 2007).
You can use your body language seem interested and interesting, but try not to stride or dance about on the stage. You can use gestures to emphasize key terms or points, but try not to flap your hands around, which might be distracting!
It is normal to feel a little anxious when presenting to a room full of people; even when you know them well! If you are too anxious, however, this can interfere with your memory and your performance. Try to use the following strategies to avoid nerves:
- Be prepared! Rehearse the introduction in particular, as nerves are often worst at the start
- Sleep well! Proper REM sleep is essential for mental performance and emotional balance
- Smile! Positive body language makes you and your audience feel more relaxed and among friends
- Breathe! Pause between parts and sentences, and get enough air to keep your mind and voice working
- Enjoy it! This is your chance to show off your hard work and language skills – you’ve earned it!
All aspects of your presentation delivery – language choices, voice work, stance and body language, and confidence – will improve exponentially if you rehearse the presentation. Try to practice speaking from your notes until you don’t really need them any more. You may practice alone, using a voice or video recorder to analyze your performance, or ask a friend or family member to listen to you and give you feedback.
If you are being assessed or graded, remember: PPPPPP: “Plentiful Practice Prevents Painfully Poor Presentations!” (Beer & McMurrey 2016, 216).
Beer, David F, and David A McMurrey. 2016. A Guide to Writing as an Engineer. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Chivers, Barbara, and Michael Shoolbred. 2007. A Student’s Guide to Presentations: Making Your Presentation Count. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.
Comfort, Jeremy. 2006. Effective Presentations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Williams, Erica J. 2008. Presentations in English. Oxford: Macmillan.