Well-done visuals and graphics are extremely advantageous in expressing ideas, showing patterns, and offering results that escape words. However, good oral communication gives depth, significance, and understanding to the visuals. Excellent technical presentations are a robust mix of visual and verbal elements. The following are some suggestions for preparing oral technical presentations to avoid common criticisms.
Nothing is more helpful to the success of an oral presentation than practice. Practice allows the speaker to spot flaws in the presentation and eradicate them. It enables smoother transitions from section to section instead of awkward stops and starts.
You should rehearse several times before the meeting. Going over the material provides an opportunity to receive constructive comments from colleagues. Videotaping a practice presentation can be valuable in identifying words or phrases that are difficult to say or comprehend, nervous distracting mannerisms, and timing. Since the internal nervousness most speakers feel during presentations is usually not seen externally, videotaping practice sessions often gives the speaker added confidence.
Although you might first develop a script for your presentation, it should never be read. Sufficient practice eliminates the need for a detailed script. However, if a script is necessary “insurance,” underlining or highlighting key words and phrases to help recall ideas and sequence will prevent an over-reliance on the text.
Good presentations have the appearance of a speaker involved in a casual conversation with the audience. The visuals used during the presentation are usually sufficient to keep the speaker from deviating too far from the planned sequence. However, total reliance on the visuals will find the speakers with their backs to the audience for prolonged periods. Practice gives speakers the chance to get prepared.
Don’t Be Nervous
Most people who are concerned about giving a presentation are quite nervous when they approach the podium. The key to an effective delivery is to convert nervousness into energy that injects liveliness, enthusiasm, and animation into the presentation. There are several techniques to help manage the uneasiness of speaking.
1. Clearly the most effective strategy is the confidence that comes from past efforts of having done “good science” and organizing and preparing a good presentation. Problems occur when the speaker approaches the podium thinking, “I hope they don’t ask me about . . .”or “I wish I had redone that slide.”
2. Visit the room before the presentation and stand on the stage if possible. This familiarity with the environment can be comforting.
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3. If you concentrate on establishing a conversation with your listeners, you’ll forget about yourself and lose your self-consciousness. In the process, you’ll lose your nervousness.
4. If you anticipate that you won’t know anyone in the audience, try to establish some personal contacts with a few of your listeners before your talk. In this way, you’ll have some friendly faces to look at during your talk.
5. After you are introduced, take several deep breaths, then walk to the podium as if you were answering a knock at the door. Once you reach the podium, take a moment to place your notes, cards, or papers on the podium, thank the chair, look at the audience for a brief second so as not to appear hurried, then begin.
6. At the podium, relax, slightly spreading your feet so as not to appear stiff. Placing your hands on the side of the rostrum, not gripping for it for life, gives an appearance of calm control throughout the presentation.
Like a technical paper, you build a technical speech on the sequential layering of logic. You are creating a path for the audience to follow. Unambiguous organization marks the way. The fundamental organizing idea is to focus on the topic and its implications rather than descend into the intricate detail that you find fascinating.
Introduction. Getting started is probably the hardest part; it is when the nerves take over and you are most likely to fumble. Unfortunately, speakers commonly give less preparation to the talk’s introduction than other parts of the presentation. For the established researcher, credibility has been earned over many years of scientific contributions. In this situation, the audience will be forgiving of a deficient presentation style. For the not-yet-proven new researcher, credibility is often built in the first few moments. The introduction will set the stage for the rest of the talk.
People are usually in the audience of their own free will. During the first few moments, you have the opportunity to convince them that this was a good choice. Conversely, if you stumble over words or do not use the occasion to provide a basic orientation, recapturing people’s attention will be very difficult. The introduction serves to provide focus (statement of main idea), a reason to listen (significance of the main idea), and an orientation (division of the presentation).
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Body. Try to identify sections where the natural flow of the presentation breaks down, resulting in awkward stops and starts. Strive to insert a sentence or phrase that acts as a bridge. Do not deviate from your outline—make sure you cover all your main points. If you provide a steady stream of well-organized information, the audience will pay attention to you and give you support.
Transitional words and phrases such as “the second reason,” “in other words,” and “to conclude” stitch the presentation together and help the audience keep its place. Ideally, summarize after you finish each point, to wrap up what you’ve said and connect it to the next argument.
While getting direct feedback in a large group setting is often difficult, the use of rhetorical questions helps keep the audience involved. You might ask, “What were the key findings?” or “How would you develop a process to examine this question?” Pause, then follow with the answer or an elaboration.
Conclusion and Summary. Typically, listeners are very attentive at the beginning of a presentation, less attentive during the middle sections, then suddenly more attentive as it ends. Take this time to repeat and reemphasize the most important conclusions and recommendations.
Be Prepared to Answer Questions
If you have the “state of the knowledge” about the subject, you can probably answer most questions. During a practice session, ask colleagues to pose what they feel might be typical questions. Answering all questions is not necessary. Appropriate responses might be, “We have not performed those experiments yet” or “That’s a very interesting idea; we’ll have to give that some thought.” At most meetings, the time allotted for questions is very limited. If an answer will take an unreasonable period, say that you would be happy to discuss it after the session. Practicing this part of a presentation is difficult but can make you feel very prepared and sure of yourself.
Don’t Speak Too Fast
When reviewing a manuscript, the readers are in control of the pace. At times, they will dwell on a figure or reread a paragraph, while giving other sections a cursory examination or completely skipping them.
During an oral presentation, the speaker is in charge of speed control. Sentences should be shorter, and main points should be repeated to aid memory and understanding; however, exact repetition of wording is annoying. Since the audience cannot revisit a section, the presentation should follow a straight line, with one point leading to the next. The pace should vary according to the audience’s familiarity or unfamiliarity with the subject. If the information is new or the people require time to comprehend the idea, slow down.
Even speaking at a moderate rate of 120–140 words per minute, you are likely to be limited in what you can say. Timed practice will quickly tell you how much material can be presented. Do not try to include more information by speaking faster. The audience will resent a speaker who hurries through a presentation. A tight, clear delivery that makes a point, explains the implications, and answers questions is far superior to lengthy speeches.
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Don’t Be Boring
Enthusiasm is contagious. If the speaker shows excitement for the topic, the audience will listen attentively. Conversely, they will become bored if they perceive that the speaker is bored. Voice traits such as muted tonal quality or lack of inflection can be symptoms of nervousness or a desire to “get it over with.” However, listeners often sense a “flat” delivery style as evidence of boredom and tend to tune out the speaker.
Listeners can absorb only a few points during a 20- to 30-minute presentation. Concentrate on what is significant and avoid intricate mathematics or statistical validations that are not critical to the presentation. The published paper will become the formal, technically precise document through which the audience can confirm methods and conclusions. An oral presentation should be much warmer and more candid.
People respond more favorably when the speaker looks at them. Face the audience and try to speak directly to individuals in different parts of the room. Listeners will feel they are being addressed individually if you look at and see them. Practicing in front of a mirror and “presenting” to your reflection can improve eye contact with the audience.
Humor should be used only when it relates to the paper and when the speaker is certain that it is unoffensive and truly “humorous.” Not surprisingly, everyone does not share the same sense of humor. The pregnant pause that follows an anticipated laugh that does not occur can cause the listeners and the speaker discomfort, and disrupt the flow of the speech.
Movement is a very effective tool in holding the audience’s attention. You might gesture to support an important point, or turn your body to the left or right to establish eye contact with different sections of the audience. If the physical setting allows, it might be appropriate to walk to the screen and point out an important idea. However, too much animation is distracting and eventually irritating. Be expressive but identify distracting habits—such as jiggling change, leaning on or grabbing the podium, playing with a pencil, knuckle cracking, finger drumming, or back-of-the-room clock watching—and eliminate them.
Good visuals should minimize the need for a pointer. Bolding, coloring, enlarging the text, sequencing, or other visual design strategies should eliminate the need for any type of pointer. If you choose to use a laser pointer, turn it on only when needed and if necessary use two hands to steady its movement.
Giving a Solid Technical Presentation
Following these few tips should help you be more prepared and, consequently, less nervous. A calm presenter is more focused, more organized, and more comfortable dealing with and answering questions. The presenter who maintains the right pacing for the content and the audience keeps them engrossed. Warm applause from the audience will evidence their appreciation for a solid technical presentation.
by John H. Rupnow, James W. King, and Lana K. Johnson
Author Rupnow, a Professional Member of IFT, is Professor, Food Science and Technology; author King is Associate Professor, Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication; and author Johnson is Graphic Specialist, Communication and Information Technology; University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 353FIC, Lincoln, NE 68583-0919. Send reprint requests to author Rupnow.
Edited by Neil H. Mermelstein