Giving Presentations

At some point at Mercer, whether in FYS or another class, you will likely be called upon to give a presentation. This is, like writing an essay, a specialized skill and a valuable way of learning, so it has tremendous value. It also, like writing, it requires significant effort.

Be prepared
Begin researching your topic well in advance of your presentation. Since you will probably need to convey some type of additional information beyond the content of the text, you will need to consult secondary sources such as biographies, historical texts, or scholarly works. The more information you have at your disposal, the more confident you will be giving your presentation.

Make a conscious decision about what format you want to use for your presentation. Depending on the assignment, you may give a speech, teach a lesson, lead a discussion, perform a one-person show, or do an interpretive dance. Select the format that best suits your personality, that will allow you to communicate information effectively, and that helps you maintain the audience’s attention. Feel free to be creative about the format.

Reading a prepared text is the least effective way to give a presentation. While you may want to write out a verbatim speech in advance, it is best to deliver your presentation from notes, which enhances your conversational tone.

Expect to answer some questions about your presentation from your classmates. Anticipate the most obvious questions, and give the most responsive answers you can.

Addressing the audience
Get your audience’s attention at the beginning of the presentation. Your attention getter should be consistent with the remainder of your presentation. Some of the most effective techniques include making an unexpected statement, such as “Benjamin Franklin once advised a friend to take an older woman as a mistress because she would be grateful for the attention,” or ask a provocative question, such as “why do Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in November when the Pilgrims held their feast during the autumn harvest in October?”

Use verbal transitions as you speak. Since the audience cannot see your paragraph breaks, use words such as “first,” “next,” “therefore,” and “then” to signal to us that you are moving through your notes.

Establish and maintain eye contact with the audience. Select two or three people in various areas of the room and look at them. Keep eye contact with them and read their expressions for feedback. Please avoid the common faux pas of fixing a Vulcan death stare on the instructor. It will give him or her the creeps.

Speak clearly, loudly, and slowly. While we are accustomed to speaking quickly and softly in conversation with small groups, large groups need more time to process the information you’re trying to convey. And everyone in the room needs to be able to hear your voice.

Modulate your volume and rhythm as you speak. While the above advice holds, speaking in one constant tone and the same volume for ten minutes to a group of people who have just eaten lunch will result in audible snoring. Use your voice to keep the audience awake.

Communicate with your body. Rather than affixing yourself to the lectern, move around the front of the room. Use facial expressions to reinforce your tone. And move your hands and arms to maintain the audience’s interest. To encourage yourself to use your hands, hold them in a comfortable posture above your waist. You’ll find that their movement from this position feels more natural than lifting them from your sides.

Even if you choose to give a lecture, attempt to engage the audience in a conversation. Your listeners can and will respond with non-verbal cues and facial expressions to which you should react. Actually having a discussion with the audience directly involves them in the topic and enhances their interest in your presentation.

Using visual aids
Depending upon the assignment, you may choose to use visual aids to enhance your presentation. Be warned, however, about using visual aids as a crutch. The most important component of your presentation is the information you convey with your voice, not the detailed diagram of Frederick Douglass’s escape route you stayed up until 3:00 am to draw.

Well-designed visual aids, however, can greatly enhance a presentation, so use them if you feel you can do so appropriately. If you have a visual aid, whether it be a poster or a handout, be sure to incorporate it into your presentation. Many students have distributed handouts, and then not made reference to them.

Good visual aids incorporate eye-catching graphics and telegraphic text to support your points. Too much text distracts the audience from the message.

Keep the number of visuals to a minimum. In an eight-minute presentation,for example, you should not be able to use more than three.

Using PowerPoint Effectively
When many students hear the word "presentation," they automatically think "PowerPoint," but that isn't necessarily the case. Ask your professor if you can or should use it. It's a bit risky, because PowerPoint can ruin an otherwise good presentation. If you choose to use it, follow these tips to use it effectively.

PowerPoint is a visual program to enhance presentations by allowing your audience to see an image related to your topic. The most common and most egregious mistake presenters make is to put their speaking notes onto the slide. Nobody wants to see that. Instead, we want to see an image or short text related to your point.

Once the image or text is no longer relevant to what you’re discussing, take it down. Don’t be afraid of a blank screen.

Don’t give your presentation to the PowerPoint. Face the audience while you speak, not the screen. If you are using PowerPoint to hide from your audience, you are using it wrong.

Use the minimum number of slides necessary, avoid cheesy multimedia effects, and use a consistent theme through the entire presentation.

Practice, practice, practice
Nothing better indicates your degree of success during the presentation than your level of preparation. Before you come into the classroom, you should have delivered at least five mock presentations. Practice on your roommate, your significant other, your friends, your enemies, your parents, and your mirror. Try to make your mock presentations as similar to the actual presentation as possible. In fact, you can often find a classroom vacant late in the day.

Handling anxiety
The fear of public speaking is supposedly the most common phobia. In some people, the attention of an audience triggers the autonomic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response: elevating heart rate, releasing adrenaline, constricting breathing, and causing Robin Williams-esque perspiration. If this happens to you, understand that it is a normal physiological reaction and that it can be handled.

If you have an autonomic response, your body will need about forty-five seconds to absorb the released adrenaline. You should, therefore, know the first minute of your presentation cold. After the first minute, you’ll feel yourself adapting and becoming more comfortable.

Constriction of the airway can cause difficulty breathing and a dry palate. Bring a small bottle of water and take a drink just before you speak. But avoid highly-caffeinated beverages that can exacerbate your heart rate.

Get a full night of sleep the day before your presentation. Staying up all night to prepare will result in a stumbling, bumbling performance, which will be counter productive.

Eat foods that contain protein for breakfast and lunch. They will help maintain your insulin levels which will prevent you from passing out after an adrenaline surge.

Pay attention to your clothes. Some people feel more confident if they dress nicely, some people feel more comfortable in their regular clothes, and other people enjoy designing and wearing elaborate costumes that help them get into character. Do what works for you.

Every speaker feels some degree of nervousness before a presentation. Its impact on you depends entirely upon your response to it. For some people the sensation comes close to the endorphin high people get from extreme sports minus the potential for serious injury. Try to have fun.

Before you speak, visualize yourself giving the presentation successfully. Athletes use this method of visualization to prepare themselves before contests, and it can have positive results.

Have realistic expectations. No one expects to hear a speech on par with Martin Luther King or Ronald Reagan. Instead, you should expect an entertaining and enjoyable presentation from an intelligent college student.