7.4 Public Speaking and Class Presentations

Learning Objectives

  1. Know how to overcome nervousness and anxiety associated with public speaking and giving class presentations.
  2. Effectively use the six-step process to prepare for and deliver a class presentation.
  3. Create effective visual aids for use in class presentations.
  4. Work with a group to successfully plan and deliver a class presentation.

Public speaking—giving an oral presentation before a class or another group of people—is a special form of interaction common in education. You will likely be asked to give a presentation in one of your classes at some point, and your future career may also involve public speaking. It’s important to develop skills for this form of communication.

Public speaking is like participating in class—sharing your thoughts, ideas, and questions with others in the group. In other ways, however, public speaking is very different. You stand in front of the class to speak, rather than from your usual seat—and for most students, that changes the psychology of the situation. You also have time outside of class to prepare your presentation, allowing you to plan it carefully—and, for many, giving more time to worry about it and experience even more anxiety!

Overcoming Anxiety

Although a few people seem to be natural public speakers, most of us feel some stage fright or anxiety about having to speak to a group, at least at first. This is completely normal. We feel like everyone is staring at us and seeing our every flaw, and we’re sure we’ll forget what we want to say or mess up. Take comfort from knowing that almost everyone else is dreading giving class presentations the same as you are! But you can learn to overcome your anxiety and prepare in a way that not only safely gets you through the experience but also leads to success in your presentation. The following are proven strategies for overcoming anxiety when speaking in public:

  • Understand anxiety. Since stage fright is normal, don’t try to deny that you’re feeling anxious. A little anxiety can help motivate you to prepare and do your best. Accept this aspect of the process and work to overcome it. Anxiety is usually worst just before you begin and but eases up once you’ve begun.
  • Understand that your audience actually wants you to succeed. They’re not looking for faults or hoping you’ll fail. Other students and your instructors are on your side, not your enemy. They likely won’t even see your anxiety.
  • Reduce anxiety by preparing and practicing. The next section discusses the preparation process in more detail. The more fully you prepare and the more often you have practice, the more your anxiety will go away.
  • Focus on what you’re saying, not how you’re saying it. Keep in mind that you have ideas to share, and this is what your classmates and instructors are interested in. Don’t obsess about speaking, but focus on the content of your presentation. Think, for example, of how easily you share your ideas with a friend or family member, as you naturally speak your mind. The same can work with public speaking if you focus on the ideas themselves.
  • Develop self-confidence. As you prepare, you will make notes you can refer to during the presentation. You’re not going to forget what you want to say. The more you practice, the more confident you’ll become.

Guidelines for Presentations

Preparing and delivering a presentation in class (or in business or other settings) is a process very similar to the learning process discussed in Chapter 4 “Listening, Taking Notes, and Remembering”, Chapter 5 “Reading to Learn”, and Chapter 6 “Preparing for and Taking Tests” and the writing process discussed in Chapter 8 “Writing for Classes”. The process breaks down into these six basic steps:

  1. Analyze your audience and goals
  2. Plan, research, and organize your content
  3. Draft and revise the presentation
  4. Prepare speaking notes
  5. Practice the presentation
  6. Deliver the presentation

Step 1: Analyze Your Audience and Goals

Who will see and hear your presentation—and why? Obviously, other students and the instructor. But you still need to think about what they already know, and don’t know, about your topic. If your topic relates to subject matter in class lectures and readings, consider what background information they already have and be careful not to give a boring recap of things they already know. It may be important, however, to show how your specific topic fits in with subjects that have been discussed already in class, especially in the beginning of your presentation, but be sure to focus on your new topic.

New terms and concepts may become familiar to you while doing your research and preparation, but remember to define and explain them to other students. Consider how much explanation or examples will be needed for your audience to grasp your points. If your topic involves anything controversial or may provoke emotion, consider your audience’s attitudes and choose your words carefully. Thinking about your audience will help you find ways to get their attention and keep them interested.

Be sure you are clear about the goals for the presentation. Are you primarily presenting new information or arguing for a position? Are you giving an overview or a detailed report? Review the assignment and talk with the instructor if you’re unsure. Your goals guide everything in the presentation: what you say, how much you say, what order you say it in, what visual aids you use, whether you use humor or personal examples, and so forth.

Step 2: Plan, Research, and Organize Your Content

Starting with the assignment and your goals, brainstorm your topic. Jot notes on specific topics that seem important. Often you’ll do reading or research to gather more information. Take notes as you would with any reading. As you research the topic at this stage, don’t worry at first about how much content you are gathering. It’s better to know too much and then pick out the most important things to say than to rush ahead to drafting the presentation and then realize you don’t have enough material.

Organizing a presentation is similar to organizing topics in a class paper and uses the same principles. Introduce your topic and state your main idea (thesis), go into more detail about specific ideas, and conclude your presentation. Look for a logical order for the specifics in the middle. Some topics work best in chronological (time) order or with a compare-and-contrast organization. If your goal is to persuade the audience, build up to the strongest reason. Put similar ideas together and add transitions between different ideas.

While researching your topic and outlining your main points, think about visual aids that may help the presentation.

Also start thinking about how much time you have for the presentation, but don’t limit yourself yet in the outline stage.

Step 3: Draft and Revise the Presentation

Unless required by the assignment, you don’t need to actually write out the presentation in full sentences and paragraphs. How much you write depends on your own learning and speaking style. Some students speak well from brief phrases written in an outline, while other students find it easier to write sentences out completely. There’s nothing wrong with writing the presentation out fully like a script if that helps you be sure you will say what you intend to—just so you don’t actually get up and read from the script.

You can’t know for sure how long a presentation will last until you rehearse it later, but you can estimate the time while drafting it. On the average, it takes two to three minutes to speak what can be written on a standard double-spaced page—but with visual aids, pauses, and audience interaction, it may take longer. While this is only a rough guide, you can start out thinking of a ten-minute presentation as the equivalent of a three to four-page paper.

Never wait until the last minute to draft your presentation. Arrange your time to prepare the first draft and then come back to it a day or two later to ask these questions:

  • Am I going on too long about minor points? Could the audience get bored?
  • Do I have good explanations and reasons for my main points? Do I need more data or better examples? Where would visual aids be most effective?
  • Am I using the best words for this topic and this audience? Should I be more or less informal in the way I talk?
  • Does it all hold together and flow well from one point to the next? Do I need a better introduction or transition when I shift from one idea to another?

Visual Aids in Presentations

Except for very short informal presentations, most presentations gain from visuals—and visual aids are often expected. If encouraged or allowed to include visuals in your presentation, plan to do so. Consider all possible types:

  • Charts or graphs
  • Maps
  • Photos or other images
  • Video clips
  • Handouts (only when necessary—they can be distracting)

Use the available technology, whether it’s an overhead projector, PowerPoint slides, a flip chart, or posters. (Talk to your instructor about resources and software for designing your visuals.) Follow these guidelines:

  • Design your visuals carefully. Here are some basic rules:

    • Use a simple, neutral background. A light-colored background with text in a dark color works best for words; a dark background used like matting works best for photos.
    • Minimize the amount of text in visuals—more than eight words per slide is usually too much. Avoid simply presenting word outlines of what you are saying. Make sure text is large enough for the audience to read.
    • Don’t use more than two pictures in a slide, and use two only to make a direct comparison. Montages are hard to focus on and distract the viewer from what you’re saying. Use images only when they support your presentation; don’t use clip art just as decoration.
    • Don’t put a table of numbers in a visual aid. If you need to illustrate numerical data, use a graph. (Microsoft Excel can make them for you easily.)
    • Don’t use sound effects. Use a very brief recording only if directly related to your main points.
    • Don’t use visual special effects such as dissolves, spins, box-outs, or other transitions. They are distracting. Use animation sparingly and only if it helps make a point.
  • Don’t use so many visuals or move through them so quickly that the audience gives all its attention to them rather than to you.
  • Practice your presentation using your visual aids, because they affect your timing.
  • Explain visuals when needed but not when they’re obvious.
  • Keep your eyes on your audience, only briefly glancing at visuals to stay in synch with them.
  • Don’t hand out a printout of your visuals. Your audience should keep their eyes on you instead of fiddling around with paper.

Step 4: Prepare Speaking Notes

As mentioned earlier, it’s not a good idea to read your presentation from a written page rather than deliver it. To keep your audience’s attention, it’s important to make eye contact with them and to use a normal speaking voice—and you can’t do this if you keep your eyes on a written script.

Speaking notes are a brief outline for your presentation. You might write them on index cards or sheets of paper. Include important facts and data as well as keywords for your main ideas, but don’t write too much. (If you forget things later when you start practicing, you can always add more to your outline then.) Be sure to number your cards or pages to prevent a last-minute mix-up.

Think especially about how to open and close your presentation, because these two moments have the most impact of the whole presentation. Use the opening to capture the audience’s attention, but be sure it is appropriate for your audience and the goals. Here are some possibilities for your opening:

  • A striking fact or example (illustrating an issue or a problem)
  • A brief interesting or humorous anecdote (historical, personal, or current event)
  • A question to the audience
  • An interesting quotation

Then relate the opening to your topic and your main point and move into the body of the presentation.

Your closing mirrors the opening. Transition from your last point to a brief summary that pulls your ideas together. You might end with a challenge to the audience, a strong statement about your topic, or a personal reflection on what you have been saying. Just make sure you have a final sentence planned so that you don’t end up uncomfortably fumbling around at the end (“Well, I guess that ends my presentation”).

Step 5: Practice the Presentation

Practice may be the most important step. It is also the best way to get over stage fright and gain confidence.

Practice first in an empty room where you imagine people sitting, so that you can move your eyes around the room to this “audience.” The first time through, focus on putting your outlined notes into full sentences in your natural speaking voice. Don’t read your notes aloud. Glance down at your notes only briefly and then look up immediately around the room. Practice two or three times just to find the right words to explain your points and feel more comfortable working with your notes. Time yourself, but don’t obsess over your presentation being the exact length required. If your presentation is much too long, however, adjust it now in your notes so that you don’t start memorizing things that you might accidentally still say later on even though you cut them from your notes.

Once you feel good speaking from your notes, practice to add some more polish to your delivery. You might want to record or videotape your presentation or ask a friend or roommate to watch your presentation. Pay attention to these aspects of how you speak:

  • Try to speak in your natural voice, not in a monotone as if you were just reading aloud. If you will be presenting in a large room without a microphone, you will need to speak louder than usual, but still try to use a natural voice.
  • In usual conversation, we speed up and slow down and vary the intensity of our words to show how we feel about what we’re saying. Practice changes in your delivery style to emphasize key points.
  • Don’t keep looking at your notes. It’s fine if you use words that are different from those you wrote down—the more you rehearse without looking at your notes, the more natural sounding you will be.
  • Be sure you can pronounce all new words and technical terms correctly. Practice saying them slowly and clearly to yourself until you can say them naturally.
  • Don’t forget transitions. Listeners need a cue when you’re moving to a new idea. Practice phrases such as “Another important reason for this is…” or “Now let’s move on to why this is so.…”
  • Watch out for all those little “filler” words people use so often, such as “like,” “you know,” “well,” and “uh.” They’re very distracting to most audiences. Listen to or watch your tape to see if you are using these fillers or ask your friend to point it out.
  • Pay attention to body language when practicing. Stand up straight and tall in every practice session so that you become used to it. Unless you have to stand at a podium to use a fixed microphone in your presentation, practice moving around while you speak; this helps keep the audience watching you. Use hand and arm gestures if they are natural for you, but don’t try to make up gestures for the presentation because they will look phony. Most important, keep your eyes moving over the audience. Practice smiling and pausing at key points.
  • Finally, it’s a good idea to be ready in case of an accident. Most likely your presentation will go smoothly, you’ll stay on track with your notes, and your PowerPoint slides will work fine, but sometimes a mishap happens. Be ready to joke about it, rather than becoming flustered. If the computer fails and you lose your visuals, say something like, “Well, that’s a shame, I had some really great photos to show you!” If you drop your index cards or notes, or accidentally skip ahead in your presentation and then have to backtrack, make a joke: “Sorry about that, I was so excited to get to my next point that I’m afraid I lost control there for a moment!” Let your audience laugh with you—they’ll still be on your side, and you can defuse the incident and move on without becoming more nervous.

Step 6: Deliver the Presentation

Be sure to get enough sleep and eat a healthy breakfast. Don’t drink too much caffeine or else you’ll become hyper and nervous. Wear your favorite—and appropriate—clothing and comfortable shoes.

Figure 7.7

A man presenting on a small tablet

You may use computerized visual aids when you give a presentation to a class.

Remember, your audience is on your side! If you’re still nervous before your turn, take a few deep breaths. Rehearse your opening lines in your mind. Smile as you move to the front of the room, looking at your audience. You’ll see some friendly faces smiling back encouragingly. As you start the presentation, move your eyes among those giving you a warm reception—and if you see some student looking bored or doing something else, just ignore them. But don’t focus on any one person in the audience for too long, which could make them nervous or cause them to look away.

Don’t keep looking at your watch or a clock: If your rehearsal times were close to your assigned time, your presentation will be also. If you do notice that you’re running behind schedule, it may be that you’re saying too much out of nervousness. Use your notes to get back on track and keep the pace moving. But it’s better to deliver your presentation naturally and fluidly and be a bit long or short than to try to change your words and end up sounding unnatural.

At the closing, deliver your last line with confidence, sweeping your eyes over the audience. If appropriate, ask if there are any questions. When you’re done, pause, smile, say “Thank you,” and walk back to your seat.

Later on, ask other students and your instructor for comments. Be open minded—don’t just ask for praise. If you hear a suggestion for improvement, file that in your memory for next time.

Group Presentations

You may be assigned to give a presentation in a small group. The six-step process discussed previously works for group presentations, too, although group dynamics often call for additional planning and shared responsibilities:

  1. Schedule a group meeting as soon as possible to get started. Don’t let another student put things off. Explain that you’re too busy and won’t have time at the last minute.
  2. Begin by analyzing your audience and your goals together as a group to make sure everyone understands the assignment the same. Discuss who should do what. While everyone should talk about what content to include, from here onward, you will take on specialized roles. One or more may begin research and gathering information. Others who are good writers may volunteer to draft the presentation, while one or more others may develop the visual aids. Those who have public speaking experience may volunteer to do all or most of the speaking (unless the assignment requires everyone to have a speaking role). You also need a team leader to keep everyone on schedule, organize meetings, and so on. The best team leader is an even-tempered student with good social skills, who can motivate everyone to cooperate.
  3. Steps 2 and 3 can likely be carried out individually with assigned tasks, but group members should stay in touch. For example, the person developing the visuals should be talking to those doing the researching and drafting to see what visuals are needed and get started finding or creating them.
  4. Before preparing notes in step 4, meet again to go over the content and plan for visuals. Everyone should be comfortable with the plan so far. Make final decisions about who will do each section of the presentation. Set the time for each segment. Then speakers should prepare their own speaking notes. Let someone with strong speaking skills open or close the presentation (or both), with others doing the other parts.
  5. The whole group should be present for practice sessions in step 5, even if not everyone is speaking. Those not speaking should take notes and give feedback. If one student is doing most of the presenting, an alternate should be chosen in case the first choice is sick on the scheduled day. The alternate also needs to practice.
  6. During the delivery, especially if using technology for visual aids, one student should manage the visuals while others do the presenting. If several students present different segments, plan the transition from one to another so that the presentation keeps flowing without pauses.

Additional Resources

For Class Presentations

Using PowerPoint. A step-by-step illustrated tutorial for learning how to create effective visual presentations with PowerPoint. https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/tutorials/powerpoint/

“How to Give a Bad Talk.” A humorous look (with some very good advice) on what not to do when preparing for and giving a class presentation. http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~pattrsn/talks/BadTalk.pdf

Class presentations on YouTube. Search YouTube with the phrase “class presentation” and look for video examples of actual students giving class presentations. Observing and critiquing the presentations of other students are good ways to get started preparing your own and learning from others. Here’s a good example of a student group presentation on a topic we can all relate to (how body language works):

In this presentation, take note of

  • how students make good eye contact with the audience;
  • the first student’s natural speaking voice and tone, and how she did not have to use her note cards very often (obviously she practiced well);
  • some differences among these students;
  • the use of PowerPoint slides within the presentation (some better than others);
  • the appropriate occasional use of humor;
  • the division of presentation responsibilities within the student group;
  • each presenter’s interaction with the audience.

Key Takeaways

  • Public speaking skills are important because you will likely give presentations in class and perhaps in a future job.
  • Overcome anxiety about public speaking by understanding your feelings, preparing well and practicing your delivery, and focusing on your subject.
  • Follow a six-step process to prepare and deliver a presentation:

    1. Analyze your audience and goals
    2. Plan, research, and organize your content
    3. Draft and revise the presentation
    4. Prepare speaking notes
    5. Practice the presentation
    6. Deliver the presentation and seek feedback
  • Use visual aids to support a presentation, creating visuals that are relevant, attractive, and powerful.
  • The success of a group presentation depends on effective group meetings, successful division of roles, and repeated group practices.

Checkpoint Exercises

  1. If you have given a class presentation in the past, what worked best for you? (If you have not given a presentation yet as a student, what aspect do you think will be most difficult for you?)

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  2. Name the two most important things you can do to reduce anxiety about a class presentation you will have to give.

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  3. For each of the following statements about class presentations, circle T for true or F for false:

    T F Although you are delivering the presentation to the class, your real audience is your instructor, so you don’t need to waste time defining terms and concepts he or she already knows.
    T F Organizing a presentation or speech is similar to organizing topics in a paper you write for class.
    T F When creating visual aids, put as many photos as you can in each PowerPoint slide to have the strongest impact.
    T F In case your memory goes blank while giving a presentation, write the full presentation out so that you can read it aloud.
  4. Describe how best to use body language (facial expressions, eye movements, gestures, etc.) when giving a presentation.

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  5. If you were assigned along with three other students to give a group presentation in the class using this textbook, what would be your preferred role in the preparation stages? Your least preferred role? If you had to take your least preferred role, what single thing would you want to work hardest on to make the presentation successful?

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This is a derivative of College Success by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.