I remember little of my first presentations. I remember a great deal of preparation and anxiety. I remember my first title slide and then my memory is blank until that shocking moment when I finished my last slide and found myself out of breath and staring at a room of faces.
Beginner’s jitters is understandable. Anxiety before any public speaking is understandable. While I have been the highest rated speaker of my track at a huge multi-day conference, I've also choked in a very public and embarrassing way. These things happen. But they’re more likely to happen when we forget what it is we are actually doing when we are presenting: communicating. Even though one person is doing the majority of the talking, there are other flesh-and-blood humans present. Many are probably interested in what you are saying and want you to do well. Some may be glad they’re not up there. Some are probably checking their e-mail. The old tip to imagine one’s audience as naked is intended to transform the intimidating wall of faces into a group of actual people.
I never made much use of the nudist tip, but I feel my presentations improve if I force myself to take a moment and really look about the audience, make eye contact, and find a couple of people who are alert and friendly looking, people who I could, essentially, talk to. (I first appreciated this dynamic as an undergraduate when it felt as if the teachers often taught the whole class to me. I realized I “gave good face” and this helped my participation grade. As a teacher I appreciate, and I’ve heard other faculty speak of, those students that give feedback: those who are alert, nod, frown, or otherwise participate in the body language inherent to human communication.)
Consequently, my approach is to try to engage, go slow, and leave lots of time for questions. I've provided some tips to this end:
- Don’t read your paper. While this is acceptable in some academic disciplines, elsewhere it is bad form and can encourage very bad habits.
- Go slowly and speak to the back of the room. This can’t be stressed enough. Even though time is rushing by in an adrenaline fueled rush, any pause or silence seems interminable. (Presenters must exist in some time warped dimension?) I’ve seen many presenters mumble quickly into their chest, I don’t recall anyone speaking too slowly and clearly. Take a breath, look about, smile.
- Use you’re speaking aids (e.g., slides, index cards, etc.) as a prompt or specific illustration, not as a crutch. (For example, don’t talk to the board or the presentation screen.) You don’t have to memorize your talk, but you should be able to recall the outline (e.g., the title or main point of each of your slides) from memory.
- Enjoy yourself. Express a bit of your personality. Presentations can make us nervous, but this can give us energy and pop. It’s your 15 minutes of fame.
- Watch and learn from others. Become a student of what works well when you are in the audience.
- Most importantly: Rehearse and record your presentation. Since you won’t be able to trust your time sense and you need to know the narrative arc of your presentation well, run through it a few times. (I usually record my rehearsal, watch it so as to make notes for improvement, and repeat.) Use these rehearsals to ensure that your main points are clear, you have a nice flow (e.g., smooth segues), and finish on time.
An excellent presentation is outstanding in its content and form, it:
- has a clear "entrance" and "exit" to the talk (e.g., "good morning" and "thank you for listening, any questions?")
- is well organized such that the listener knows where in the presentation she is at any given point
- flows smoothly (e.g., rhetorical questions and segues)
- is active (e.g., speaking in the first-person and in the present)
- is well motivated and illustrated (e.g., accessible cases or personal experiences)
- makes a well-supported and engaging argument/position
- references class sources and discussion
- compares, contrasts, and critiques those sources when appropriate
- has a good pace with dynamic tonality and the appropriate use of pauses
- demonstrates comfort before the room, including eye contact with participants
- references other presentations
- is finished on time
- prompts interest and questions from participants