Stand and Deliver
Improve your presentation skills for class assignments and beyond.
By Cheryl McEvoy
You research, analyze and conclude. Then you have to present. It's an oft-dreaded part of the curriculum, when classmates become critics and teachers seem poised to mark any "um" or "ah" off your presentation grade.
Even after 34 years of public speaking, executive speech coach Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE, said she still feels "apprehensive" before walking on stage. "It's nerve-wracking," she admitted.
At the same time, there are plenty of ways to prepare that will ensure a smooth presentation. Here, Fripp shares her tips, from preliminary prep to the finishing touch.
Before the Presentation
■Think logically. Before you start putting the presentation together, take a moment to look over your research and decide the major point you want to make. Once you identify that, pick talking points that support that case. "If you spend time on that so you have logical, organized remarks … a lot of the delivery will take care of itself," Fripp said.
■Identify trigger terms. Once you've determined the most important points to include, pick a few words that will remind you of each one, and list those on a paper for quick reference during the presentation. Fripp suggested printing the keywords in large font on card stock paper instead of using small index cards. That way, there are fewer items to hold or mix up.
■Use visuals wisely. Speakers commonly make the mistake of using PowerPoint to construct their presentation; the slideshow should be one of the last things created, after the presentation has been outlined, Fripp said. She advised students to organize their presentations on paper, and then determine where visuals would help classmates understand a specific point. "Remember, they're called 'visual aides,' not 'scripting aides,'" Fripp said.
■Rehearse. It may feel silly, but nothing beats rehearsing. And it doesn't have to be boring, either. Practice while doing another activity, like running on a treadmill. "When you're walking around, your left brain and right brain are triggered, so you see structure as well as the fluency of the words," Fripp said.
If it's an important presentation, recruit a few friends to serve as an audience. You'll get used to speaking in front of people, and they can offer feedback. If your delivery starts to feel robotic, look at your script and retool any areas that feel awkward. However you rehearse, make sure you do it more than once, twice or even three times, Fripp said.
During the Presentation
■Relax. It's normal to be nervous when you're in the spotlight, but if you've practiced enough, your confidence should shake some of those jitters. Just remember to breathe, Fripp said. "Conserve your energy, focus on the presentation and don't get distracted," she advised.
■Expect the unexpected. Technological difficulties happen, but if something goes haywire during your presentation, it's best to keep your cool. "The audience won't be bothered as long as you're not flustered," Fripp said. "They're sympathetic; they're on your side." Use a filler line, such as "I've always been told I'm better without PowerPoint. Let's give it a try." Then rely on your paper with trigger points to get through the presentation.
■Invite questions. If it's appropriate, be open to peer remarks. Before you close, tell classmates you'll respond to their questions, but encourage them to be short and specific.
■Have the last word. Even if you allow questions, make sure to close with your own statement. Classmates could bring up a negative or irrelevant point, so you'll want to get the presentation back on track and "end on a high," Fripp said. "Your last words linger," she explained, "and you want them to be yours."
Cheryl McEvoy is an assistant editor with ADVANCE.