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Effective Oral Presentations

Standing next to the screen, John can steer the audience's attention toward the current slide by pointing at it with his hand and looking at it briefly, then get the attention back to himself by looking at the audience again.
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Delivering effective oral presentations involves three components: what you say (verbal), how you say it with your voice (vocal), and everything the audience can see about you (visual). For all three components, maximize the signal-to-noise ratio: Amplify what helps, filter out what hurts.

Verbally (and as a general rule), do not write down and memorize or read your full text, because then your presentation will sound like what it is: a recited written text. Instead, memorize the outline of your presentation — that is, a tree structure of main points and subpoints — and speak ex tempore, reinventing the words as you go along. As you do, you will occasionally need to think about what to say next and find the most appropriate words to say it. Instead of using filler words (um, er, you know, I mean, etc.), simply pause. If you say um, you get about half a second of thinking time and the audience is likely to notice the um and be irritated by it. If you keep silent, you can get up to two or three seconds of thinking time without the audience noticing anything. Even if attendees do notice the silence, they will simply think that you are choosing your words carefully — and there is nothing wrong with that.

Despite pointing often at the screen, Marie nicely faces the audience with her body at all times, keeps her hands down between gestures, and maintains eye contact with the attendees.
Vocally, vary the tone, rate, and volume of your voice as a function of the meaning, complexity, and importance of what you are saying. You need not invent a new intonation pattern: You simply need to amplify your normal pattern.

Visually, control your body. Adopt a stable, confident position; move only when you have a positive reason to do so (for example, move closer to the audience for taking questions), not when your body seems to ask for it. When you make a gesture, make it large and deliberate; between gestures, bring your hands down and do not fidget. Establish eye contact: Engage the audience by looking them straight in the eyes.

At all times, make sure you address the audience. Even if you have slides, tell the audience your story in a stand-alone way; do not just explain your slides. In particular, anticipate your slides. You should know at all times what your next slide is about so you can insert an appropriate transition.

Delivering as a non-native speaker

To keep the audience engaged , Jean-luc emphasizes his points with facial expressions, purposeful gestures, and — especially — a high dynamic range in his vocal delivery.
If you are a non-native speaker of English, you may find it more challenging to speak ex tempore in English than in your native language. Still, even imperfect extemporaneous English is more likely to engage the audience than reciting a more polished, less spontaneous written text. To improve your delivery and overall presentation as a non-native speaker, practice more, pace yourself, and support your spoken discourse with appropriate slides.

While all speakers benefit from practicing their presentations multiple times, consider investing more time in such practice if you are less familiar with the language. Practicing helps you identify missing vocabulary, including key technical terms (which are difficult to circumvent), and express your ideas more fluently. As you practice, you may want to prepare a list of difficult words (to review on the day of your presentation) or write down an occasional complex yet crucial sentence. Still, do not feel bound to what you write down. These notes should be a help, not a constraint.

Practicing in front of an audience (a few colleagues, for example) can help you correct or refine your pronunciation. If you are unsure how to pronounce some words or phrases, you can ask native speakers in advance or check online dictionaries that offer phonetic spelling or audio rendering. Still, you may be unaware of certain words you mispronounce; a practice audience can point these words out to you if you invite it to do so.

During your presentation, pace yourself. As a non-native speaker, you may feel you need to search for your words more often or for a longer time than in your native language, but the mechanism is the same. Do not let this challenge pressure you. Give yourself the time you need to express your ideas clearly. Silence is not your enemy; it is your friend.

Pacing yourself also means speaking more slowly than you otherwise might, especially if you have an accent in English. Accents are common among non-native speakers — and among specific groups of native speakers, too — and they are not a problem as long as they are mild. Often, they are experienced as charming. Still, they take some getting used to. Remember to slow down, especially at the beginning of a presentation, so your audience can get used to your accent, whether native or not.

As a non-native speaker or when speaking in front of a non-native audience, consider supporting your presentation with slides. Effective slides (see Creating Presentation Slides) get the message across on their own, so if attendees do not understand what you are saying, they can still get your point from your slides. If your spoken English is imperfect or if their understanding of English is limited, attendees are more likely to get the point from the slides (verbal statements, illustrated visually) than from your spoken text. If you have a strong accent or are prone to mispronounce key terms, you may want to include these terms on your slides, integrating them as naturally as possible with the rest of the slide content. Then, as you say a term for the first time, you might point to it casually on the slide so the audience makes the connection between the term and how you say it.

Handling stage fright and mishaps

Most speakers, even experienced ones, are nervous before or during an oral presentation. Such stage fright is normal and even reassuring: It shows that you care, and you should care if you want to deliver an effective presentation. Accordingly, accept your stage fright rather than feeling guilty about it. Instead of trying to suppress nervousness, strive to focus your nervous energy in your voice, your gestures, and your eye contact. Do not let it dissipate into entropy, such as by using filler words or engaging in nervous mannerisms.

Among the many ways to keep your nerves under control, perhaps the most effective one is to focus constructively on your purpose at all times. Before your presentation, eliminate all the unknowns: Prepare your presentation well, identify (or even meet) your audience, and know the room. During the presentation, do what it takes to get your message across, even if it means doing something differently than you had planned. Have a positive attitude about the presentation at all times: Visualize what you want to achieve, not what you want to avoid.

Even with careful preparation, mishaps can occur. For example, technology may fail, you may forget what you wanted to say, or you may accidentally say the wrong thing. As a rule, do not apologize for what happens — neither in advance nor after the fact. Although well-meant, such apologies provide no benefit to the audience: They are noise. If you can do something about the problem, such as fix the technology or insert what you forgot later in the presentation, concentrate on doing so instead of apologizing. If the problem is out of your control, then there is no need to apologize for it. As a specific example, if you feel your command of English is poor, then do what you can in advance to improve it; in particular, practice your presentation thoroughly. Then, on the day of the presentation, do your best with the command you have, but do not apologize at the beginning of the presentation for what you think is poor English. This apology will not solve anything, and it gives the attendees a negative image of you. Rather, let the attendees judge for themselves whether your command of English is sufficient (perhaps it is, despite what you might think). In other words, focus on delivering results, not excuses.


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