Communication Skills

Oral Presentation

The success of an oral presentation depends on many things, not least of which is enthusiasm: both for the topic itself and for your audience. Enthusiasm is contagious: if you appear interested in the topic you can transfer that interest to your audience. You must try to engage the audience: maintaining eye contact with them is a good start.

Keep it simple: remember that your audience is probably hearing the information you present for the first time so you need to organize your talk to explain terms and proceed logically from one point to another. Use overheads or slides to present dot points as you go to help your audience follow the talk. You may like to use a summary overhead (either at the beginning or the end: twice is probably superfluous). You will probably have a time limit for your presentation so try not to repeat information unnecessarily. Don’t be afraid to incorporate humour into your talk: it will relieve your nerves and help to engender interest and empathy in the audience (provided what you say is actually humorous).

Be prepared

You must fully understand your topic so that you can speak confidently and free yourself from having to read your notes verbatim. Try to avoid writing out the whole text of your talk, but if you must, then highlight keywords and phrases in the text so you can use them to prompt your memory of whole sections. Once you become more experienced you can write just the keywords to guide you through the talk.

Assume that all things technological will break down so have backups: if you are using Powerpoint projection it is a good idea to have overheads or slides on hand in case of computer breakdowns. And if you are preparing slides for that all-important Honours seminar then it might be a good idea not even to trust the slide projector and have overheads as a backup!

Visual aids

Use overheads or slides with dot points that summarize your talk. Don’t put too much information on any one page: a good rule is about five dot points per page/slide. Put prompts in your notes to remind you when to refer to visual aids.

Avoid the temptation to use all the decorative borders and backgrounds that computer packages such as Powerpoint provide. You don’t want your visuals to be so busy with decoration that the information gets lost and the audience is distracted from your message. Your graphics should be simple to understand and thus should only include the information and data that you will have time to speak about. Refer to the entry on Chartjunk in the Graphical Techniques section of this manual.

Voice and body

Try to warm up your voice and facial muscles before you start speaking. Even humming softly can help to warm up your vocal cords. Speak in a natural tone of voice and don’t speak in a monotone. If you need to pause to think, try to train yourself actually to pause, i.e. say nothing, rather than fill the void with um or er. Try to practice this technique even in normal conversation. Pauses can be used judiciously to focus the audience’s attention: they will wait for you to continue, rather than get irritated by listening to you um and ah. Don’t speak too slowly or quickly. Nervousness often makes people speak too quickly so it may help to write prompts in your notes reminding you to slow down.

Your body language is important, as is your general appearance, which should be neat and tidy. You should face the audience and try to make eye contact (but don’t stare at the same person in the front row for the entire talk!). Direct your gaze to the back of the audience. Remember that EVERYTHING you do in front of your audience can be distracting, e.g. fidgeting with notes, making constant hand gestures, or wearing an inflammatory message on your T-shirt.

You will learn to control your nerves with practice. If you feel very nervous you should avoid holding items such as pages of notes (use a lectern if possible) or using a laser pointer, which magnifies the slightest hand tremor.

Rehearse

If possible, you should rehearse your talk in front of your peers or (further down the track) your research supervisor. Become familiar with the multimedia technology you will be using and make sure you know where the on-off switch is for the overhead projector, slide projector and room lights.

Summary

Simplicity: well-organized and logical
 Preparation: notes, graphics, voice
  Enthusiasm: it’s contagious!
   Avoid: monotone
    Keywords: don’t read notes
  Speech: not too slow or fast
 Maintain: eye contact
  Avoid: cluttered visuals
   Rehearsal: text, use of projectors
    Technology: know thine enemy!

References

The following Websites have more hints on how to give effective oral presentations. While they may not be specifically related to scientific talks, the general guidelines are the same.

If you wish to improve your vocal delivery, an excellent reference is:

Berry, C, (1975) Your voice and how to use it successfully (Harrap: London) Fisher Research 808.5 52