Your Next Presentation Could Be Your Best – Here’s How

Preparing for a class presentation may cause sweaty palms and butterflies, but sharing your ideas in front of a group need not fill you with feelings of terror or force you to rely on overloaded PowerPoint slides that put an entire class to sleep.

The key to creating a class presentation is to approach it in a manner similar to the initial development of a written assignment – with careful research, analysis, content development, and the use of an attention-getting intro and effective conclusion. Then add visuals and take time to prepare, and you’ll soon find that the process (and your natural anxiety) can be manageable.

Preparation is the Key

You know that you should be prepared, but how do you begin? Start with an outline and use the presentation criteria as your initial guide. What are the objectives for the assignment? Will it be based upon your experience and background, or will you need to conduct research for additional subject matter content? Consider what you know now about the topic and list any experiences you can add to your speech. As you start to organize your thoughts and ideas, you may want to consider using a mind map to help connect important concepts, as your presentation needs a logical flow, similar to writing an effective paper.

In Public Speakers' Advice to Public Speakers, there are helpful tips provided and within the list are two important points to keep in mind. The first is to avoid waiting until the last minute to write your speech. It will be challenging to prepare ahead of time if you haven’t fully developed your thoughts and ideas. You also need time to create your visual aids once the speech has been written, and practice using them as part of your speech. Another point that is emphasized is a need to create a powerful introduction to gain the audience’s attention. A weak introduction may lose the audience.

At All Times, Be Persuasive

The heart of a meaningful class presentation is one that connects with the audience through the power of persuasion. Persuasive speaking consists of three components, “ethos (credibility), logos (logic), and pathos (emotion).” You establish credibility by being informed about the topic and knowing your materials well. Your speech needs a logical flow, which means that once the conclusion is reached, your audience agrees with you, based upon utilization of logic and reasoning throughout the speech. This requires the use of critical thinking, similar to how you would approach the development of a paper. The last component listed is emotion, which is an element that is left out when students simply stand and read their notes or slides.

Persuasive speaking is also different than informative speaking. There are times when your instructor may ask you to simply state the facts about an issue or present a general summary. That’s when informative speaking is necessary. However, most class presentations involve persuasive speaking, which requires the use of emotions to generate interest and commitment. While it may not seem likely that commitment is part of a class speech, consider what you want your classmates (and instructor) to do. You want them to accept the premise of your speech and reach the same conclusion you have about the topic. You want them to learn something new or develop a new perspective about the subject. That requires the use of persuasion.

In Be a Persuasive Speaker, a suggestion is made for the development of an approach that connects with your audience and it “starts by putting yourself in their shoes, seats and mindset;” and asking yourself, “if I were in the audience, what is the most urgent, important message I need to hear?” That’s a perspective that students often forget about because they are focused on what they need to say or what needs to be accomplished. While that is certainly important, you can bring the presentation to life if you show an interest in the audience and care about their possible reaction to the materials, visual aids, and subject matter delivered. This approach can also help you feel connected to your audience and reduce your anxiety.

Create Notes But Rely on Your Memory

Using notes is another source of stress for students when they are preparing for delivery of their presentation. If they don’t have notes nearby, they become afraid of forgetting an important point or losing their concentration. What often happens instead is that the notes become a crutch and the delivery feels forced, without a natural flow. If you allowed enough time to prepare and to develop a feel for the materials, what you’ll find is that your natural (and relaxed) approach of talking from memory is much more effective, even if you miss any of the points you wanted to address.

What you can do to help retain the information contained in your notes is to use techniques that boost your memory. In Memory Champion Joshua Foer Reveals Secrets of the Brain, it shared the story of an “average” person who learned to develop an extraordinary ability to memorize information. It turns out that he is no different than anyone else; however, he learned to harness the power of imagery. The “trick” he uses is to associate images, typically shocking or outlandish, to represent everything he wants to remember and it works well. He can memorize hundreds of numbers and words within a short period of time. This is similar to how we remember events in our lives – from images we have seen in person or in the news.

Connect With Your Audience by Telling a Good Story

The most memorable presentations are those that engage the audience and connect with them. The more you make it interesting for them to hear, the more you’ll be interested and engaged in the speech as well. It will also be evident in your tone and body language. A method that speakers rely upon that you can use as well is to utilize storytelling. Professional speaker and author Carmine Gallo discussed this strategy in his article Use Storytelling to Strengthen Your Presentations. Gallo relates this to politicians who understand the importance of making an emotional connection and they accomplish this by sharing personal stories. It builds a connection with the audience and puts the message in a context that they can relate to. Gallo has learned that information (data) can “satisfy the analytical part of our brains, but stories touch our hearts.”
 
In Delivering Your Presentation: Telling stories, Rebecca Ganzel (managing editor of Presentations) stated that “stories in presentations are a powerful way to trigger an emotional response and engage an audience's memory.” Through the use of stories you can bring the information you’ve researched and analyzed to life. You may not believe that your classmates will be interested in hearing a personal story but consider how it can break the ice and help you (and them) relax. If you feel and/or appear uptight, the impact of your message will be lessened. If you appear comfortable and share a personal experience that connects with them, they will be more willing to listen and consider what you have to say. And it does not have to be an elaborate story either. You can talk about the development of your project, including challenges or “aha” moments, as a means of relating to them.

Choose and Use the Right Visual Aids

What you use as an aid is just as important as what you say. In Reasons to Use Visual Aids, the following is provided: a visual aid improves audience understanding and memory, serves as notes, provides clearer organization, facilitates more eye contact and motion by the speaker, and contributes to speaker credibility. You want visual aids to enhance the presentation rather than replace your dynamic speech, which can be distracting if you include slides that contain too much information or too many special effects.

The first option that students consider is the inclusion of PowerPoint slides. Before you automatically add this to your presentation, consider the purpose or reason for adding it. You can include slides to serve as prompts that help aid your memory of the subject or topics. You can also use it to share photos, designs, or other relevant materials. As a general rule, it is recommended that you include one PowerPoint slide for every 1-2 minutes of presentation time as this provides the audience with enough time to review it and it keeps the focus on what you have to say.

It may seem that putting together a presentation has now become much more difficult because of the number of elements to consider. If you don’t take the time necessary to prepare, you probably know what the outcome will be like – your worst fears about looking and feeling nervous will all come true and the audience will quickly lose interest. A successful presentation requires time for development, a well-rehearsed speech, and an overriding purpose of connecting with the audience in a meaningful way. As you learn to approach your next presentation from the perspective of making it fun and engaging for you and your audience, you will likely find that it becomes your best performance.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

Photo © Studio Zoo/ImageZoo/Corbis

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