Many students dread giving oral presentations in class, yet sooner or later students in most programs will be obligated to do so. If you perspire at the mere thought of giving a seminar, or even if you're comfortable speaking in front of a group, there are ways and means to improve both the quality of your presentation skills and your comfort with them.
Although this handout addresses only one aspect of presenting, many different skills are involved in a successful oral presentation, and they are all interrelated. For additional information, or for feedback and advice on maximizing your presentation skills, see the last section.
Some nervousness when speaking in front of a group is not only inevitable, it's also desirable. If it can be controlled, your nervousness can be translated into excitement or enthusiasm, and that makes for a presentation that is exciting and interesting to the audience. Excessive nervousness can take away any pleasure that doing the presentation may give you, but it may also have a negative effect on your performance. Learning more about the impact of nervousness is an important first step to controlling any negative effect nervousness may have on your performance or your marks.
A judicious choice of topic is equally, if not more, important in an oral assignment than in a written one. Your lack of interest or enthusiasm for the topic may lead to increased anxiety about your presentation and will probably be apparent to your audience in your voice, expression, and gestures. However, if you choose a topic which is fascinating to you, it will be difficult to bore your audience. Most importantly, your involvement with the topic on an intellectual and emotional level will help to focus your attention on the material during the seminar, rather than on your own less than perfect presentation of it.
Nervousness and fear of presenting can lead to a vicious cycle of procrastination. You put off working on the presentation because of fear of not doing well, yet the longer it is put off, the less time there is to prepare and rehearse. As your preparation time decreases, the pressure, stress, and nervousness associated with the presentation increase. Good time planning strategies can provide the preparation time essential for controlling nervousness. If you are confident in your knowledge of the material, and if you've planned enough time for rehearsal, you can face the presentation knowing you've prepared for a successful performance.
You can manage nervousness by using effective rehearsal strategies. Your performance probably won't improve much without constructive feedback, so reading your presentation in front of a mirror has limited benefits. The better the feedback, the more quickly you'll improve, so consider using Learning Peer Helpers or professional staff in the Learning Commons, rather than your roommates or family, to provide constructive (and compassionate) criticism. Another strategy is to rehearse with equipment such as tape recorders and video cameras to allow you to review, and thus improve, your performance.
Time planning is important with presentations. You must have enough time to feel comfortable with any equipment or props you use in your presentation, and to develop your personal presentation "style" — the tone and gestures which are natural and effective for you. The more you rehearse, the more comfortable you'll become with your presentation, and the less nervous you'll be.
Regardless of your preparation beforehand, some nervousness is natural and inevitable. One performance strategy is to expect and accept nervousness. Rather than trying to stop your knees from shaking, let them shake, but realize that you can go on with your presentation. Musicians, athletes, and others who perform in public employ focusing strategies to control performance jitters. If, for example, your thoughts are on your sweating palms instead of on your material and its impact on your audience, then your audience may be attending to your nervousness as well. The strategy is to focus on one aspect of your presentation (for example, conveying your commitment to natural herbicides), rather than evaluating or criticising yourself as you go. If you can occupy your own "inner critic" with something other than evaluating your performance and feeding your nervousness, then you can free your concentration and energy to accomplish what you've set out to do — demonstrate your knowledge, and educate or motivate your audience.
Learning Services, located in the Learning Commons on the main floor of the Library, is the best source on campus for advice, information, and feedback on giving presentations and other learning, performance, and study-related issues. Our Peer Helpers provide free consultations to University of Guelph students. Peer Helpers are academically successful students, selected from a variety of disciplines, who have received extensive training in learning theories and communication skills. They can provide valuable advice and suggestions for improving your presentation skills. Staff are also available to provide consultation for students on presentation skills and other learning and study topics.