Oral Presentation Strategies
When writing is heard aloud, traditional written vocabulary and sentence structure often doesn’t work well. Good oral communication instead often sounds conversational. It’s structured so a live listener can follow easily. And it takes advantage of inflections, emphasis, and rhythm you can add when reading aloud.
1. There’s no such thing as too much eye contact
Body language communicates a vast amount of information to an audience, and making eye contact is like a silent way of saying “Hey you. Listen to me.” And it works in reverse: I’ve found that when I read while making eye contact with someone, I seem to intuitively adapt my reading style to them. Maybe I’m feeding off their body language.
Studies have indicated that:
- The amount of eye contact you make in a group conversation is more important than when you make it.
- Not making eye contact suggests to people you may be nervous, evasive, dishonest, or downright bored.
- But staring suggests an arrogant need to control the situation.
This suggests we should make plenty of eye contact and keep the gaze moving to incorporate all our audience. So it may be good to memorize–or at least be thoroughly familiar with–much of your speech, even if you’re expected to read it.
2. Consider your audience
Why will they be listening to you? What vocabulary will they best connect with? Are you the solo speaker or the last in a tedious series? Will they appreciate humor? Are they friends or strangers? Are they informal or formal? Asking these types of questions will suggest the best style and structure for your speech.
And no matter how formal the speech, consider throwing in the occasional casual word or phrase. Something unexpected is always welcome when listening to someone else drone on and on and on. Casual language also connects with people.
3. Consider using the “Tell ‘em” rule
I generally don’t encourage my students to use this old, formulaic chestnut in essays, but in speeches, “tell ‘em what you’ll say, say it, and then tell ‘em what you said.” Unlike the act of reading, listening means the audience can’t control the speed of words. And they can’t ‘rewind’ and review information. The “tell ‘em” principle thus ensures useful repetition and transitions.
On a deeper level, oral communication benefits from clear transitions, like saying “Now that we’ve discussed the reasons not to use passive voice, let’s examine a few exceptions[…]”. Likewise, speaking often benefits from the signal phrases (e.g. “In concluding my discussion…”) which are often unnecessary and patronizingly obvious in writing.
4. Three’s Tops
Some say people tune out after about 3 minutes’ listening. While I don’t think this is necessarily true, especially if you keep things interesting (see #2–“employ the occasional unexpected word”), and while not every speaking situation can be limited to 3 minutes, it’s crucial to keep things short.
And 3 is a good number for any points you’ll be listing. You know those Powerpoint presentations that squeeze ten bullet points onto a single slide? Efficient, maybe, but none too effective.
5. Illustrate your point
Examples in oral presentations do the same good things that they do for written texts: they make concrete the abstract points you’re trying to make. They allow time for the listener to consider the weight and validity the main point you’ve just made. And they provide a useful repetition of ideas that helps listeners retain your points. Here’s an example:
Richard Lanham talking about language in the information age:
“The fundamental metaphor shifts from static to dynamic. This “liquidity” of our basic alphabet will affect in profound ways how we think about reading, about literacy itself. What becomes, for example, of the stability of spelling, punctuation, and syntax? Will we return to the chaotic days of Elizabethan orthography?”
6. Tell ‘em why it’s important
Ever heard a speech where the presenter dives right into material and you’re left stranded in a sea of information wondering how the heck you got there? Don’t make castaways. Explain to the audience why they should be listening, how it might impact them, or how they might apply the concepts practically. If you read through the beginning of your speech and you haven’t answered the question, “So what?” you probably should, maybe by saying something like “The whole reason we should consider this is that…”
7. Be an actor
Dramatic pauses, even the occasional ‘uh’ gives prepared writing an in-the-moment, adaptive feel. Just listen to Marlon Brando deliver lines.
8. Make friends with repetition and emphasis
Although it can often seem simplistic and unimaginative in written texts, the usefully placed repetitive sentence structure clarifies what you’re saying. It emphasizes your points. It adds drama. It simulates how we talk. As for emphasis, Leo Rosten artfully and humorously shows just how significant it is:
from “The Joys of Yiddish”
- I should buy two tickets for her concert? (meaning: “After what she did to me?”)
- I should buy two tickets for her concert? (“What, you’re giving me a lesson in ethics?”)
- I should buy two tickets for her concert? (“I wouldn’t go even if she were giving out free passes!”)
- I should buy two tickets for her concert? (“I’m having enough trouble deciding whether it’s worth one.”)
- I should buy two tickets for her concert? (“She should be giving out free passes, or the hall will be empty.”)
- I should buy two tickets for her concert? (“Did she buy tickets to our daughter’s recital?”)
- I should buy two tickets for her concert? (“You mean, they call what she does a ‘concert’?”)
9. Be interactive
This could mean incorporating the audience through a Q&A session or through interactive supporting materials (visuals, a poster, handouts, a powerpoint presentation). Along with tip #4 (give examples), this encourages you to use varied learning styles. Richard Felder of North Carolina State describes different pairings of learners:
- sensing learners (concrete, practical, oriented toward facts and procedures) or intuitive learners (conceptual, innovative, oriented toward theories and meanings);
- visual learners (prefer visual representations of presented material–pictures, diagrams, flow charts) or verbal learners (prefer written and spoken explanations);
- inductive learners (prefer presentations that proceed from the specific to the general) or deductive learners (prefer presentations that go from the general to the specific);
- active learners (learn by trying things out, working with others) or reflective learners (learn by thinking things through, working alone);
- sequential learners (linear, orderly, learn in small incremental steps) or global learners (holistic, systems thinkers, learn in large leaps).
For more on learning style models like the Myers-Briggs Indicator and Kolb Model, and Brain Dominance charts, visit Richard Felder’s “Matters of Style”.
Or take Felder’s test to see where you fall on learning style scale.
10. Use S, M, and XL sentences.
Some speech experts suggest using short sentences because it’s conversational. While short sentences keep ideas more comprehensible for a live audience, it’s not really how we talk, because if you look at a transcript of a conversation, you’ll see that we do use short statements, but that we also sometimes ramble on and on. Or that we sometimes use fragments. And that they work.
Rhythmic and structural variety keeps things interesting and avoids monotomy. Don’t be monotonous.
So, in the style of good oral communication, I’ll recap what I’ve said.
The most important thing? Gauge your audience. Thinking about why they’re listening and what they already know will dictate much of your work.
Beyond that, realize you’re onstage. Engage your audience with everything from visual cues to vocal rhythm and emphasis.
Finally, be concise. Don’t go over your expected time limit. With that, I’m done.