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Giving presentations

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Practice is a crucial step in overcoming nerves and giving a confident presentation. Running through your material, your timing, and thinking of potential questions beforehand means you will go into your presentation ready to deliver it well. Remind yourself that your audience will be supportive and want you to succeed (especially if they are up to present next!) The suggestions on this page will help you deliver a professional presentation that will engage your audience.

Practising your presentation

Practising builds your confidence, and enables you to sharpen up your presentation and check your timing. If you can, practice in front of friends or colleagues.

Top tip…

Asking for feedback on specific aspects of your performance is likely to be more productive than saying "How did I do?" You might want to ask; "Was I talking too fast?" "Did you understand what I was trying to say?" "Did I wave my arms around too much?" etc.

Doing a proper rehearsal is the only way to see whether your timing is right. Your presentation will probably take longer than you think. If you are speaking for 10 minutes, prepare enough material for 8 minutes. Time yourself, then cut or condense points to make sure you are within the limit.

  • Know what material you could skip over during your presentation if you are running overtime.
  • If you do find you are under rather than over time, consider where you could expand.
  • Practice in moderation – if you overdo it, you could lose your freshness and be tired with your material.

Coordinating presenting in a group presents its own challenges. The links below have more advice on how to be effective in groups.

Overcoming nerves

Most people are nervous about speaking in public. Often this is because they are unsure about what they will face, and how to deal with it. Being well prepared and taking control can help to defuse these concerns.

Practising will give you more confidence about your timings. If you're using visual aids, check them carefully – make sure you are familiar with any technical equipment or have assistance.

If you are anxious that the audience will judge you, adopt a disguise! Dress more smartly than usual and play the role of a confident person for the day. Let them judge the disguise, not the real you.

If you are very nervous you may feel like you ought to apologise for this – or for other things like your accent, lack of time for preparation etc. It's better not to do this – apologising shows lack of confidence and will cause your audience to feel anxious too. Act confident, even if you don't feel it. If you feel yourself getting anxious, take a few deep breaths, or have a sip of water - it'll give you an excuse to stop for a moment.

Engaging the audience

You can get your audience on your side by making sure that they enjoy the presentation. If you look nervous, they will be uncomfortable and that will make you more nervous.

  • Take control of the room – signal the start by introducing yourself, and the end by thanking the audience and sitting down. Smile – you will feel better instantly, and the audience will warm to you.
  • Make eye contact - looking up and out at the audience will help you create a connection. If you find this difficult, have a friend sit in the audience – you can pretend you're giving the presentation just to them and they can nod approvingly at you!
  • Making eye contact also means you can check the audience's reaction. If they are looking puzzled, you may want to slow down and explain more.
  • Be aware of your body language. Standing up straight, facing the audience, and looking welcoming can make a big positive difference.
  • It can be helpful to think about your speaking tendencies. Do you tend to talk too quietly, too quickly, or too flatly? Practice your presentation with a friend and ask them to comment.

It's tempting to write your presentation as if it were a script for you to read. Unless you are a practised actor, and know how to memorise and deliver a line perfectly, this rarely works. It looks more natural and sounds more interesting if you speak from brief notes – say three bullet points on each of your main points. Most importantly, always try to talk to your audience – not your slides or the screen on the wall!

Timing

Getting your timing right is absolutely vital. If yours is one of a set of presentations, overrunning is discourteous to the other presenters. Good time-keeping demonstrates a professional approach and respect for your audience and fellow presenters.

If you only have a brief amount of time, convey a clear message by focusing on main points only. It can be hard to cut down a lot of work on a topic (for instance, for your dissertation) to a few points. However, communicating a few ideas clearly is more effective than confusing the audience with a barrage of information. Remember that you can always expand in response to questions.

  • Practise your presentation aloud.
  • Try to speak clearly and at a natural pace.
  • Don't be tempted to speed up to fit things in – think in advance about what you could cut out if you're overrunning.
  • You can use pauses to emphasise important points or changes in subject.
  • Pause for slightly longer than you think necessary – it won't seem that long for the audience.

Dealing with questions

The prospect of people asking questions can be anxiety-provoking. It may help to think of questions as a dialogue with the audience, not an interrogation. People are usually genuinely interested and sympathetic, and want to find out more.

It is a good idea to prepare for questions. Think of likely topics or types of questions people may ask, and how you might answer them. You may drop a hint in your presentation, such as "you can ask me more about this later…" if there is a particular area you want questions on. Or get a friend to ask a question that will give you the chance to expand on something you've mentioned briefly.

When you're answering, give yourself time to think by using phrases like "That's a good question, I haven't considered it that way before…", or "Could I get back to you on that afterwards?" Remember that you are in charge – you can ask people to repeat the question if you haven't heard it, or politely ask for clarification if you're not sure you've understood it. You are the expert in your work, so keep control – but be open to discussion afterwards.

If there is a persistent questioner who keeps taking the floor, suggest that it might be better to continue that discussion afterwards, then ask if there are any other questions.

You might also want to think ahead about areas that you are concerned about. Prepare for questions about these. And don't be afraid to say if you don't know – you can open the question up to the audience: "What do other people think…" or "Has anyone else had any experience of this…?"