I once listened in on a presentation about modern language ideologies, a very thought-provoking and captivating topic. Instead of tickling my interests (which is what I hoping), the presentation delivered broke down in front of me like a creaky Geo Metro: the speech was delivered verbatim to the text sources, there were massive gaps of silence that left an awkward tension in the atmosphere, “ers” and “ums” were littered all over the place, and random points were introduced anachronistically, losing the audience and our attention.
The next presentation was a bit better, more lax….or perhaps too lax: the speakers lounged in their chairs, hands clasped casually on their stomachs, talking about what they thought and how it related to their personal experiences. I felt like I was in therapy session.
These hazards are culprits of every presentation gone wrong. Yeah, public speaking is nerve wracking but most people fail to see the ultimate point: that you’re presenting and not giving a court testimony. You’re relaying insightful information, not being subjected to scrutiny.
In addition to attaining nirvana before the big day, here’s my prescription to cure poor presentations:
Doing research is more than just memorizing your articles or sources; it’s about how you read. If you’re presented with a controversial topic or the pressure’s on you to persuade, understand the different sides of the story. Moreover, read the text multiple times. Make sure you know what you’re talking about crystal clear. Your job as a presenter is to inform what you know in easy-to-digest form.
Familiarize yourself with the content even more by discussing it with fellow group members, friends, family, anyone (well, maybe not with your dog). Tell them what you’ve read, what you think of it. If you’re presenting as a group, have a round-table discussion. Be open to opposing ideas, ask insightful questions, and invite inspiration.
By discussing, you’re testing yourself on how well you’re informed. If you find yourself slipping or becoming lost on a certain point, take that to heart and tell yourself that you need to re-read the material.
This step also applies to research papers: the pressure’s on you to be crystal clear on what you’re writing about.
One problem I often see people doing in this step is that they write novels and expect themselves to memorize each and every word and punctuation. This isn’t dictation. Rather, outline your argument with bullet points on index cards, go through your presentation or discussion chronologically with a hierarchical structure with substance.
For example, if George W. Bush was to present his arguments for a War in Iraq to Congress, an effective presentation would look something like this:
Intro to terrorism
-deaths as a result
Weapons of Mass Destruction
-need to get rid of axes of evil one at a time, starting with Iraq
-Iraq harbors WMDs
The terror of Saddam Hussein
-massacres and crimes against humanity
–massacre of Dujail in 1982, 148 killed, torture of women and
children, arrest of 399 more
-“I am not wrong or so impeach me God!” (sidenote: we’re still waiting
for your signatures!”)
This step is the least important to me personally but it certainly isn’t trivial at all. Rehearse your argument, not your lines. Do it so if someone were to debate with you, you know how to fire back with the research you’ve done. Consult your index cards only to briefly remind yourself the next point of discussion. Talk to the bathroom mirror, be energetic.
On the big day, don’t be nervous. Rather, be excited knowing you have something to say. Be zealous in sharing your knowledge. Sprinkle your speech with phrases like “This is interesting because…”
If the sweating and the palpitations continue, remind yourself that it’s what you have to say that matters, your mannerisms is only secondary. Show that you’re genuinely passionate about the topic, inspire them. Also, be crystal clear, do everything in your power to try to make them understand where you’re coming from. Don’t speed through your presentation.
After your monologue, invite questions, show that you’re open to discussion. Repeat step 2 and make the audience feel like their opinions matter. Address each question by repeating it first to make sure everyone’s in the loop about what is being asked. If you find yourself embarrassed in not knowing the answer, don’t bluff. Rather turn it into a positive or something that can be taken away, “This hasn’t come up in my research yet but deserves much further investigation nonetheless.”
My final word on presentations: make it memorable. Drill your arguments into their memory. If you have the opportunity to be creative, give it a fun framework. For my own presentation in the language ideologies class, I turned the classroom into a “Language Court”. Our group members played the roles of lawyers and judges, using opposing arguments in our source articles as our own prosecution and defense. Instead of the judge deciding on the verdict, it was left up to the “jurors” of the classroom to ask questions and discuss. All in all, it was great fun for us all and we received compliments weeks afterwards (plus the highest grade possible in the class).