Giving formal presentations is probably the skill learned or refined at university which will be of most benefit to students once they have graduated. It is also potentially one of the most fulfilling learning activities. These notes are intended to provide an indication of the component parts of effective formal presentations (although they may be of some use when planning other forms of communication, e.g. essays, debates, role plays, etc.). Even for formal presentations, the notes are not intended to be definitive, but are rather intended only for guidance purposes.
Good formal presentations necessarily involve exposition (presenting facts), and analysis (presenting arguments and/or interpretations), and communication (presenting effectively).
It is up to you what proportion of your presentation consists of exposition. Clearly some will be essential, as even when you are presenting your own arguments you will need to set them in their context and show their relevance to current debate. If you wish your presentation to consist primarily of exposition, make sure that you: (i) do not merely repeat material contained in the lectures and/or the essential reading (you should assume such knowledge on the part of your audience: your job is to tell the audience something they are likely not to know); and, (ii) incorporate an analysis of the facts you are presenting.
Try to present your material using your own structure tailored specifically to the task at hand: do not simply copy the structure of one of the authors whose material you have read (or, if you must use someone else's structure, notify the audience of this to avoid plagiarism). Organise the material by themes or issues: do not simply summarise a number of papers in the order you read them.
As long as you have clearly made an effort, do not be afraid to say that you do not understand something - your lack of understanding may well be a clue that there is weakness in the material that troubles you. However, try to be as clear as possible about why you do not understand/what it is that troubles you.
The quality of any analysis included is perhaps the single factor which best distinguishes between good and bad presentations (followed by the quality of communication). Interpreting, criticising, arguing, evaluating, synthesising, summarising, concluding, and exploring implications are all forms of analysis. Of these, perhaps evaluation is the most important. It may well be that X said x and Y found y, but are either or both of their reports convincing? Why? Are they based on acceptable data and methods? Are they compatible? If not, which should be amended or abandoned? Why? What is the importance and what are the implications of accepting or rejecting either or both statements? Etc..
It is crucial to remember that analysis needs to be justified (e.g. via empirical evidence, facts, authority, rules of logic, etc.) to be convincing to the audience (the "jury"). In particular, "I think..." statements are unlikely to be persuasive unless you can show why you think such and such, and, more importantly, why your audience should think the same way as you do.
You may have all the facts in the world within your head, and possess the keenest analytical skills humankind has ever seen, but unless you can communicate effectively with (i.e. teach and/or persuade) the audience, you will have failed to do yourself justice. The comments and the "Presentation Evaluation Sheet" below [soon to be added] indicate the sorts of factors you need to consider in order to maximise the effectiveness of your communication.
STRUCTURE AND CONTENT
Other than in exceptional circumstances, your presentation should be structured so as to have a "beginning" (i.e. an introduction), and "middle" (i.e. a development), and an "end" (i.e. a conclusion). Indeed, sub-sections (e.g. introduction) and even paragraphs should have the same structure (i.e. a beginning, middle, and end).
In the Introduction to your presentation you ideally need to introduce both the topic of the presentation and the argument you are to make/the conclusion you are to reach.
As with the presentation as a whole, the introduction must be well structured. The following is ONE possibility: introduction of the structure/content of your presentation; introduction of problem/task (often given by the title); introduction of key position(s), thinker(s), theory(-ies), etc.; introduction of main criticisms (or types of criticisms), qualifications, problems, etc. with one or more of the aforementioned theories, etc.; indication of empirical evidence (and quality of that evidence) for various positions; introduction of conclusion to be reached; indication of any qualifications or caveats to and/or implications of that conclusion.
The main body of your presentation is concerned with taking the audience from your Introduction to your Conclusion in the most clear, focused, linear, persuasive, and entrancing way possible. How this will be done will be specific to you and the topic. The following is ONE possibility: each theory (or whatever) is described, evaluated, and "judged" in turn, with a "final verdict" being reached (or reiterated) in the Conclusion. Such a "final verdict" might be that one theory (or whatever) is clearly superior to the others, but has certain identifiable weaknesses; or that it is impossible to choose between certain competing theories, although others are clearly untenable; or that a "hybrid" theory is needed with certain parts from several theories being moulded together into a new theory; or whatever. Whatever the verdict, the justification for it must come in the development part of the presentation.
Make sure that any material presented is relevant to and focused upon both the title of your presentation and the point you are trying to make at the time. Try to ensure an adequate breadth of reading (i.e. enough to make your case and to show that you have encountered and considered contrary evidence). It is not possible to say exactly how much reading you should have done, but it should certainly be evidently more than the essential reading (which everyone present should have read) and your lecture notes. An adequate depth of reading will accompany or follow from an adequate analysis. Breadth, depth, relevance, and analysis of material will all contribute to an adequate use of evidence.
The Conclusion has several components. The first, but not the only one, is to summarise and/or synthesise the main points made and/or conclusions reached in the main body of your presentation (i.e. during the Development), possibly with an accompanying summary of the main reasons for (i.e. justification of) those points/conclusions.
Another important function of the Conclusion is to explore the importance and/or relevance of the points made/conclusions reached for the theories (etc.) mentioned in the Introduction. For example, do the points support, destroy, or indicate necessary amendments to such theories?
Thirdly, are there other implications of your conclusions, e.g. for future research, for Governmental policy, or whatever?
Finally, how confident should one be of your conclusions? Are there any qualifications or caveats? Are there any important possible objections to your conclusions and, if so, how might you meet those objections?
A big part of the skill involved in giving a presentation is managing the interaction with the audience after your monologue finishes. Indeed, part of your assessment is determined by how well you respond to questions and requests, and how well you are able to act as a facilitator of the discussion which follows your talk.
Try to anticipate likely questions (especially "hard" ones). Practising your presentation in advance in front of an audience will help. Some "professional" presenters "plant" a first question with a friend in the audience so that they will at least be able to answer the first question well. If you do this make sure that: (i) it is not obvious (especially to the tutor who will have read, or written, this handout); (ii) it genuinely adds something to your overall performance (e.g. is not repetitious or irrelevant); and (iii) enough time is left for genuine questions and for genuine open discussion.
If someone asks you a question you cannot immediately answer do not panic. Be truthful. Say that you need a little time to think and that you will get back to them later. Alternatively, admit you do not know and (if it is genuinely an interesting and relevant question) ask the audience if anyone else could answer it.
In order to facilitate open discussion after the "any questions" part of your presentation, it is useful to have a list of "discussion points", "issues to explore", etc. At least the main two such issues should be included on your handout. Try to make sure that these discussion points do not require too much prior knowledge (other than contained in the lecture and/or the essential reading). Also avoid making them so vague as to make discussion very difficult or so specific as to halt rather than trigger discussion. Ideally, they should be interesting and attractive enough that the audience will be eager to discuss them, in which case your job will simply be to try and keep the discussion relevant and make sure that everyone who wants to speak gets the chance. There is nothing wrong, if things are going well, with you saying no more, and perhaps a little less, than everyone else at this stage.
If there are questions which the class cannot satisfactorily answer and/or if there are issues or debates which the class cannot reach agreement on, note such things and towards the end of the discussion section there is nothing wrong with asking the tutor for their opinion on these matters. However, unless and until the tutor insists on taking charge, try to carry out the bulk of the discussion section either: (i) treating the tutor as an equal status member of the discussion group (to be shut up as necessary by the presenter/chair); or, (ii) ignoring the tutor altogether.
If at all possible, avoid reading your presentation from verbatim notes. Instead, use flash-cards, headings, keywords, your own visual aids, etc..
Position yourself so that the majority of the audience can see you easily, and so that you can see them. Try to make eye-contact with as many of your audience as possible (remembering that the tutor is only one member of that audience). Speak as clearly as you can, loud enough for all to hear without straining, but not so loud as to scare anyone!
For your communication to be most effective you need to interest your audience. To do this you need to be original and/or creative (i.e. present material, arguments, interpretations, conclusions, etc. that your audience are not familiar with) and thereby educate your audience. Ideally, you would also like your audience to enjoy your presentation (so jokes, interesting visual and other aids, etc. might help), but remember that entertaining your audience is a means to an (educative and/or persuasive) end, not an end in itself.
The more fluent and well paced a presentation, the more favourable the audience will feel toward the presenter and the more attentive they will be to the presentation. Inevitably some people will be more confident than others, and many may feel very nervous indeed. Preparation, practice, and experience will help here. Starting your presentation with an overview, using headings and sub-headings shown on an OHP slide, will get you started, and many people find that once their presentation is underway their nerves disappear. Speak at your natural pace, but if you speak quickly it may be worth putting the same point in more than one way. Audiences like the occasional pause, so do not get too flustered if you need a second or so to think occasionally, or indeed if you lose your train of thought. Stay calm, take your time, and try to keep your composure.
Very often a presentation can be improved with visual (and other) aids. Clarity can be enhanced, for example, with an opening OHP slide showing the structure of the presentation.
Similarly, comprehension can be improved if a complicated theory is presented and explained diagrammatically.
Thirdly, an audience's attention can often be obtained and maintained by a judicious use of visual and other aids. (But do not sacrifice the essential components of your presentation in order to achieve a multimedia extravaganza.)
If using visual aids, make them as clear, concise, and uncluttered as possible. Make sure there are no spelling misteaks and cite sources used (using the Harvard System).
Produce a 1-2 side A4 handout for everyone in the audience (including the tutor). The handout should be a summary of the salient points of your presentation and should include a short bibliography (using the Harvard System) of the main texts you have referred to in the preparation of your presentation.
One purpose of the handout is to enable the audience to listen to what you are saying rather than taking notes. It may help, therefore, to include complicated but important material (definitions, tables, illustrations, etc.) in your handout. Your handout should not be a verbatim account of your presentation.
A second function of the handout is to give the tutor a "hard" aide mémoire of your presentation for marking and other purposes, so make it as attractive as possible, and remember to include identifying information (name, date, title, course).
Your tutor will tell you how long the presentation should be (usually 10-20 minutes) and how long you should allow for questions (usually 5-10 minutes). Keep to the prescribed length. Practice your presentation in advance (ideally in front of an audience). As well as giving you an indication of how long it will last (as long as the real event occurs at the same pace and with the same amount of interruptions and disruptions), practising will make you more confident and less reliant on notes.
If you are so inclined, if it will add to the quality of your presentation, and if you think it will work, feel free to spice your presentation up with "unusual" activities (e.g. audience participation, role play, games, activities, etc.). Be sure to know what to do should it not prove possible to do what you had planned, or if it does not work quite as you expected. DO NOT do anything which will upset or embarrass any of the audience, and if you do plan anything unusual, check it with your tutor first. Finally, remember that your primary task is to give a presentation and your principal aims are to explain and/or persuade, so make sure that any "added extras" do not turn your presentation into pure performance art.
Sometimes tutors will want or allow you to give team presentations. This opens up a whole host of new and exciting presentational possibilities (e.g. dialogues, debates, etc.) and a whole set of additional problems. It is up to the presenters to divide up preparation duties, but everyone involved must have equal presentation time and unless everyone involved is happy getting the same assessment as everyone else, make sure that the appropriate people are credited for the appropriate work on (e.g. during the introduction, on the handout, etc.). Unless presenters are simply going to give sub-presentations in turn, it is usually best to check out your plans with the tutor in advance of the presentation.
It must be reiterated that the above notes are simply guidelines and refer explicitly only to formal presentations. (Many other guidelines exist, often giving opposing advice to that given here.) In the final analysis, how you give your presentation is entirely up to you.
When you are not presenting yourself, be as considerate and supportive of the person who is as you possibly can. Do the essential reading and have in mind some topics you would like to discuss. Listen attentively. Contribute to the discussion (but do not take it over). Do not interrupt or challenge the presentation (unless the presenter has explicitly invited you to do so): note your concerns and/or questions and mention them (in as nice a way as possible) during the "any questions" section(s) of the presentation and/or during the general discussion. Even where you have legitimate differences of opinion, do not insult or act aggressively toward the presenter or anyone else in the seminar.
If you have any suggestions for how these notes might be made more useful to future students, please let me or your tutor know.
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1 - 7 below are marked on five-point scales (roughly corresponding to 1st, 2:1, 2:2, 3rd, and "poor"), and there is space for "additional comments" for each.
1. Exposition and Understanding
7. Materials (Visual Aids/handout)
Additional Comments and Suggestions for Improvement:
Examiner's signature and date____________________________________
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Please feel free to e-mail Tom Farsides with reference to any aspect of this page. Last modified 5th January, 1998