So, you may have seen my previous post where I talked about getting to be one of the ten FASS students who got to participate in the FASS Undergraduate Summer Research Internship this summer. On September 17th I got to present my findings over Zoom along with the other interns, in a three-minute thesis format. If you’re like many other students, you might hate the idea of presentations. Standing up in front of a bunch of people appeals to only a select portion of the population – the rest of us often shudder at the thought. Presenting is a learned skill, not something everyone is very good at. Over my last four years as a university student (and working professionally) I have learned a thing or two about presenting and have even gotten quite comfortable with it. So, I thought I’d share what I learned, to help ease some of your nerves and maybe get you that A you really want.
Organizing the Information
While you may want to jump right in and get it out all in one go, organizing your thoughts before writing things out in full makes the next few steps easier. Knowing the expectations of the presentation and any time constraint you may be working with are key to saving time and working efficiently.
If you have a small window to talk, you don’t need an introduction that’s more than a few sentences, and you don’t want a lot of examples. You want to make sure the audience knows what you are talking about, but don’t be overly concerned with providing a full background. Saying something in the beginning and/or conclusion that will make your audience think is better than summarizing your points.
Focus on the information the audience needs to know to understand what you’re discussing, and why you are discussing it. The organizational stage is important because you want to make sure your ideas follow a logical order; you want to introduce the topic as a whole, and then narrow it down to a few key points (the number of points you make will again depend on the topic and the time available). The shorter the presentation, the more you want to focus right down to the essential information only. Leave the frills out, this isn’t the time for flowery language (unless for some reason the topic demands it).
Tip: when in doubt, follow a natural chronological order to avoid confusing your audience. You can’t really go wrong with the standard order of “introduction > body > conclusion.” This could be a full “hook > background > reason > results > discussion > conclusion,” or it could be narrowed right down to “reason > result > conclusion,” with the other bits functioning as transitional sentences.
Edit, Edit, Edit!
Sometimes I really hate that word. I’ve never been a fan of editing my own work (though for a while I seriously considered editing as a career choice) but it’s a very necessary step if you want to do well on any sort of written assignment or presentation. Learning to deal with the editing process is important for succeeding as a student and as a professional. Look for places you are too repetitive, where your sentences get too long (you need to be able to pause to breath!) or too short (you don’t want to sound choppy or robotic either) – the key is to have variety in sentence length. Make sure your paragraphs flow into each other, that you aren’t jumping around without any particular flow (you should have got this mostly down with the previous step if you organized your thoughts first before writing it out in full), and check for grammar. If something sounds funny or awkward, even if it’s technically correct, see if there is another way to word it – you’re more likely to stumble over something that sounds strange to you when you are presenting. Know your audience – if you’re supposed to be treating your audience as if they aren’t familiar with your topic, make sure things are explained in mostly plain language, but if you are speaking to a highly qualified group that knows this topic well don’t insult them by dumbing it down.
Tip: listening to your work read aloud really helps in the editing process. When you read your own work, your brain knows what it is supposed to say and can subconsciously fill in missing words or correct mistakes without you noticing that they’re there. Word has a Read Aloud function that lets you listen to the document and you can adjust the speed at which it’s read so you can hear it in the same way you would present it. This can really help you pick out areas that don’t flow well or sentences that are too long or too choppy. If you don’t use Word, there are lots of other programs that do this too. You can even copy it into Google Translate and listen to it there.
If you’re trying to meet a certain time, this can be mixed in with editing, but it’s important to practice. If you do have a time constraint, make sure you practice presenting a few times and keep track of how long it takes, going back and adding or deleting words as necessary. You can time it as you listen to it as mentioned above, or you can time yourself reading it. If you do the former, make sure you do practice reading it yourself before the presentation. You’ll see if there’s any areas you’re stumbling over, if there is a tricky word you need to get comfortable saying, if you need to slow down or speed up your speech, if you are loud enough, etc. If you’re like me, you may feel silly reading it out loud in your room as if you were presenting, so I highly recommend practicing with family or friends, either at home or over video chat. They might catch things that you miss and provide good constructive criticism. However, if they are someone who makes you nervous or isn’t likely to provide helpful advice, pick someone else. The day of my presentation I video chatted with my supervisor for an hour to get the time just right, and later for another half an hour with my cousin to make sure I wasn’t stuttering over anything.
Tip: practice saying your presentation out loud as if you were presenting (i.e. same speed and volume) at least a day before the presentation, as this can provide valuable insights into changes you should make. This way you can edit it again and still have time to get comfortable saying everything out loud.
Make a Good PowerPoint
PowerPoints (or whatever medium you are using for the visual aspects; the general ideas here are the same) are tricky, and you need to make sure you are following any criteria or instructions you have been provided. When in doubt, err on the side of simplicity. You don’t want a busy or overwhelming slide, and you want to make sure you are pulling focus, not your slide(s). You shouldn’t be reading off the slide, nor do you want your audience reading off the slide instead of listening to you, so you don’t want the bulk of your information there You likely want just a few key bullet points (almost like an agenda for what you’ll be discussing) or even just a couple of relevant images. Make sure the colours and contrast are easy on the eyes, and that it is accessible – you don’t want your text too small, but you don’t need it to be overly large either. There are a lot of advice pieces online based on what type of presentation you may be doing, so have a look through those.
Tip: less is more! Simplicity is your best friend with visual aids. You want things to be visible (pay attention to font size!) and visually appealing (colour choice is important!) but you don’t want it to take all of your audience’s concentration. It should add to your presentation, not steal the show.
Breathe, it will be okay. If seeing your audience stresses you out don’t worry about making eye contact with everyone, just make sure your eyes aren’t on the floor or up at the ceiling. If you can, try and find a friendly face in the audience to focus on, but don’t look at a friend if you think that will make you laugh or distract you. I often find having something to subtly fidget with can help, so consider having something like a paper clip or elastic band in your hand – just make sure it isn’t drawing the attention of your audience.
Fake it until you make it. Dress the part, stand tall, keep your chin up, and speak with as much confidence as you can. Sometimes getting your blood pumping can help, so move around before hand, stretch out, get loose and comfortable. You want to look alive, and you want to be as comfortable as possible. Try looking in the mirror (or not) and say some positive affirmations to yourself. Tell yourself “I can do this,” “you’re going to do great,” “I know this,” “it’s almost over,” “you’re so close!” (I find if I’m looking in the mirror I say “you” but if not I say “I” so obviously use whatever pronoun makes sense to you). If you don’t want to do this or feel silly, find some positive affirmations or motivational podcasts or audio files online and listen to someone else pump you up or get you relaxed – whatever headspace you need to be in to get through this.
Tip: Strike a power pose! A piece of advice I’ve always loved is to do the “superwoman” pose for a quick confidence boost – back straight, feet firmly planted on the ground about shoulder width apart, hands on your hips, shoulders back, and chin high. This has been scientifically proven to work!
You’re going to do great!
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