Oral Presentation Skills for Prospective Business Executives

| December 4, 2005

December 2005 Volume 1
Article 1.

Article Title

Oral Presentation Skills for Prospective Business Executives
Professor Dr. Z. N. PATIL
Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages
Hyderabad, India
Email: znpatil@yahoo.com

Dr. PATIL is a Professor of English Language in the Centre for Training and Development, School of English Language Education of the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad, India. He has a Masters, M. Phil., and Ph. D. from University of Poona; a Post-Graduate Certificate in the Teaching of English from CIEFL, Hyderabad, India; and a Diploma and Masters in TESOL from Edinburgh, UK. He has lectured/taught in universities, colleges, institutes, language centres, and schools in India, Vietnam, Japan, Singapore, and Thailand. Currently he is working as Senior English Language Adviser in Japan. He has published articles in national and international journals, and has authored and co-authored English language textbooks, teachers’ manuals, and resource books that are currently being used in India, Vietnam, and Russia.

Keywords: presentations, preparation, delivery, body language, questions and answers

The present paper is a business self help article aimed at business students preparing their own
presentations and at prospective executives wanting to hone their presentation skills. It explains the basics of oral presentation skills in general that apply across domains including that of business management. It discusses the three main stages to an effective oral presentation: the preparation, the delivery, and the questions and answers that follow the delivery. A business presenter, like an academic presenter, for instance, has to go through the same processes of collecting, selecting, organizing, and illustrating her data, and has to keep in mind the purpose of her presentation, and the needs and interests of her audience. So, what distinguishes a business presentation and an academic presentation is the content rather than the basic principles and procedures. The ingredients of an effective business presentation are more or less the same as those of any other presentation. Hence, though this article aims at helping business students and prospective business executives with oral presentation skills, it can be of help to anyone aspiring to be an effective public speaker.

“If all my possessions were taken from me with one exception, I would choose to keep the power of speech, for with it I would soon regain all the rest.”


In the world dominated by increasing globalization and fierce competition, business depends on alliances, joint ventures and partnerships. Consequently, business executives need to articulate their ideas effectively and efficiently. Some business managers have brilliant proposals, but they have trouble explaining them to others. As Bradbury (1996: 9) rightly says, “Most business presentations do not achieve their intended purpose. Worse still, they frequently achieve nothing of any value.” This is so, because quite often the presenter does not take pains to go through the rigorous process of preparing the presentation. So, if you want to be a successful business executive and sell your ideas and proposals, you will need to master the art of presentation. A presentation is an opportunity to share ideas with a group of important people. It is during your presentation, and possibly only then, that you have their attention focused. Therefore, you should not take this opportunity lightly. You may never get a second chance. The ability to give a great presentation can be a tremendous career booster, while the inability to do so can keep you on a dead-end path. No wonder, managers, whether experienced or new to the office, would like to hone their presentation skills.

The present paper aims at giving you some vital suggestions on how to make effective presentations. It offers you some basic and useful ideas, tips and strategies, which will help you become more capable, efficient, effective, and valuable assets to your companies. As you know, not everyone is a confident speaker at the beginning. On the one hand, some are scared at the idea of standing in front of a gathering and giving a speech; on the other hand, others are thrilled at the prospects of communicating with a group of listeners. We can place speakers on a cline of confidence with avoiders and seekers at the two extreme ends, and resisters and accepters in-between (Mandel, 1999). If you are an “avoider” or “resister”, this paper will help you become an “accepter”; if you are already an “accepter”, it will take you to the “seeker” stage; and if you are a seeker, it will enable you to make knockout presentations.

The paper is divided into three main sections- literature review, discussion, and conclusion, followed by references. Categorizing the available literature into three groups, the review section briefly summarizes some important books on the topic. The discussion section deals with choice of topic; analysis of audience, occasion and location; collection, selection, and organization of material; preparation of visual aids; rehearsal and delivery; language and body language; and questions and answers. The concluding section briefly captures the highlights of the discussion.

Literature Review

There are plenty of books on presentation skills, since public speaking is consistently rated a frightening experience. Someone has very aptly said that the human brain is a wonderful organ, because it starts working as soon as we are born, and stops functioning the moment we get up to deliver a public speech. A hero in battle can be a coward before an audience. This fear of making a public speech is so pervasive that it has produced hundreds of books and articles on the topic. We have (a) literature that deals with the topic in general, and literature that focuses on a specific aspect of the skill, (b) literature that is basically process-oriented, nature-oriented, or impact-oriented, and (c) literature written for general presenters, and literature written especially for business managers. Expectedly, all books on the topic profess that if you gain some good advice about how to make presentations, you can overcome the fear and become more effective.

Carnegie (1976) tells you how to develop poise, gain self-confidence, improve your memory, make your meaning clear, begin and end your talk, interest and charm your audience, improve your diction, and win an argument without hurting people. Carnegie and Carnegie (1977) show you how to win others over to your point of view by maximizing impact as a speaker. Gaulke (1996) offers an inventory of 101 audience-tested anecdotes, experiences, quotes, and insights. Wilder (1994) presents 10 steps to sell your ideas. Dowis (1999) discusses how the impact is lost if your speech is rambling, illogical, and boring. Zelazny (1999) talks about how humour and visuals, among other things, can make your presentation effective. Detz (2000) concentrates on preparation, organization, delivery skills, and the use of technology. Booher (2002) introduces the basics that you must master, along with advanced techniques for fine-tuning your delivery and maximizing your impact on the audience.

The author attempts to teach you how to (i) establish rapport with your audience, (ii) speak with passion, persuasion, proper pacing, and punch, (iii) organize your ideas and plan your structure quickly for optimum effect, (iv) match your delivery style to your content, audience, and purpose, (v) add interactivity to your presentation, and (vi) use multimedia to engage your audience. Kaye, et al. (2002) help you take your career to the next level by communicating like a seasoned business leader. Jeary (2003) shares with you eight secrets that you can practise to achieve dramatic results. In his opinion, speaking is more a skill than a talent and requires techniques such as reciprocation, authority, scarcity, and tactics like knowing your audience and overcoming anxiety. Leech (2004) lends you practical advice on communicating information. The book aims to help you make your case using persuasive supporting materials that illuminate and inspire, win over the audience with persuasive evidence, and create a positive impression through voice and language, both verbal and nonverbal. Mortensen (2004) provides strategies for persuading, influencing, and motivating others.

Jacobi and Randall (2000) provide advice on how to develop a dynamic speaking style to project power, confidence and persuasiveness, because your success depends on the confidence and conviction you project. They guarantee that your voice can make the difference between prosperity and failure. Grant-Williams (2002) elaborates on how to employ positive vocal techniques and become a more confident presenter. Finlayson (2001) rivets attention on questioning techniques.He argues that it is not enough to just ask questions; it is important to know which questions to ask and how to ask them. When you master the art of asking smart, meaningful questions, you not only make an excellent impression, but also improve your performance. Williams (2004) explains the significance of strong, clear feedback, which is a critical nutrient for the presenter. Wempen (2004) and Atkinson (2005) discuss powerful, practical, and easy to apply techniques for PowerPoint.

Looked at from another perspective, the literature on presentation skills has three broad focus points: the process, the nature, and the impact. For example, Bienvenu (1999) and Diresta (1998) tell you how to create and deliver your message with power and punch. Peoples (1992) and Leech (2004) have proven, practical advice on how to communicate the essential information. Kalish (1997), Diresta (1998) and Tisdale (2005) have the recipe for “terrific”, “knockout”, and “effective” presentations respectively. However, whether the book is process-oriented or nature-oriented, the ultimate objective is to help the presenter communicate effectively with the audience. That is why Stevenson (2003) and Atkinson (2005) aim at capturing the audience attention, inspiring their action, and producing results. Sampson (2003) advocates the use of creative ideas to influence the listeners. Pfarrer (1998) and McCarthy and Hatcher (2002a, 2002b) view presentations as the art of persuasion. In Weissman’s (2003) opinion, the goal of a presentation is to connect with the audience and win them.

Of all the books and articles mentioned above, only some (Gaulke, 1996, Witherspoon and White, 1997; Pfarrer, 1998; Rotondo and Rotondo, 2001; Sampson, 2003; Stevenson, 2003; and Tisdale, 2005) have been written with business people in view, and Villata’s (2003) has been written with medical presenters in mind.


Now let us get down to the basics of presentation skills. First of all, you need to think about the topic, the audience, the occasion, the venue. Then, you have to collect, select, and organize your material. After that, you need to prepare aids, and rehearse your speech. Thereafter, you will present your ideas using effective language and body language. Finally, you will take questions from the audience and answer them. These steps to a presentation can be represented in the form of the following flowchart:


Let me talk about these steps one by one.

Know your topic.

“When choosing among possible topics, you should consider three questions- (1) Is the topic appropriate for your audience? (2) Is it appropriate for you? (3) Is it appropriate for the speech occasion?” (Hybels and Weaver, 2004: 291). Topic is one of the two main aspects of a presentation: content and code, matter and manner, subject and style. Code, manner, and style refer to language and body language. Content, matter, and subject refer to ideas, thoughts, opinions, and information. Admittedly, the manner of our speaking is as important as the matter, because more people have ears to be tickled than understanding to judge. Now, you must be wondering if these two aspects are independent of each other. What do you think? Are they interrelated? Are they separable? If you ask me, I will say that they are inseparable. They are like a dancer and her dance performance, as it were. When we witness a perfect dance, can we divorce the dance from the dancer? The answer is an emphatic “No”. Then, why do we talk about these two aspects as if they were separate or separable? Obviously, we do so because it is convenient and useful.

In other words, we can say that topic is the soul of a presentation. So, we cannot think of a presentation without a topic. In a good presentation we find a perfect fusion of matter and manner, subject and style. When a presenter fails to integrate the two, his performance falls short of being effective. Some speakers have brilliant ideas, but they are poor at presenting them. On the contrary, some presenters are amazingly magical in their expression, though they do not have world-shaking or cutting-edge ideas. In-between, we have people who have something to say but can’t, and people who have nothing to say but keep on saying it.

The important point here is that topic is the backbone of a talk. A talk without a topic is like a flight without a navigator. Now, a crucial question is who chooses the topic? Well, there are two possibilities. The presenter can choose the topic; alternatively, the organizer may suggest a topic. So, when you are invited to speak, the first question you would like to ask is: What is the topic? Are you going to talk about business environment in India? Do you want to talk about the advantages of outsourcing work to India? Do your audience want you to tell them about the pitfalls of doing business in China or do they want some advice on doing business in Japan? Does your firm want you to speak about personnel motivation?

Theoretically, you are capable of handling any business related topic under the sun. However, the fact remains that different people are good at attacking different types of themes. By the same token, some people are good at statistical presentations, some are good at analytical presentations, and some are good at powerful persuasive speeches. People have their preferences, strengths and weaknesses. So, the individual speaker is the best person to know her own interest areas. She may be quite comfortable with certain topics and talk about them with facility. On the contrary, she may not feel at ease with some other subjects. If she thinks she cannot handle a particular area, it would be a wise gesture to tell the organizer frankly. If she does not do that, then she may end up making a fool of herself. As the old saying goes, nobody is perfect. An encyclopedia is the result of team effort, not the job of a single individual. William Hazlitt, an English essayist, wrote a wonderful essay titled ‘Ignorance of the Learned’ the moral of which is that all of us are ignorant in different ways. Wise people know what their strengths and weaknesses are and make their choices accordingly. If the presenter is not pragmatic enough to admit her ignorance and attempts to be a jack-of-all-trades, then she will lodge herself in deep waters. That was what happened to an anecdotal business executive who agreed to make a speech about ‘Twenty-Point Program’ launched by the government of India as a poverty eradication scheme. He did not know what the contents of the program were; neither did he attempt to find out. Consequently, this was the ‘thesis’ of his speech:
“What’s a twenty-point program? Well, it’s a program with twenty points.”

Know your audience.


Well, you know your topic, but do you know anything about the people you are going to address? Would it be an idea to gather some information about them? In my view, it is a good idea to have a comprehensive audience profile: their age group, gender split, education level, job type, experience, domicile, religious and political affiliation, their role models, their personality types, and of course, their expectations. I know this is a tall order! However, some information about your audience is necessary. In fact, a complete profile of the audience would be an ideal thing. Let me tell you that it is not difficult to produce an audience profile. The organizer of the presentation can arrange it for you.

Audience profile has many advantages. It can help you make your choices in terms of what to say and how to say it. Let me explain this with a couple of examples. Let us think of a situation where you are addressing semi-literate, rural audience, and your topic is Using the Internet to Export Farm Produce. Would it be a good idea to use technical words, formulae and jargon? Needless to say, it would not be a wise thing to do so. Instead, you would prefer everyday language and examples. On the contrary, when you are addressing business leaders, professors and researchers, you might like to use specialized terms and expressions. I am sure you would like to use simple, informal language for uneducated, rural, and inexperienced people, and technical, and formal language and illustrations for people who are studying, researching, and working in the area of E-business. The choice of your language and illustrations will be determined by the educational level, and job profile of your listeners.

You must be wondering why you need to know about the gender and religious affiliation of the audience? Let me spend a moment on this issue. Let us think of a context where you are speaking about McDonalds in India and you do not know the religious affiliation of the people you are addressing. You are not aware that your audience come from various religious backgrounds, that they comprise Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhist, and so on. At some point during your presentation you remark: “Well, friends try beef and pork hamburgers. They are nutritious as well as delicious!” You will be unwittingly offending the religious sentiments of those listeners who think that eating beef and pork is an abominable dietary habit. That is why it is important to know whether you are addressing Christians, Hindus, Muslims, or Buddhists, or a composite audience. Furthermore, you should avoid sexist expressions such as chairman, mankind, etc., which may provoke feminists. You will have noticed that in my article I have chosen to refer to the presenter sometimes as ‘she’ and sometimes as ‘he’.

Additionally, you need to know the role models of your audience. As you know, Ho Chi Minh, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama are iconic personalities symbolizing national aspirations of Vietnamese, Indian, South African, and Tibetan people respectively. You may inadvertently say something unacceptable about these great personalities, which may offend your audience. Moreover, it is advisable to know whether you are addressing new audience or old audience. If you do not, then you might lodge yourself in a difficult situation like the following speaker:
Once a popular speaker flew to Ho Chi Minh City to give a speech to a large gathering. Her topic was ‘Foreign Investment in Vietnam’. She had given this talk so many times that she knew it by heart. When the driver picked her up at the airport, she asked him:
‘Who are my audience this time?”
“The same people you spoke to last year when you talked about Foreign Investment in Vietnam,” the driver said.

If you do not know anything about your audience, then it will be quite difficult for you to empathize with them and pitch your talk at the right level. Consequently, your presentation will most likely fail. More importantly, in the absence of audience profile, you may deliver a monotonous and boring speech. I remember a politician who was once invited to speak on ‘Children’s Day’. He did not take into consideration the level of his audience and consequently, he said, “Well, folks, eradication of desires, self-abnegation, and a continual pursuit of spiritual values alone can lead you to the salvation of the soul!” Understandably, the poor kids started looking at each other with confused looks on their innocent faces. Incidentally, this reminds me of a cryptic conversation between a guest and a dignitary. The former asked the latter if she had ever had her ears pierced. The dignitary, capitalizing on the dual meaning of the word ‘bore’, murmured, “No, but I have often had them bored.”

The preceding discussion goes to prove the fact that audience is central to communication as all communication is targeted at them. We cannot afford to ignore our audience or be indifferent to them or undermine their role. A presenter is a presenter by virtue of their existence and their attendance. In the absence of the listener, the speaker loses her identity as a presenter. Here, I would like to record that the nature of the audience has a direct bearing on the choice of the topic. Hence, the best topic is the one that suits your audience, you, the type of occasion, and the length of time you have. Just as you can enjoy talking on a subject you know well, or you are interested in, your audience can enjoy listening to a talk that attacks a topic relevant to their needs and interests. Your audience will listen willingly if your topic is of concern to them. Therefore, it is necessary to perceive their individual interests and their interest as a group.

Equally importantly, you need to have a clear understanding of your objectives. You can grab the attention of your audience and sustain their interest only if your objectives are clear. One simple way to understand the purpose of your presentation is to answer the questions: Why do your audience want to hear you? Why do you want to address them? You must define your general and specific purpose: to interest or amuse the audience, to inform or teach them, to stimulate or impress, to convince or persuade. When you know your audience and your objectives, you can use a variety of techniques to maintain audience attention: inviting them to participate, exercising their imagination, arousing their curiosity, role playing, stating striking facts and statistics, and telling a story (Pearson and Nelson, 1999: 259-60).

Understand the occasion.
It is common knowledge that some occasions are informal and some occasions are formal. For example, a friendly gathering is an informal occasion and a business meeting or conference is a formal occasion. The topic, the style, and the occasion should match with one another. The speaker who loses sight of this common sense principle projects a poor image of herself. The audience will tend to conclude that the speaker is so much engrossed in herself that she forgets the demands of the occasion. Her aim is to express something she very much wants to, but has had no occasion to express. In all probability, such a speaker would turn out to be a big bore. When you know the nature and type of the occasion, it is easier for you to choose a topic that suits it. For example, when the occasion is ‘Children’s Day’ you know that the audience will comprise children. Naturally, you must select a topic that appeals to children and is not beyond their reach. Obviously, abstract, philosophical ideas will be beyond children’s comprehension as their conceptual and experiential knowledge is very limited. So, if you talk about pursuit of spiritual values, self-abnegation and salvation, children will get confused, and will not feel interested in the talk. Instead, if you appeal to their imagination and curiosity, they will feel absorbed. That is why cartoon films, fairy tales, and fables fascinate children. To cut the long story short, if you want to succeed as a speaker, you should understand the dictates of the occasion.

Check the location.
The success of your presentation will depend on several factors. One, you need to understand your audience. Two, you need to know the nature and type of the occasion. Three, you should familiarize yourself with the location. If possible, you should visit the place a day or two before your presentation. You should see whether things are in working condition. When you visit the location, you can decide where to keep the lectern, the projector, video player, etc. You can decide where you will stand, where you will keep unused transparencies, and where you will keep the used ones. You can check the furniture, switchboards, fans, and other gadgets, and arrange an appropriate and convenient seating arrangement: oval, circular, etc. You can also check the acoustic conditions of the hall. This is important, because in some places the speaker’s voice echoes. The hall may not be sound proof or may be on a busy and noisy street. In such circumstances, you will find it difficult to concentrate on your presentation. The audience will find it difficult too. At times, the hall may be too big for a small number of listeners; conversely, it may be too small for a big audience. In the former situation, people will get a feeling of emptiness; in the latter case, they will feel suffocated. This will adversely affect your presentation. You know you have prepared thoroughly and your material is very useful, relevant, informative and interesting; your tone is lively, interested, and enthusiastic; you sound very positive, friendly and straightforward; and you have a great sense of humor. All these qualities are, no doubt, important, but if the hall is too small or too big; the acoustic conditions are poor, the furniture is uncomfortable, the gadgets are old and decrepit, and the venue is noisy, then it is hard for a talk to succeed.

Collect your ideas.
Well, you have familiarized yourself with the audience, occasion and location. Now, it is time for you to gather material. Where do you get your material? Well, the first great source of material is your own head. You can brainstorm on the topic and jot down your own ideas. I am sure you have read something about the topic or heard some speeches or have thought about the topic. You can recollect your ideas, thoughts, experiences, and observations and write them down.

When you have brainstormed and listed your own ideas, you can look for more ideas in newspapers, magazines, books, and encyclopedias. Fortunately, there is no famine of ideas; they are floating around you all the time. You need to catch them and internalize them, personalize them, and support them with your own experiences and observations. Furthermore, you may interview some public speaker, specialist or expert, or discuss your subject with your friends, colleagues and family. Yet another source is the audio-visual library. You can have a look at its catalogues to identify relevant cassettes/DVDs, view them and select portions, which you think will add spice to your presentation. The audio-visual impact will enliven your speech.

You must be wondering why I have not mentioned the Internet. Certainly, the Internet is a rich source of information. You can get information about nearly any topic-advertising, managerial styles, personnel management, inflation, recession, equity markets, etc. And it is not at all difficult to access the Internet. Just get some website addresses, type them in the search box and hit the Enter key, and the whole magic box will display a wealth of data. It is an ‘open sesame’ to a flood of information.

Separate the wheat from the chaff.
The presenter’s time is limited; so is her listeners’ time. Once when a popular Korean speaker stood up to make her speech, she asked the chairperson: “How long shall I speak?” The chairperson said: “Take as long as you like – we will leave after thirty minutes.” The presenter has a responsibility towards her audience. Cordell (2005), while talking about the presenter’s responsibility, says, “Consider a 1-hour presentation attended by 20 people. The cost is 20 human hours times the hourly value of each person’s time. That’s a lot of time and cost, not to mention the effort required for each audience member to travel to the presentation and break up their day to do so. To justify this cost, the presenter must be well prepared and the information thoughtfully presented and pertinent to the listeners’ needs.” This implies that you cannot present the bagfuls of material you have collected. The simplest guideline here is: Don’t be over-ambitious; be pragmatic. It is a good idea to know your constraints. Let me suggest an easy procedure: List your points; cut your points to as few as possible; forget some points – forgetting is a blessing in disguise! Combine minor points under the major ones. Three or four points are easy to remember. One should not bite more than one can chew. One should not spread it too thin either. Let’s remember what Plutarch said: “I do not think him a good shoemaker, who makes a great shoe for a small foot.”

All this requires you to select your material keeping in mind (i) the time limit, (ii) audience interest, and (iii) purpose of the talk. As a result, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff, the essential from the inessential. You have to sift through your material to distinguish important information from disposable information. I usually use a three-circle model to arrange my ideas – the inner circle, the outer circle, and the expanding circle. Accordingly, I put my ideas into three groups: core ideas, secondary ideas, and disposable ideas. Since a presenter does not have unlimited time, you need to talk about the core ideas from the inner circle first. In case you get extra time, you can discuss ideas from the outer and expanding circles. If you have only a few core ideas and do not have extra ones, you may find yourself in a difficult situation. For example, if you dry up in the middle of your talk or exhaust all your material in half the allotted time, it will be embarrassing for you. Therefore, it is a good idea to have some extra material ready on hand. It is also a good idea to have lots of telling examples, because examples speak louder than statements. It is common observation that a talk without specific examples is ineffective.

In brief, you should choose only a few points to present and keep some points in reserve. If you include too many ideas in your presentation, then your talk will be too dense and you will have to hurry up to cover all these points. This will result in unnatural speed of delivery of an unedited speech. As a result, your audience will lose patience and their attention will fade away, and they may even leave your presentation in the middle. Therefore, it is a wise thing to find out how much time you have and how much you can present during that time.
Organize your ideas.


Knowing how much time you have is a key to selection and organization of your material, which in turn is a key to success. Pearson and Nelson (1999, p. 258) rightly say, “Organizing your speech is one of the most important skills you can learn. First of all, organization is often the key to understanding. The audience is more likely to understand your message if it is organized than if it is not. Second, you are more likely to include the best information, arguments, and evidence if your speech is organized than if it is not. Organizing a speech forces you to select, to prioritize, and to choose the best of the available information. Third, the audience is more likely to evaluate you positively if you sound organized. A well-organized presentation has three main sections: a beginning, middle, and an ending. “The introduction must grab the audience attention. It should clearly state what the speaker is about to present and how it will be presented…. The body of the presentation must develop ideas clearly and logically, and connect them by means of appropriate transition…. Finally, the conclusion should be anticipated, never abrupt” (Villata, 2003).

The introductory part of your speech is like the take-off and ascent of a flight. The main body resembles the journey between ascent and descent. The concluding part is similar to the descent and landing of a flight. As you know, the take-off and landing are very crucial stages. Nine of ten aviation accidents take place during these stages. Therefore, the captain has to be very careful. Your presentation is like a flight and you are like the captain of a flight. The introduction to your talk is like the ascent and the conclusion of your speech is like the descent of a flight. You must be extra careful when your speech is taking off and ascending, and equally watchful when it is descending and landing. The first and last impressions are lasting impressions.

Thus, the introductory part of your presentation catches audience attention and provides signposting from which they can extrapolate the direction of the presentation. The audience gets a clear map of how they will travel and what they will encounter on the way. So, how do you go about introducing your speech? Well, several strategies are available. You can start with a quotation, saying, proverb, epigram, joke, anecdote, aphorism, story, folktale, or a dramatic and controversial statement. You can open the talk in any way you like as long as you succeed in arresting the attention of the audience. Let us say, you are talking about the role of women in business and industry, you might start with the following words: (i) “Well, friends, I believe that God cannot be present everywhere. So, he created woman”; or (ii) “Well, friends, let me tell you that I spent the best period of my life in the arms of another man’s wife- I mean, my mother!” Or, let us say, being the CEO of a famous car company, you are speaking about road accidents resulting from the poor quality of cars, you might start like this: “Dear customers, life is short. Let’s not make it shorter! Use our cars. Your life is safe in our hands when our steering wheel is in your hands.”

Having introduced the topic in an interesting way, you then proceed to develop the main body of your presentation. An effective body of a speech can be informative, persuasive, or amusing. An informative speech adds to the listener’s knowledge; a persuasive talk presents a problem and proposes solutions. The latter type reminds me of a personal experience. One day I was trying to get a cow into the barn. I pushed the animal with all my might and I even whipped her a little. I had a hard time subduing her. When my father saw my plight, he used his wisdom and experience and held a bunch of lush green grass in front of the cow and slowly walked into the barn, the cow following him meekly. My father looked at the problem from the cow’s viewpoint and succeeded in making his idea very attractive to the cow. Likewise, an effective presenter exploits the viewpoint of her audience and gently persuades them into docilely accepting her views. Depending on the type of presentation, you can develop your speech using various strategies: you can advance your arguments, supply the data, and provide examples. You can quote experts to support your argument, because authority, testimony, quotation, and evidence help you sell your ideas effectively. Moreover, it is a good strategy to support every idea with an illustration that is germane to the purpose of the talk. Being specific, definite and clear, a good illustration expresses the meaning forcefully.

Now let me have a word about the concluding part of a presentation. What do you do to end your talk effectively? You arranged your ideas in a series, and climbed to a ‘crescendo’ step by step to gradually reach the climax. But this is just one way to reach the conclusion. An alternative way is the reverse of crescendo. In music parlance we call it ‘diminuendo’. In the former case, the tempo rises and reaches the climax; in the latter, the tempo diminishes and finally dissolves. Different speakers choose different styles. Whether you select this style or that, you should plan your conclusion in advance, because if you think of it at the last moment, then you might end up projecting a poor image of yourself. Incidentally, once I witnessed a very embarrassing situation where speaker asked a guest sitting beside him how to conclude his speech. Expectedly, the audience giggled.

The foregoing discussion attests to the several advantages the structure of a presentation gives us. First, it draws audience attention and brings things into focus. Secondly, it holds people’s interest. Experience tells us that it is difficult to hold human attention and interest for a long time, but structure helps us do that. A speech without organized ideas is boring and may be good for patients of insomnia or sleeplessness. Thirdly, a methodically presented speech helps people understand the message and perceive the links easily. Fourthly, it makes the message stay in public memory for a longer time. In brief, an organized presentation grabs and sustains audience attention, and achieves a lasting impact.

Prepare your presentation aids.
One may be a very confident, fluent and eloquent speaker, but one cannot make a point as effectively as a picture or a diagram does. A visual conveys an idea faster and better. There are several visual aids you can use: pictographs, line graphs, photographs, diagrams, bar graphs, charts, blackboard, flannel board, transparencies, motion pictures, and so on. Some presentation aids are readily available for you to buy them. If suitable aids are not available, then you can use your creativity and imagination to produce those that suit your topic, audience, occasion, and purpose.

The usefulness of presentation aids can hardly be overemphasized. They have several advantages. They arrest audience attention, rekindle, stimulate, and sustain their interest. When the listener looks at the visual, she understands the point easily and effortlessly. A visual sticks the idea deep in the listener’s mind and helps her remember it for a long time. A picture is more revealing than a hundred words, because it communicates an idea more clearly, quickly, and vividly than most other devices. It gives a presentation a strong punch and presents the idea as a whole at one time.

Let me add a word of caution here. Presentation aids used in a wrong manner or used carelessly will create a poor impression. Therefore, it is important to use them properly, judiciously, wisely and sparingly. Excessive use of visuals can have an adverse impact on the audience. So, you need to handle PowerPoint visuals with great care. First, while using them, you should look at the audience and speak to them, and should not talk to the visual or the projection on the screen. Secondly, you should number the visuals so that they do not get mixed up. Their sequence should go hand in hand with respective ideas you are presenting. Thirdly, in case you are using transparencies, you should be careful while displaying them on the projector so that you do not place them upside-down or they do not drop on the floor.

In brief, presentation aids should be prepared carefully to match the available equipment, should not be too many or too complicated, and should be used skillfully to reinforce the message.

Rehearse your presentation.
Right! Now you are ready for the big moment. You chose the topic; prepared profiles of your audience, occasion, and location; you collected, selected and organized your material; and you created presentation aids. Now, you must ask yourself: “Would it be a wise thing to go to the podium and make the presentation? Shall I try it at home first?” If you are an experienced speaker, you can skip the rehearsal stage, but if you are a beginner or you are not fully confident, it is a good idea to rehearse your talk before you mount the platform.

At this point two questions are likely to surface to your mind. One, why should you rehearse? Two, where do you rehearse? Let me answer your second question first. Well, you can rehearse in front of a mirror or request some of your relatives, friends or colleagues to attend your presentation and be ruthlessly critical of the content and the manner. You can request a speechmaker, and a presenter to attend your talk. Or, you can do it by yourself: record your speech and play it again. Now, let me answer your first question. The advantages are obvious: practice makes perfect. Rehearsal improves performance. Your rehearsal audience can give you feedback on your pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and organization of ideas, body language, and time management. They can comment on the strengths and the weaknesses of your presentation. They can tell you which part of your speech was effective and which ineffective. In the light of their suggestions, you can edit your speech, refine your content and language, and get rid of faults in the structure, errors of logic, poor usage, irrelevant examples and quotations, and so on. Furthermore, rehearsal will help you check your timing and reduce your nervousness. Thus rehearsal helps you to improve your presentation skills through peer rating, self-rating and reflection (Yamashiro and Johnson, 1997).
Deliver your presentation.


Finally, the big moment has come! You find yourself standing on the dais. You have put in great effort; you have the cue cards ready to boost your confidence. You know you will not falter. The prompt cards will enable you to speak more freely, almost conversationally; they will also free you to look at your listeners. Your presentation aids are ready. The audience waits for the take-off. Luckily, your take-off succeeds in getting their attention; but you must use all your resources to maintain a grip on the audience. The two major resources that you have arelanguage and body language.

Talking about these two resources, Tubbs and Moss (2002: 315) observe, “For years two guidelines for effective delivery have been naturalness and poise. A speaker’s delivery should not draw attention from the content of the message as it might, if it were overly dramatic or reflected lack of confidence…Good delivery involves much more than mere fluency in speaking. It includes the effective use of many visual and vocal cues: eye contact, hand gestures, posture, and general physical appearance as well as vocal quality, pitch, volume and rate of speech.”

First, let me talk about language. I cannot help remembering what Ben Johnson said about language: Language most shows a man: speak that I may see you. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the parent of it, the mind. No glass renders a man’s form, or likeness so true as his speech. Obviously, language plays a very crucial role in a presentation. Although the level of formality of the language will vary from occasion to occasion and topic to topic (for example, the formal expression ‘bovine spongiform encephalopathy’ and the informal term ‘mad cow disease’), a good public speaker usually employs the familiar language of person-to-person conversation. She uses positive and polite language to bridge or at least reduce the distance between her and her listeners. The use of “I”, “my,” and “me” has distancing effect; on the contrary, “we,” “our” and “us” have a zoom in effect. Thus her talk is personal and familiar like a chat. Everyone understands her meaning, because every sentence is plain and simple. She practices what Disraeli said: I make it a rule to believe only what I understand. I think this is a great idea! Your audience will not believe what they do not understand. Therefore, it is necessary to use short, simple words, and familiar examples. A good speaker uses technical language only when it is unavoidable. She uses words that say exactly what she means and uses images to sharpen her points. If her subject is abstract and complicated, she tries to present it in concrete and simple language. Occasionally, she can use sensual images and figures of speech. Her main guiding principle, however, is what Emerson said: “Speech is power to translate a truth into a language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak”.

How about tone of voice? Is it significant? Does it play an important role in communication? Yes, it certainly does. The following anecdote is evidence of its impact. G.K Chesterton, the British writer and critic, tried an experiment to test the effect of tone of voice on the listener. One day he went to a fish market to buy some fish. On that occasion something very revealing transpired between him and the woman waiting on him. To the woman waiting on him, Chesterton said in a low, endearing voice:
“You’re a noun, a verb, and a preposition.”
The woman blushed, because she felt flattered that such a cultured person saw these qualities in her.
After buying the fish, Chesterton said in a rough, higher voice:
“You’re an adjective, an adverb, and a conjunction.”
The woman thought that Chesterton had said something bad of her and so gave him a resounding slap.

In short, your words, accent, tone of voice communicate meanings and messages, feelings and attitudes. Your language can make people feel flattered or can infuriate them; it can interest them or bore them. That is why you need to be very careful while choosing words and tones.

However, language is just one aspect of communication; body language is another facet, which is equally important, or perhaps more important. Let us take the case of eye contact, for instance. Our eyes send messages and receive impressions from another person’s eyes. What can we see in our audience’s eyes? Well, we can read a whole lot of messages – interest, willingness, comprehension, satisfaction; incomprehension, boredom, irritation, etc., because all our souls are written in our eyes. The interchange of looks is the first step toward rapport. If you have to read your speech, your eyes are riveted on the text and you cannot look at the audience. Eye contact is like a lubricant; it reduces friction, acts as an adhesive and binds people together. Just as an accelerator increases the speed of your vehicle, your eye contact speeds up your listener’s comprehension. When you look them in the face, they understand faster and better.

Gestures and facial expressions greatly contribute to the effectiveness of your speech. Nobody would like to listen to a speaker with a stone face, because a speaker is not a statue. Gestures and expressions help you illustrate your ideas, express your attitudes, and regulate your interaction with your audience. Moreover, gestures can emphasize, highlight, complement or contradict the verbal message.

Answer the zn6

What a relief! You have finished your speech and you might think that your job as a presenter is over. But wait a minute. Your audience has several questions, which you need to answer. He has a question here and she has a question there! Your presentation will be complete when you have answered their questions. Incidentally, not every question will be sensible. Only one in five may be an intelligent question. However, you cannot afford to lose your patience; you have to keep calm. Poise is very important, because poise is the ability to continue speaking fluently while the other fellow is picking up the cheque.

Just as there are several types of questions (factual, probing, etc.), there are different motives behind questions. As they say, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers”. Someone raises a question because she wants people to notice her presence. This man here has a different perspective on the issue under discussion and so voices a question. That woman over there would like you to answer her question, because she has not understood a particular point you made. The gentleman sitting in the first row wants more clarification. That gentleman in the corner wants you to repeat a large chunk of your talk, because it was beyond his comprehension. In such a situation you should not say what a popular orator once said to one of his listeners. One day, one of his listeners said to him:
“Mr. Speaker, it was a very good speech, but certain points were beyond my reach.”
The speaker looked up and said:
“I’m sorry for you. I once had a dog that had the same trouble with fleas.” (Reader’s Digest, 1972, p. 506).

Asking intelligent and probing questions is an art; answering them convincingly is an art too. The first thing you should do is to welcome the question. If necessary, compliment the questioner on her question. First, say that it is a probing, intelligent, good question and then answer it. If you do not know the answer, tell the questioner you do not have the answer and apologize to her for not being able to provide a satisfactory explanation. There are several ways to assure the questioner that you want to help her. You may appeal to the audience to try to answer her question. I am sure they will not mind helping out at all. In fact, they will be glad to help out. In case they do not have the answer, you may leave your email address with the questioner and request her to email the question to you. Alternatively, you can direct her to a particular article in a specific journal where she may find an answer to her question.

There are several ways to handle questions. Things will be easier if you are a ready-witted presenter. That reminds me of an anecdote about Einstein. As you know, Einstein used to be invited all over to talk about his theory of relativity. Because of extensive traveling and busy schedule he sometimes felt terribly exhausted. One day, he was so fatigued that he was in no mood to deliver a talk. Seeing his plight, his chauffeur, Hans, asked him to relax and volunteered to deliver a speech on relativity. When the surprised Einstein asked him how he would manage to talk on such a complex scientific topic, he said that he would be able to speak on the topic as he had heard Einstein so many times that he had the theory by heart.

Done! Einstein sat among the audience while Hans roared on the stage and was given a thunderous applause after his speech. But he saw a problem brewing when a naughty professor shot a knotty question at him. Hans could not have answered it as he had just parroted the theory of relativity without understanding even an iota of it. However, he did not lose his poise. He said to the professor, “Professor, that’s a very simple question. My chauffeur, who is among the audience, will answer it.” Luckily for Hans no one knew that the man sitting in the audience was Einstein who then got up and thundered a brilliant answer to rescue Hans! This could happen because Hans was ready-witted.

Now, let me sum it up. I have discussed the various stages to presentation. First, you need to select a subject of the presentation: it is the anchor of your presentation. Secondly, you need to be clear about the purpose of your speech: to give a general introduction to lay people, to describe findings to experts, or to engage in a dialogue with the audience Thirdly, you need to familiarize yourself with the location, occasion, and audience. The more you know about them, the better. Is the presentation hall damp, smelly, noisy, air-conditioned? Is necessary furniture in place: a platform, podium, etc.? Is the public address system working? How about distractions and interruptions? Is it a quiet place or a noisy one? What kind of occasion is it? Is it a formal, informal, or casual occasion? You must find out answers to these questions. You need to familiarize yourself with your audience too, because your presentation is a joint venture, a common pursuit, and a co-operative endeavor between you and your audience.

Then, you enter the second major phase of preparation. You pool your ideas, views, statistics, etc. You need some incubation period to internalize the information. During this stage, you can test the validity of your ideas, think about them, and look for illustrations to support those ideas. You must take care to keep your material flexible; for example, you can use old material from earlier presentations, but you must remember that earlier occasion, audience, and objectives were different. This awareness will enable you to adapt your material to suit the new occasion and audience. Having collected your material, you need to structure your presentation in a manner that best suits your purpose: logically, argumentatively, or chronologically. You may present a case when your aim is to convince the audience of your opinion. Alternatively, you can present your ideas in a narrative way, in the form of a story. But, your story must be relevant to your objectives. Furthermore, it should form a part of an overall structure, make a particular point, and must be well told. Then, you have to introduce, develop, and conclude your talk. The introduction should be dramatic enough to whet audience appetite, arrest their attention and focus their thinking. The body of your presentation is the longest part and so you must use your resources such as humour to maintain audience interest. Finally, the ending should contain the THESIS (THESIS being an acronym for THE Speech In a Sentence) of your speech.

Wait a moment. Your preparation is not yet complete. You will require other resources such as graphics to enhance the impact of the structure of your presentation. It is common knowledge that presentation aids add spice to a presentation. You can use them to demonstrate a process or an event, to add a professional touch to your talk and to make it memorable. However, you should not show endless sequences of visuals. Moreover, you need to handle your presentation aids carefully. A video in a wrong order, or slides and transparencies in a wrong sequence will create an undesirable impression. Furthermore, you should use audio-visual aids as supporting materials; too many of them may take over your presentation. More importantly, you should check whether your presentation aids jell with your overall perspective, because it is occasionally the case that they present a differing emphasis.

By now your material preparation is over, but you need to rehearse the presentation in order to be mentally ready for the job. A main advantage of rehearsal is that you can overcome nervousness. You may be nervous, because (i) it is your first performance, (ii) you think you will not come up to audience expectation, (iii) you fear you will dry up in the middle and make a fool of yourself, or (iv) you are afraid you will not find the right word, remember a point, an example or a story.

Now you can claim that you are ready to for the task. The rehearsal is over and you can present your ideas. While doing this, you establish rapport and camaraderie with your audience, entertain them, and make them feel comfortable. You should see to it that you do not undermine your audience or threaten their image. You need to create a co-operative climate, be courteous, receptive, flexible, responsive and professional in you approach. You need to maintain a right degree of formality, control your enthusiasm, display a good sense of humor and move your presentation forward step by step.

It is equally important to use clear, precise, appropriate, dynamic and pleasing simple language. Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, “The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.” Easy grammar and simple, concrete, specific, vivid and sensory vocabulary is listener friendly. Personal language (I, We, You, Sung, Shintaro, etc.) is better than impersonal language (one, somebody, a person, people, etc.). Moreover, verbs are more effective than nouns. Before I conclude, let me remind you that tones, pauses, silences, sentence stress, gestures, facial expressions, and postures convey messages and attitudes. Finally, you should welcome questions from the audience and answer them. You can answer most questions using your common sense and experience.

If you follow the steps and tips offered in this paper, I am sure you will be able to make effective presentations. Having read the paper, some experienced presenters might be wondering if the paper has anything novel to offer. I would like to conclude the paper by drawing their attention to Borges cited in Bekerman and Neuman (2005). Borges opens one of his fictions with an insight he attributes to Francis Bacon: Solomon said that there was no new thing upon the earth, that all knowledge was but remembrance, and all novelty was but oblivion.

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Category: Volume 1 Issue 3 December 2005