How to: Stop jitters when public speaking

May 4, 2001

To assist students with presentations, tutors should teach them to relax and help them prepare thoroughly, says Mark Griffiths.

Most of us have suffered a little anxiety before speaking in public. The heart races, the mouth dries and there is the terror that when you open your mouth only a squeak will come out. This might be perfectly normal, but try telling that to a student who has to present research results in front of an audience for the first time. Less sympathy and more practical advice is what is needed when part of an assessment depends on slick presentation skills.

Tutors can best soothe these pre-presentation jitters by preparing students well, through tutorials, seminars and one-to-one coaching. A good starting point is to teach deep-breathing exercises to help students relax. A good end point is an after-action review, where everyone talks over the successes and failures of individual presentations.

In between it comes down to basics. Students must learn to structure a presentation. They should be aware that their ideas - or the ones that they have read about - should flow logically, and they should ask themselves a series of key questions:

  • What are the facts?
  • Why is the information being presented important?
  • What are the implications and/ or consequences of what is being outlined?

People like to receive information in different ways and there is a variety of communication methods students can employ to get a message across. Some people prefer overhead visuals, others oratory, while others will focus on the words used, looking for logic and solid argument.

If students get the mix right everyone can take something from the presentation. Stories and anecdotes are simple but effective devices that can be used to cover complex points. Similarly, a good metaphor or analogy can make a presentation memorable and create an impact.

But telling students how to structure an individual or team presentation is not enough. They need to rehearse as though it were a theatre production and practise in front of trusted friends.

Below are a few tips that tutors and students can follow to minimise pain and maximise gain.

Mark Griffiths is a reader in the psychology division, department of social sciences, Nottingham Trent University.

Top ten presenting pointers

  • Prepare thoroughly: students need to be sure of who they are speaking to, how long they will have and what their objectives are n They should order material, be focused and present only one concept or idea at a time, and try not to backtrack except for summarising
  • Know the subject: mistakes can lead to lack of credibility. Check all necessary information for clarifications and/or questions from the audience, and background information for follow-up debates
  • Check the room: get to know the layout and acoustics of where you are speaking. Little things count such as moving the lectern closer to the projector
  • Check out the props: there is nothing worse than discovering a faulty overhead projector or that your PowerPoint projector is incompatible with the system
  • Do not read out the talk: although the security of a piece of paper with everything written down is tempting, it is an audience turn-off. Better to use cue cards and/or general headings on overheads and talk around them
  • Establish eye contact: shoe gazing or fixing your gaze on the wall at the back of an auditorium looks unnatural. Better to speak to the active listeners than the one or two people who have switched off. It probably has nothing to do with you
  • Use pace, pitch and tone: fast presentations are often a sign of nervousness, whereas slow ones can quickly bore the audience and may suggest unfamiliarity with the material. Just like good acting, silence and pauses create moods. If students want to relax people, they can drop their voice, leave pauses and slow down. If they want to enthuse them, they can speed up where appropriate
  • Read your visuals: get students to check the legibility of their visual aids if they hand-write them, and make sure they use a big enough type if they wordprocess them - 24 point will usually suffice
  • Start and end with strong statements: people will remember these bits of your talk, even if they cannot recall much else.

And remember, a nearby glass of water always helps in case of a dry mouth.

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