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August 2016

How to ace an oral presentation


So you have that inevitable English oral coming up. Afraid? Everybody is. In fact, studies have shown that public speaking is the most common fear in the world; it is feared more than death! Of course, having to ace your oral presentation for an assessment doesn't exactly ease the pressure. The good news is that you're not alone and you can overcome your reluctance through a few easy steps.

When I prepared oral presentations, I encountered two major hurdles; how to write a speech, and more importantly, how to cope with the nerves that arrive in the days and minutes before the speech.  So this article will focus on the three ingredients needed to ace your presentation: content, style and confidence. 

1. Content

As we all know, reading an essay aloud is not a speech. Therefore, the style and expression of your speech will need to be different from an essay. The good news is that the planning stages of your presentation will be very similar to an essay, and it is stylistic elements that really make a difference. 

Any assessment requires you to answer the question/topic and present your answer in a structured way. So for whichever topic is chosen you must simply:

Form a contention

Provide 3 or more major points to justify your point of view

Express those major points in a logical and engaging way

2. Style

It is very important to convert the argument or essay into a presentation format. This is where style and tone come into play. Any speech needs to be clear, engaging and persuasive. In this way you ensure the audience understands you, they want to listen and will 'buy in' to what you're saying.

A) Clarity

Avoid complicated and verbose language. When writing your oral simply ask, "what am I really trying to say" and the right words will come. Many people make the mistake of trying to sound smart and end up clouding the real meaning of their speech through 'sophisticated' language that doesn't really make sense. A good way to test this is to say your speech to a younger sibling. If they can't understand the main idea, you haven't been clear enough.

(There are exceptions to this rule. For example, if you take on a character for your oral, you'll want to adopt their style of speaking too)

B) Engagement

I can't stress this point enough. Don't be boring! Of course a speech for class can't be the most exciting thing you've ever heard, but you can always try and make it sound good. Here is where your creativity comes in. When you make a point, try to express it using examples and stories that will raise an eyebrow or have an impact. Ask the audience rhetorical questions, look them in the eye and alter your tone and intensity.

Once again, a test for how engaging you are is simple. Say it out loud to yourself or to a parent or sibling. If they're bored, it's likely the class/examiner will be too.

C) Persuasiveness

It's really important to remember that any speech or piece of writing is a presentation of an argument or point of view. In this way, it's important to make sure that your points flow and are presented in a way that is convincing and not forceful.

Also, I'd encourage you to say your speech from a set of brief bullet points rather than reading it word for word. Many students mistakenly rely on the script approach as a security blanket. The top performing students, however, are comfortable enough with their material to speak from bullet points and therefore focus their energy on being charismatic and having impact.

A good way to do this is by reading your speech to a family member and then simply discussing the topic with them. You'll find that the conversation will bring out new ideas and ways of expressing your opinion and will strengthen your ability to speak on the topic.

3. Confidence

The biggest challenge for most students is nerves and performance anxiety. There are two quite simple ways to minimise this issue.

A) Know Your Content

We’re often scared of 'screwing up' in front of the class and so we spend our time focusing on ‘getting it right’ instead of making an impact and speaking with confidence. Quite simply, you should know the material so well that you don't need a script, and as already mentioned, all you need are some key words on a page.

B) Face The Reality

Often the scariest part of speaking and nerves is not the actual process of talking, but the mental image or scenario we create for ourselves in the lead up. We imagine a worst-case scenario that rarely if ever happens, and this scares us into paralysis.

Quite simply, look at the facts. Remember that every other student is in the same position as you and that they don't care about your speech as much as you do. Also, when you put yourself in their shoes, you realise that they're merely listening to what you're saying. They can't tell that you have sweaty palms or that your voice is trembling; only you can! The second that you no longer attach emotion to what the audience will think about you, you begin to focus on the facts; you’re there to present some ideas and engage an audience.

C) Practice

Anyone who performs well has practised. A lot. Rehearse your speech in front of audiences such as family and friends. As soon as you've said it to a few people and received approval and feedback, your nerves will melt away. 

The major focus of your preparation will be divided into three parts: content, style and confidence. Once you’ve developed the content of your speech, you simply have to convert it into a presentation format and practice it. As mentioned, a good test at any stage of the process is to put your words into action and rehearse in front of family and friends. Their feedback will often be effective and will help you develop a speech that everybody is going to love.

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