Every year, students are required to make a number of presentations and yet, every year students show that they have not been taught how to make presentations. Therefore, my best advice to you is to take a course in Presentation, Public Speaking, or Debate. This will be invaluable to you in your academic and your professional life. Everybody should take at least one class in this subject.
However, for those of you who are not enrolled in one of these courses but who need some hints and tips, here are a few ideas that will make you a better presenter.
HAVE A GOOD IDEA
The most important thing you need to give a good presentation is an idea that you are trying to express. If you have nothing interesting to say, the presentation is a waste of time.
If you’ve studied essay-writing, this will be familiar to you: you’ll already know the idea of a thesis: an interesting, declarative statement describing a hypothesis about some aspect of the world — a hypothesis that incorporates your opinion, but which can be argued about, and supported by facts and examples.
In other words, the thesis is the main point of your presentation — the thing you are trying to get people to understand, agree about, or remember after your presentation is finished. The thesis is the whole purpose of your presentation, and if your thesis is not memorable — or if you have no thesis — then your presentation will be a waste of time and a failure.
The following are some bad examples of a thesis:
(Nobody can argue about this. It’s a proven fact!)
(This is pure opinion; we cannot support or truly argue about this in an intelligent, useful, or interesting way..)
(This is too vague. What do “bad” and “dangerous” mean? You need to be more specific.)
(Some people might agree with you, but the language is way too extreme. You’re screaming an opinion, not discussing an arguable hypothesis.)
(So what? This is too personal, and while personal experience can be useful in a presentation it’s not interesting enough to be your thesis!)
Common problems with the thesis chosen for student presentations are that:
CONNECT TO THE AUDIENCE
The most important thing you can do is connect to your audience. You can do this by making sure you do the following:
People who are listening to you are not reading an essay, and you should not be reading an essay either. Explain your ideas and arguments in your own words, keeping things simple and advancing your argument step by step.
Especially make sure you’re not reading from a script, or reciting a memorized script. Reading in front of people is very boring, while reciting a memorized script is risky — if you get lost, you’re suddenly in trouble!
The best thing to do is use some note cards with your arguments outlined in simple points. Speak using your own words to explain your ideas. If you practice giving the speech a few times using the note cards, it will go a lot better.
Looking at the audience will help them to feel interested in your speech — that’s a natural reaction. Looking at a paper instead of the audience will make them feel bored.
If you mumble, or seem shy, your speech will not be taken as seriously as it would be if you presented yourself as an interesting person with interesting things to say. Practice speaking loudly, check the pronunciation of the major key words in your argument, and work on your confidence.
Nobody said that you have to ignore your audience. Sometimes, asking a question and responding to the answers can help make an audience feel interested in your speech. Remember, though, that Korean audiences tend to be very passive during speeches and presentations. You may have to encourage people or wait a little bit to get a response.
Making people laugh wakes them up, and draws attention to your presentation. You’re not supposed to be a comedian, but a few jokes can be useful, especially if your topic is a little dry or boring.
Yes, giving a speech to an audience of people is scary! One way that you can get used to it is to ask your friends to sit in a room and listen to you practice your speech. A course in public speaking or debate will help this a lot, but even practicing a few times with an audience will help a little. Your friends can even give you advice about your speech — the parts that were boring, or they didn’t understand — to help you make your speech better when you give it for real.
ON POWERPOINT PRESENTATIONS
Powerpoint is responsible for more bad presentations every year than anything else in the world. Please remember that — except for our university’s speech and presentation contest — a powerpoint is always optional, and that your professor might ask you not to use a powerpoint.
In addition, you should be ready (and able) to give your presentation even if some computer problem makes your powerpoint file unusable. The point of the presentation is you and your ideas. The powerpoint is nothing more than a tool that you can use to help express your ideas or help the audience understand them more easily.
With this in mind, the best powerpoint presentations have little or no text onscreen. A picture is worth a thousand words. No more than a few words should appear on screen at any one time, while images that help explain or describe what you are saying are the best thing to put in a powerpoint presentation.
For an excellent example of the use of minimal text in a powerpoint presentation, see this flash lecture by Lawrence Lessig. It doesn’t matter whether you understand his complicated argument: just look at the way he uses images in his powerpoint.
UPDATE (3 May 2011): And for even more advice, please see the official handouts designed to help students with the Department Presentation Contest. While they’re designed for that purpose, they have tons of material that will help you prepare for any presentation… or, for that matter, in writing an effective essay, as well!