Public Speaking & Presentations: A Quick Crash Course

I truly cannot imagine being a student giving presentations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Giving presentations in front of a classroom of students is already stress-inducing, but with the anxiety of our current situation and the struggle to find motivation because school is virtual? No way.

But what if I told you: there’s a really easy formula to giving presentations. You can use the same formula for any presentation you give. Knowing how to give presentations will save you so much time and effort. You will never struggle to give a presentation again, and you will sound confident and secure every time you present in front of anyone about anything.

I know I sound overly confident, right? You’re probably wondering how you could ever feel confident giving a presentation, but I promise you, I’m going to be letting you in on all the insider secrets about public speaking.

How do I know this information? While I took a public speaking class in high school, I don’t remember much from it. Where I really learned this information was when I took a class in which I was being trained in how to tutor students at the WORD Studio. The WORD Studio is the communications center at St. Lawrence University. WORD stands for writing, oral, research, and design.

Most of us in the class were already confident in writing, but we weren’t so sure about public speaking. I really didn’t know how to do it well, and I voiced my concerns to my professor when she told us we would be helping tutees with presentations.

“Wait,” I interjected, not even bothering to raise my hand. “I can’t help people with that.”

But she promised we would learn. Not only would we learn, but we would be sick of it by the time we were second-year tutors. I didn’t believe her, but I should have.

We were given a presentation by the professor in charge of the public speaking department at our school. It really helped, but I still couldn’t memorize the information. The material was nothing I had seen before. When we started out as tutors, we had a piece of paper with a long checklist that helped guide us in tutoring for presentations. Eventually, it got to the point where I never had to look at the paper. At this point, I could recite this information in my sleep.

Now that we’ve established my credentials in why you should follow my public speaking advice, let’s get on with it.

Before we get started, I want to tell you: No one is listening besides your teacher. It takes a lot of brain power to analyze the words you are saying. Listening to presentations and providing feedback was always a lot harder for me than reading papers. Thats because the paragraphs on the page provide a visual guide for the reader. Listening to speeches is a lot more challenging (I’ll teach you how to make it easier), but most students will zone out entirely.

Let’s start with introductions.

Introductions are easier than you think. They need to have these 5 components in order: each a sentence (or two if you have to). Keep it pretty short!

  1. Hook. Find the most interesting fact you can possibly find about your topic. Be honest with yourself. Is it actually interesting? It’s called a “hook” because you want to hook the attention of your listeners. Do some digging before you settle on your hook, because if you don’t nail your hook, your audience will stop listening quickly. Feel free to add some personality into your hook.
  2. Introduce the topic. The hook will relate to your topic, but this is where you more explicitly say, “I’m talking about X today.”
  3. Relate the topic to the audience. Again, it takes a lot of energy and commitment to listen to someone speak intellectually. It’s hard! This is where you explain why your listeners should care about your topic. Relating the information to your audience makes them much more likely to actively listen to your presentation. Another way to achieve this part is to ask the audience a question or get them engaged in some way (a quiz or some type of activity), but if you go this route, make sure it’s not cheesy and shallow. Make the effort to truly connect to your audience.
  4. Relate the topic to yourself. After you’ve related the topic to your audience, go personal. No, this isn’t like an essay where you can’t talk about yourself. The more personal you get, the better. Be honest and vulnerable, but keep it short!
  5. Give your listeners a roadmap. Often this means explicitly saying, “I will be talking about X, Y, and Z today.” Give a brief description of your body “paragraphs” (even though you’re not writing, let’s think of each section as a paragraph like an essay). You always want to write and say your roadmap in the order that you will be speaking them in. Sometimes students make a PowerPoint slide solely dedicated to the roadmap; I never usually did this or suggested it, but it can be a nice touch.

Let’s dig into the body paragraphs.

Just like the introduction, there are definitely tricks to formatting your body paragraphs and guiding the listener. Thinking of the sections of your speech as body paragraphs can make it easier for you to understand as well. First tip: make each body paragraph of your speech roughly the same in duration.

You can practice by actually speaking out loud and timing yourself. It’s too confusing to have one body paragraph that is super short, and then the next point you make takes up the majority of your speech. If one is way too short, do more research. If one is way too long, figure out how to condense your information.

Another super important tip: signal to your readers when you switch body paragraphs. Signal phrases include:

  • “Next, I will discuss X.”
  • “Secondly…”
  • For the last body paragraph: “Finally…”

You can even just take a longer pause and switch the slide. Perhaps the titles of your slide are labeled clearly and even numbered.

Why do you have to be so overt about switching body paragraphs? Put simply: when you start a new paragraph on the page, it’s like you’re directly telling the reader, “Hey, I’m moving on to a different topic now.” Seeing the information split up into paragraphs helps the reader follow along.

We don’t get the luxury of visual organization when we listen to speeches. That’s why you need to be extremely clear along the way for your listeners to stay on track with you. Your words (and also your PowerPoint, if you have one) act as your guidelines.

The length of your body paragraphs as well as the amount of paragraphs you include depends on the length of your speech. Giving a 20-minute speech is a lot different than a 5-minute speech. That’s why you need to practice out loud to see how long your speech will be.

Always remember: never go over the amount of minutes you have. It makes you seem unprepared and unable to concisely communicate your information.

The number one rule: practice out loud multiple times.

We’re already at the conclusion!

  1. Reiterate roadmap. “Today, I told you about X, Y, and Z.”
  2. The meat of your conclusion: the importance. Treat your conclusion similarly to an essay conclusion (detailed in Introductions and Conclusions). Put briefly: state the importance of your conclusion. What should your listeners take away from your speech? Prove why you didn’t waste precious minutes of their lives. No matter how boring the information seems to you, find the importance in your topic somewhere.
  3. This is the hardest part, but find a smooth way to wrap it up. A relevant quote is often perfect right here. Or leave the listener with your final, most important thought. To signal that you are close to finishing, you can start to talk more slowly and let your voice gradually fade out.

Extra Tips

  • Introduce yourself. The only exception to this is if there are very few people in your class and you know you all know each other. Make it less awkward and just say, “In case you forgot, I’m Katie.”
  • Your PowerPoint slides need to be clean and elegant. Never put too many words on the screen (write on notecards if you need them, but try to go off memory with a few notes). Make sure your slides are easily readable. Include pictures. Make it aesthetically pleasing. Be consistent (same font, around the same font size, color theme).
  • Include your personality in your presentations. My one professor always commented how he enjoyed my light-hearted presence (my fear makes me funny, I guess). Plan out some jokes or try to think of places where you can insert your personality and make your speech more memorable. Being funny also helps you give the illusion that you are confident. If no one laughs, don’t worry, they probably weren’t listening, which should comfort you.
  • Don’t forget to cite your sources. Cite verbally, in-text on your slides, and at the end of your PowerPoint. If you don’t have slides, you might want to print off a Works Cited or email it to your teacher. Speeches still have the same rules as essays when it comes to plagiarism. Plus, you want to establish credibility and make it clear you know what you’re talking about.
  • Practice, practice, practice. By yourself. Maybe to your dog. Repeatedly. In front of a mirror. Do what you have to. Try to memorize it loosely: not the individual words and sentences, but the bigger picture and the more important facts. Write short notes to yourself that will trigger your memory of more in-depth information.
  • Especially with presenting on Zoom, write yourself an outline filled with short notes. Never try to write a full script and read it off because we want you sounding confident and conversational, not like a robot.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Plan a few pauses. Let yourself breathe.
  • Pace yourself. Don’t rush. If you go slower, you don’t have to plan as much to present. Plus, you sound so much better to your audience.

So now you know all the public speaking secrets. You don’t have to ramble on forever making a fool out of yourself. You can have a clear plan and tips to follow, making you much more confident and secure in giving presentations.

Good luck, and happy public speaking!

2 responses to “Public Speaking & Presentations: A Quick Crash Course”

  1. Wow seems we are having almost the same view and ideas. I love it


    1. Katherine A. Palmer Avatar
      Katherine A. Palmer

      I love to see it! Thank you for your comment!


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