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Society for Technical Communication

Preparing and Delivering an Oral Presentation

Author(s): Thomas M. Sawyer
Source: Technical Communication, Vol. 26, No. 1 (FIRST QUARTER 1979), pp. 4-7
Published by: Society for Technical Communication
Stable URL:
Accessed: 13-04-2017 18:34 UTC

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Preparing and Delivering an Oral Presentation

Thomas M. Sawyer

THE PROSPECT OF SPEAKING IN PUBLIC need not be frightening to technical ence, thinks of new words and phrases,
communicators , says Professor Sawyer. Here he lays out a simple step-by-step procedure for and automatically inserts them into his
preparing and delivering an oral presentation , giving reasons for each step and offering cautions speech. Thus, little by little the speech
about what not to do. And to drive his point home , he organizes his article just like a talk. gets longer and longer. For this reason it
is wise to time the speech in practice to
run 30 seconds to one full minute shorter
Justice Felix Frankfurter of the U.S. Su- 4. Summarize and be prepared for ques- than the time allotted you.
preme Court in his book, Felix Frankfurter tions So, first - make it short.
Reminisces , twice points out, "Paper is pa-
tient." That is, paper provides no feedback
to the writer; he can't tell from the words onFirst, Make It Short. Second, Make The Organization Obvious.
the page whether or not they are effective.
It is only when you try your words out onIt Takes Twice as Long to Listen as to
Acknowledge the Introduction and the Audi-
people, real live people, says Justice Frank- Read - No speaker ever has time enough
to say all that he would like to say for the ence - It is simply bad manners to merely
furter, that you know if your ideas are any
good or not. simple reason that people can read faster stand up and start talking after someone
This is why engineers and businessmen than he can talk. Thus, a paper which introduces you. So the first words you
are often required to give oral presentations takes you ten minutes to read silently will
should say are: "Thank you Mr. (or Ms.)
as well as submit written reports. But the take you twenty minutes to read aloud.
prospect of speaking in public seems to be Try it for yourself. It will take you about Then Tell ' Em What You're Gonna Tell
a frightening one. The potential speaker twenty minutes to read aloud a journal 'Em - Follow the old preacher's simple,
tends to develop all the symptoms of stage article which runs for only five pages. practical advice, "Tell 'em what you're
Since most writers tend to need more than gonna tell 'em. Then tell 'em what you
fright - quivering hands, dry mouth,
five short pages to express themselves told 'em." Remember that a listening au-
squeaky voice, and knocking knees.
It need not be a dreadful experience. Year fully, they will need to cut the manuscript dience can't stop the speech and go back
after year I have required my technical writ- by half if they are going to fit it into a
over it. So you must make the organiza-
ten-minute time slot on a convention tion very, very obvious so they will know
ing students to give a final public lecture as
well as submit a final written report. More- panel. So you must make it short. what to listen for. Say for example: "To-
over, the student's final grade in the course
Stick to a Few Main Points - Because the . day I would like to tell you four things
is based upon these. And these 10-minute spoken version must be shorter than the

lectures are videotaped and telecast over our written one, the best thing to do is to
local Cable TV station. select only about four major points to
The students get only a single class hourpresent. Most listening audiences seem to it also helps you by rem
of discussion from me on how to organizebe able to recall the speaker's points, pro- what you planned to say. T
and deliver such a lecture and they get onlyvided there are only three or four of them. like hackneyed advice, but
a single chance to rehearse the lecture with Six or seven points are too many for most ably find that the audienc
me. But this is all they really need in order people to remember. ulate you on the clarity o
Arrange these few major points like an zation.
to do a professional-looking oral presenta-
tion. outline, with sub-heads indicating the de- Then Tell 'Em - Once you are through with
tails to be included under each. that forecast, state the first point all over
If one simply follows the suggestions on
how to prepare an oral presentation and Practice it Aloud - Since the speaker dare again. Then explain it and illustrate what
how to deliver an oral presentation that I not waste any words, he must be sure that it means with an example or an instance.
Then when you have finished with this
give to my students, I am pretty sure thatevery word counts. The best way to do
this is to say the speech several times as first point, restate it, as, "Thus, my first
anyone can give an effective public speech
or oral presentation . . . and, I hope, enjoyyou think it might go, trying it out for point is that
doing it. sound. You may want to write it out to know that you are through w
sharpen and improve the phrasing. But do and are ready to hear you
not memorize it. The trouble with memo- ond point is

PREPARING AN ORAL PRESENTATION rizing is that if you miss a single word, the has found that three or fo
whole speech is likely to come apart. All widely scattered througho
To prepare an oral presentation you must
you want to do with the written version is enable the audience to remember what

do four things: to tinker with the language. The good has been repeated. It is your main points
1. Make it short phrases will stick in your mind. you want them to remember, and you
2. Make the organization obvious Time It One Minute Short - Nearly every have mentioned each point in the forecast,
3. Make the ideas simple and vivid speaker gets excited in front of an audi- repeated it as you started to discuss it, and

4 Technical Communication, First Quarter 1979

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repeated it a third time as you finished moved. Percy W. Bridgman's The Logic ence between a capacitor and a conden-
discussing it. of Modern Physics analyzes these "oper- sor?" Now the speaker does not let the
Then Tell 'Em What You Told ' Em - When ational definitions" in physics in much audience answer the question. They will
you have finished with the last point, greater detail; and such definitions are almost always return the wrong answer.
conclude your speech by repeating your now widely used in the social sciences as Instead, he quickly supplies the answer
main points one final time, as, "Thus, I well. himself. "The answer is, there is no dif-
have told you four things about Explain Ideas In English Before Mathemat- ference. They are simply different words
one, ics - Mathematics is a very useful lan- for the same thing." This helps make the
guage. It is concise and accurate. But it speech sound conversational. It is espe-
pletes Ray tends to confuse laymen. Otto Frisch, the
Ehrensburger's cially useful to put rhetorical questions in f
physicist, argues that anything you can the mouths of those members of the au-
tions, widely dispersed, and
those four say in mathematics
ideas you can also say in
firmly dience who seem to be paying
in little atten-
audience. English because the mathematical sym- tion. It wakes them up.
So, second, make the organization obvious. bols are merely abbreviations for words. So, third, make the ideas simple and vivid.
However, it may take you several pages
Third, Make the Ideas Simple and Vivid. to explain a complex mathematical idea.
Fourth, Summarize and Be Prepared for Questions.
But if the equation is a simple one, it is
Put Your Ideas In Verbal Pictures - Keep inbetter to say it in words first. It makes
mind that the listening audience, unlike little sense to most people to say, "Since Repeat the Main Points In Conclusion - At
a reading audience, cannot go back and C = pA/D, as A becomes smaller for the end of the speech remember to "Tell
listen to part of your speech over again if 'Em What You Told 'Em," as, "Thus I
they don't understand an idea. You must have told you four things about

make sure that your ideas are clear right"Keep in mind that the listening one,

now' Since most people have visual imag- conclusion and tells the au
audience, unlike a reading audi- are now finished.
inations - that is, they dream in pictures,
rather than in sounds, smells, or ence, cannot go back and listen Repeat Each Question For the Benefit of the
touches - try to show them how things to part of your speech over again Audience - If there is a question period
look. For an example, see Samuel C. Flor-if they don't understand an idea. following the speech some of the ques-
tions come from those in the first two
man's neat verbal picture of the Wankel You must make sure that your
engine in Harper's, vol 256, no. 1537, June rows of the audience. But since they are
1978, p. 17.
ideas are clear right now !" close to the speaker, they don't talk very
Explain Your Strategy (Where You Are loudly, and the rest of the audience can't
Trying To Go) Before Your Tactics (The a given p and D, C becomes smaller also." hear the question. If the person presiding,
Details of Your Route) - Experts of any It is clearer to say, "The capacitance, or or the speaker himself, does not repeat
kind sometimes baffle and lose an audi- charge (C), on a condensor is directly the question, the rest of the audience
related to the permittivity (p) of the me- doesn't know what the answer is about.
ence because they start with the details of
what they did before they explain why dium between the plates of the condensor, Thus, always repeat the question. More-
they did it in the first place. It merely the area (A) of the plates, and inversely over, if the question is a sticky one, re-
confuses the audience to start with the related to the distance (D) between them, peating the question - slo-o-owly - gives
procedures involved in an inclining ex- or C = pA/D." the speaker time to think of a good an-
periment to determine the metacenter of Illustrate The Application - None of the

a ship. Until the audience has been told aboVe will make sense to the audience Reword Clumsy Questions - Often the qu
that the height of the metacenter deter- until you explain what the idea or proce- tion is a long, involved, clumsy questio
mines if the ship is top-heavy and likely dure is used for. What difference does it simply because the questioner can't figu
to capsize in a rough sea, the whole pro- make if C = pA/D? Who cares? If you out how to phrase it. However, t
cedure is a meaningless series of opera- explain that the tuning circuit of a radio speaker can often see what the question
tions. uses a variable capacitor (or condensor) is driving at, so don't hesitate to rephr
Explain Scientific Ideas in Physical Terms or and that when you turn the tuning knob the question into a more concise and m
sensible form.
Operational Definitions - Scientific and you mesh a series of plates together to
engineering terms are likely to be espe- increase, or decrease, the area (A) in order Wait Until After the Speech To Pass Thi
cially baffling to laymen. But they are to pick up a particular station's frequency, Out - If you have pictures, samples,
easy to make simple and clear if you only then it begins to make sense. other things you would like the audie
remember to explain the operations you Use Rhetorical Questions To Keep Audience to inspect, distribute them only after y
perform to identify or measure them. Attention - Some speakers seem to be have finished. If you pass things out dur
Ohm's Law is simple if you explain that talking entirely to themselves. But a good the speech, you can watch parts of
George Simon Ohm draped a wire con- speech should sound like a conversation audience stop paying attention to you
nected to the terminals of a battery over with the audience. One way of achieving they bend over to study what is bei
an ordinary magnetic compass and noted this is to use "rhetorical questions," from passed around.
how far the compass needle moved away the Greek word "rhetor" meaning So, fourth, summarize and be prepared
from North. The shorter the wire, the "speaker." This simply means that the questions.
more the movement, thus the less the speaker puts a question in the mouth of Thus - To prepare an oral presentation:
a member of the audience, as, "The man 1 . Make it short
resistance to the flow of electricity; and
the longer the wire, the greater the resist- in the green shirt in the back row is 2. Make the organization obvious
ance, and the less the compass needle undoubtedly asking, what is the differ- 3. Make the ideas simple and vivid

Technical Communication, First Quarter 1979 5

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4. Summarize and be prepared for ques- Choose a Room with the Entrance in the someone in the back row and ask him to
tions Rear - Choose a room with the entrance raise his hand whenever he can't hear you
in the rear if you can. If any member of clearly.
the audience is a little late, he will hesitate
So, first, set the stage and the audience.
to cross in front of the speaker in order to
find a seat, and if he does screw up his
To deliver an oral presentation you need courage
to Second, Carry An Insurance Policy Instead of a
and walk in front of you, he
do only four things: distracts from what you are saying. With
1. Set the stage and the audience the entrance in the rear he can sneak in
2. Have an insurance policy instead of unobtrusively
a Speaking from a manuscript puts you at a
and only the people on the
manuscript disadvantage. For one thing, you can't keep
platform will notice.
3. Use visual aids your eyes on the audience and may miss
some of their reactions. For another, the
4. Talk loudly, slowly, and vigorously
In a large room or auditorium: audience is likely to watch your manuscript
to try to figure out how many more pages
Arrange the Audience in a Pie- Shaped
First, Set the Stage and the Audience. there are left until you are finished. Finally,
Wedge - Most people coming to hear a
the pages can amplify any nervousness you
lecture head for seats in the rear of the
You can give an oral presentation anywhere, may feel. You may lose your place and get
room or along the side aisles. But you
although it is hard to give one in a noisy badly flustered. Or you may hold the pages
factory or to an outdoor crowd because it is in one hand where they flutter like a flag in
harder to make the audience hear you. "Speaking from a manuscripta breeze revealing a trembling the audience
would not otherwise have noticed.
Many industrial oral presentations are you at a disadvantage. For
scheduled in conference rooms with the au- Even so, many people are fearful of appear-
one thing, you can't keep your
dience arranged around a table and the ing before an audience without some sort of
speaker often has no control over the ar- eyes on the audience and theirinsurance policy to remind them in case
rangements. reactions . For another, the audi-
they forget what they planned to say. There
Nevertheless, there are some things you may are two easy ways of providing this insur-
ence is likely to watch your man-
be able to do to improve the speaking situ- ance.

ation. uscript to try to fgure out how Put Notes on Cards - A simple ins
Remove Distractions If You Can - Clean off many more pages there are left." policy can consist of note cards. A
the chalkboard, if there is one, or remove need to put down is the summary o
any other distractions. If you leave some- want an audience arranged like a piece of of your presentation. Since most
one else's sketch or formula on the chalk- pie with the sharp point toward you so ences can't remember more than four ma-
board behind you, the audience will you can see them all easily. jor points anyway, that is all you need to
spend part of its time looking at that They probably head for aisle seats so that list on the cards. A few sub-points listed
rather than paying attention to you. they can escape quickly if they get bored. under each of the major points is all you
Cool Off the Audience - Cool off the room So one trick is to provide several aisles will need to remind you of what you
and thus lots of aisle seats. "Continental planned to say.
before your audience arrives, if you can.
A hot, stuffy room puts people to sleep. seating" has side aisles only and long Type the Main Points to Prevent Finger
People give off lots of heat, so start with rows, and the audience tends to sit in theSmudges - If you use cards be sure to type
back and down the sides of the audito- the outline on them. Most speakers, no
the room a little chilly. It doesn't matter
if the audience shivers a little at first; it rium. "American seating," the better matter how experienced, get nervous and
will keep them awake. Their own body kind, has one or two aisles in the centertheir hands perspire. If you rub a sweat-
as well, and short rows of seats. If your wet thumb across a note written in wet
heat will soon warm up the place.
Choose a Room That is a Little Too room has moveable seats, try to arrangeink, you are likely to wind up with noth-
Small - Get a look at the room in which them in an "American seating" plan. ing but a blue blur.
you are scheduled to speak, and, if pos- But even if the seats are fixed to the floor, Type on One Side Only - Use one side of
sible, alternative rooms. Given a choice, you can arrange the audience the way youeach card only because in case you have
select a small room rather than a large want them in that pie-shape. Simply an-to refer to it you don't want to have to
one. It is much better to have too few nounce as you stand up to talk, "Beforeflip it around looking frantically for the
seats than to have too many. It is moreI begin, I notice you are all sitting a longappropriate entry.
interesting, both for the speaker and for way away and may have trouble seeing Keep the Cards in the Pocket of Your
the audience, to have every seat filled and some of the exhibits I want to present.Jacket - A male speaker should keep this
a few people standing than to have a big Would you mind moving up here?" card insurance policy in a pocket of his
barn of a place with only a handful of It is a good idea to get at least one fellowjacket. Three-by-five cards fit very neatly
people scattered around in it. to move first. Just pick out someone in into the handkerchief pocket, are easy to
Forget about microphones and public ad- the audience who looks agreeable, pointpull out in case of necessity, and can't get
dress systems. Anyone with muscles in his at him and say, "Would you, sir, please mixed up with keys or other articles which
belly can make himself heard in a reason- move down to this seat?" It is usually toooften are kept in side or pants pockets.
able-sized room. Microphones tend to tie embarrassing for him to refuse, so he will Keep them in your pocket rather than in
you to one spot, or they develop a squeal, move as you direct and the rest will tendyour hand because nine times out of ten
or they fade out. Stick to your own mus- to follow. you will never have to refer to them.
cles - unless of course you are addressing Appoint a Volume Indicator - To make sure Merely the knowledge that they are there
a convention of thousands. that everyone can hear you, pick out in case of trouble is sufficient.

6 Technical Communication, First Quarter 1979

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Or Better Yet , Talk From Your Visual the screen. This sounds obvious, but if aimlessly around on the platform. The
Aids - If you include visual aids in your the screen is low and the audience is place to move physically is when you
presentation, you will find that they help spread out, it is sometimes difficult not move mentally, when you finish with
to remind you of what you planned to to block someone's view. one point of your presentation and
say. But you can go further than this and
3. Make sure the lettering is large enough move on to another. The physical
literally outline your presentation on a for the audience to read. The minimum movement helps the audience to see the
series of visual aids. This is of consider-
subtended angle of vision should be 9 mental movement. When you move,
able assistance to the audience because minutes of arc; so letters appearing on move. Don't shuffle. Take firm strides.
they can see as well as hear what you arethe screen should be a full one-inch Rehearse - Practice with a watch or
saying. high if they are to be read at a distance stopwatch in front of you. You will
So, second, carry an insurance policy instead of 32 feet. And lines of text should usually discover that it takes far longer
of a manuscript. appear at least I-V2 inches apart at this to say what you planned to say than
distance. you thought it would.
Third, Use Visual Aids.
Overlays - An impressive di' lay can be So, fourth, talk vigorously and slowly.
created by drawing a base design on a Thus, to deliver an oral presentation:
posterboard or a projected acetate and 1. Set the stage and the audience
It helps the listener to get your information
then adding features to it step-by-step by 2. Have an insurance policy instead of a
by eye as well as by ear. Therefore, use
means of successive transparent acetate manuscript
visual aids freely. 3. Use visual aids
Use the Chalkboard Backhand - The chalk- overlays, each with a single added feature
drawn on it. 4. Talk vigorously and slowly. 2
board is probably the most common form
So, third, use visual aids.
of visual aid, but many people use it
awkwardly. Be sure you write or sketch Fourth, Talk Vigorously and Slowly.
in large, heavy lines. And as you face the
About the Author. . .
audience start on the right-hand sideTalkof Vigorously - A speaker simply must be
the chalkboard and keep moving to your vigorous. A monotonous, droning speaker
left to leave what you have just written will quickly put the audience to sleep. THOMAS M. SAWYER is a professor in
visible to the audience. Keep facing the This is one reason for avoiding micro- the Department of Humanities , College of
audience. This is not hard to do with aphones which tend to keep you from mov- Engineering , University of Michigan. After
serving with the American Field Service as an
little practice. You can easily learn ing
to and tend to make you talk softly.
ambulance driver in WWII , he returned to
Talk Slowly - This is sometimes hard to do
write that way instead of having to peek
when you are excited. Try imitating Michigan in 1945 and took his Ph.D. in
at the audience over your own right shoul-
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and bob your Speech , working part-time as a technical ed-
der while you stand in front of your pre-
itor at Willow Run Laboratories.
head up and down on every syllable. You
vious drawing. Don't try to make perfect
simply can't talk rapidly and do this. You
pictures on the blackboard by erasing and
redrawing lines. It simply slows you down can't move your head fast enough and
and irritates the audience. this trick gives you a feel for the proper
However, it is more efficient to use prepared rate.
visual aids. Body Erect - Vigor starts with posture.
Sketchpads - A simple, inexpensive, and ef- Stand tall; don't slouch; don't lean on
fective display can be created by stapling the speaker's stand. Think of yourself
18-inch-high by 24-inch-wide sheets of as suspended from the ceiling by an
newsprint stock to the top of a poster- invisible wire screwed into the top of
board backing and drawing on the news- your head.
print with a broad, watercolor, felt-tip Eyes on Noses - Keep your eyes on the
marker. (Watercolor markers won't bleed audience, not on the ceiling or the back
through the newsprint). Such a sketchpad wall above their heads. It is hard for

costs less than $5.00 and felt-tip markers some speakers to look the listeners in
come in a variety of colors. the eye. Don't try. Look at the bridges
You can even use two of these sketch- of their noses. They will think you are
pads - one for an overall layout which the looking them in the eye, even though
audience can keep in view while you use you are not. Try giving the first sen-
the other to discuss details. tence to the first man in the first row,
Slides and Acetates - Sketches, graphs, text, the second to the next man, and so on
or pictures on transparent acetates or around the audience until you have
slides projected on a screen behind the deliberately looked at each one.
speaker are very popular today and are Hands at Your Sides - Keep yourHe has been a Fulbright Lecturer in English
easy to carry on trips. hands hanging at your sides; don't clasp
at the College of Engineering in Lahore , Pak-
However, some cautions are in order: them behind your back. Soon you will istan ; a Visiting Professorial Fellow at the
1 . Make sure the slides or acetates are in University of Wales Institute of Science and
find they will float up and start making
the proper order, are right side up, and useful gestures for you. But don't Technology ; and a consultant to industry.
are properly oriented before you start scratch yourself, pick your nose, or jin-
This article is a minor modification of a lec-
your speech. gle the keys or change in your pocket. ture he gives each summer in the University's
2. Don't stand between the audience and Move on Transitions - Don't wander Engineering Summer Conference.

Technical Communication, First Quarter 1979 7

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