How to Prepare for Oral Presentations

Public speaking, when mastered is one of the most useful skills a person can have (and if you can do it in a second language, so much the better).

British universities LOVE to assign students oral presentations, so most international students will probably have to do a few while they’re studying here. They usually feature at least once per module (for humanities students in particular!), to test your ability to communicate in a non-essay format.

While it’s a challenge, it’s also a huge boost for your confidence and communication skills.

This cheat-sheet is here to help you get through oral presentations, not just with your nerves intact, but with a first too!


1. First, choose wisely

Make sure you choose a subject matter that actually interests you and will also interest your audience.  Think about what your classmates already know about your topic and then try to ‘value-add’ onto that.  If you talk about things that you find captivating or take a fresh new angle on a topic, you’ll have much more fun and your talk will be remembered.

Make sure you also choose the most appropriate style for your presentation.  Should it should be persuasive or objective, or invite lots of audience interaction?.  This will depend on the type of class you’re taking and the assignment brief for the presentation. When deciding on your style you should also ask yourself; why am I being asked to deliver this information verbally ? What are the benefits of talking about this subject (and providing visual aids), and how can I capitalise on that?

  • If you have a choice, choose a subject/angle that you find compelling
  • Tell your audience something they don’t already know
  • Choose the right style for the class and topic


2. Control your nerves

Nerves! Why do we even have them? They only seem to trip us up.

Just remember this; we get nervous because our body is telling us that we CARE about something.  That something is important.

When you realise this, you can break down and re-direct your nerves in a positive way.  What is it you care about when you give a speech? Is it getting a good grade? Is there a really important point that you want your audience to understand? Do you want your classmates to think well of you? Sit and try to identify the things that you care most about and then take steps to address those things directly. For example, what are you going to do to make sure that your audience walks aways with a positive impression? You’ll smile, you’ll have positive body language, you’ll invite them to ask questions, you’ll make sure that your visual aids look really good….make a long list and then before you go up to speak, remind yourself of all the positive steps you’ve taken, and are going to take, to address your biggest concerns.  It will calm you down.

  • Make a list of ways you’ll address the things that make you most nervous
  • Practice with some supportive friends
  • Ask yourself, what’s the worst that can happen? (HINT – it’s never that bad)


3. Be a story teller

In his article, ‘ Why our Brains Are Wired To Love TED Talks‘, Carmine Gallo discusses how, after analysing hundreds of TED talks, he found that the most popular had something in common:  They start with a story.  You’ve probably noticed that many good speeches begin with personal stories.

Stories (or anecdotes) are a great way to start out a presentation (as long as they have the right tone). They help your audience to identify with you and it get’s them on your side from the very beginning of your talk.

Your talk should also have a clear beginning, middle and an end. This will help your audience comprehend your train of thought.  To make this even easier for them, include ‘signposts’ when you transition from on idea to then next.  Signposting is just a way of making the links between your ideas really obvious by saying things like, ‘From there, it follows on that…’, ‘This is a perfect example of,’ or, ‘How do these two things relate? Let me tell you…’

When you finish your talk, make sure that you have a strong concluding statement to end on, so that your audience knows when you’re done and you don’t have to say’…ah, that’s it.’

  • Start with a story that illustrates your topic
  • Give you presentation a clear beginning, middle, and end
  • Signpost your ideas
  • Finish with a strong, clear statement


4. Handle the practical stuff

There’s a lot that can go wrong during a presentation. Aside from technical issues, the biggest issue is talking for too long.  As well as making your talk less concise and memorable, talking over the time limit can cost you grades.  A good way to prevent this is simply by timing yourself beforehand and then adjusting your talk to make sure it fits in.  Generally, people talk faster when they give a presentation than when they’re just practicing, so make sure you’re not talking too little either!

  • Make sure you know the layout of the room you’re speaking in;
  • Test any equipment that you’ll need (projectors, laptops, USB’s);
  • Bring a backup of your presentation;
  • Practice staying on time.


5. Have great visual aids

If you’re allowed to have visual aids use them, but use them wisely. It’s easy to get caught up with making slides that look really pretty or to rely on them too much by putting in big chunks of text. But good visual aids  just complement a presentation, so try to strip out anything that isn’t absolutely essential. Importantly, make sure whatever presentation software you’re using is compatible with the tech set-up in your classroom. It’s best to stick with PowerPoint to be on the safe side.

  • Limit your slides as much as possible and try not to include large chunks of text;
  • Use large easy to read font;
  • Don’t make slides unnecessarily decorative;
  • Use compatible presentation software.


6. Use positive body language

You can change people’s entire perception of you just by having good body language. And doing things like standing or sitting up straight, smiling occasionally, and projecting your voice will also make you feel more confident. Maintain good eye contact with your audience , but don’t focus on any one person. Instead ,use roving eye contact.

It’s ok to have notes to refer to but DO NOT read a speech from a piece of paper. It will make your speech incredibly boring and could even get you marked down.

  • Have roving eye contact;
  • Smile (from time to time);
  • Stand/sit up straight;
  • Keep a bottle of water handy in case your throat gets dry;
  • Do not read a from prepared speech;
  • Use high quality, concise notes.


7. Speaking in a second language? Tool up!

There’s almost no better way to hone your second language skills that giving presentations in that language.  If you’re really concerned about tripping up, there are a few tricks to preparing for speeches in foreign languages.

Firstly, you might be tempted to write and memorise a speech in your native tongue first and then translate what you say on the day but this should be avoided.  You’ll have a better chance of remembering the speech in the language you need to give it in, if you learn it in that language from the get go.  Thinking about the speech in your second language first, will also force you to think carefully about the most appropriate phrasing for your audience.

They second trick is to make very good, hand held notes that remind you of the words/phrases etc. that your most likely to get confused about. Practice your speech and when you notice there are particular things that you struggle with, write them down correctly on your notes for easy reference.

If you get really muddled on the day, remember that it’s ok to ask for help from the audience.  Try something like, ‘What’s that word, it’s flown out of my head?” If you act like it’s no big deal (which it isn’t) no-one else will think it is either.

  • Write and practice the speech only in the language that you’ll deliver it in;
  • Practice and make note of anything you commonly get confused about;
  • Make good notes that you can refer if you get muddled on the day;
  • If you get really stuck on the day, it’s ok to ask the audience for help;
  • Practice the speech on a native speaker.

Good luck with your presentations!