Talking Heads

Originally Published on The Age, 29 May 2006

I'm so nervous about doing my oral presentation. I just start blushing and feel sick. Any tips?

YOU'VE just spent quite some time and effort researching and writing that oral presentation.

You've made sure there are plenty of rhetorical questions, images and metaphors for the class to see and and hear. You've written the right number of words, basing the pace on 120 words per minute. You think, "I'm just about ready, just read it through a couple of times and I'll gun the A+".

Wrong! Writing the speech is not the end of it. Far from it. It is only about halfway there. Now starts the really important part: rehearsing it. Making it simpler and clearer. Practising the voice, pauses, gestures you will use. Working out when, where and how you might use any visual aids.

You should precis it down to point form, except for quotes. These should be read in a different voice and you still need to "read" the quotes by using "Ready, Aim, Fire". T his means you look at the quote, in silence, look up at a member of the class and fire it at another member.

You do need to learn the introduction and conclusion off by heart. These should be said the most clearly and strongly to grab attention and to leave a strong message or idea at the end. But do not learn it in a singsong voice.

When you do practise, where is the best place? Some people say in front of a mirror. T hat is very confronting. Practise in front of a parent or friend. If you do say it to one person, do it as if you are in front of the class. This means you need to look all around the room, giving about a second to each person, randomly.

See yourself up there in the full limelight. It will help you prepare more realistically. Tell that voice in your head to go away. It is making you more nervous and telling you not to make a fool of yourself. The better speakers DO make fools of themselves a little, to make a point. However, they do it with such confidence, that everyone enjoys the speech.

If you are holding the notes, they should be on small cards, hole-punched together with a ring.
They should not be large and floppy. If you are allowed to use a lectern, the notes should be placed on the lectern but you should not stand behind it. Stand to the side so the class can see you and look at the notes in silence, when you need to look at them.

However, I hear you ask, "What should I do with my hands?"

Hands and gestures are tricky. When you start, leave them at your sides and take a deep breath. As you speak, let the emotion of the words bring your hands up to naturally illustrate points and reinforce certain words. Gestures need to be appropriate, relaxed and suit the content. Too much flapping or repetitive gesturing can distract. Though a person gripping cards will not make any gestures.

Even more important than the gestures are your eyes and facial expressions. The eyes should be looking at the audience (not the teacher, unless he/she is the only audience). You should not look above or below the class and definitely not at the slides behind you if you are using PowerPoint. Nor at the lectern, except silently to find your next point.

Let your face show your emotion. If it is good news, smile. If it is a serious issue or text, look serious. Whatever the emotion, let it come through sincerely and naturally, just like you do in conversation.

Just before you talk, make sure you have gone to the toilet and you have had a drink of water. Your voice needs to be lubricated and it must come from you diaphragm, not your throat. Do some deep breathing and make sure your voice is ready by a few quick stretches of the face and voice before you walk out the front.

When you go up, place your notes on the lectern or in one of your palms. Roll your shoulders, lift your head up, look the audience in the eye and take a deep breath. T his will steady you and will give you volume for those first words.

Don't worry if you blush or even shake a little. Mostly, the audience will not see these nerves. If you stand tall and look confident, you will sound much more confident than if you look down and mumble. If you make an error, just correct it, if it is important. If the sentence makes sense even with the wrong word, keep going! If you leave out a point, you can bring it in naturally. T he more you sound as if you are talking to the class, the better.

On the other hand, don't lean against the whiteboard and say, "G'day. I'm gonna talk about . . ." It's not a chat; it's a speech. The opening needs to be strong, relevant and different. Once you have greeted them and said what you are going to say, get into the body pretty smartly, illustrating points and either using persuasive techniques you have learnt in Issues, or Text details to support your points.

Keep varying that voice and put in long, deliberate pauses for special emphasis.

As the conclusion is the most important part, build up to it. Signal that you are coming to the end. If you want to thank them, do so before you finish so that your last words carry a strong message or meaning.

When you do finish, don't rush off. Stand there for another half a second and give a tiny nod or bow so the audience can clap or do whatever is the custom in your class.

Finally, collect your material or notes and walk off, head held up, even smiling, knowing you have done the best presentation you could.

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