Effective Public Speaking

In certain cultural settings, oratory (the art of speaking eloquently) is given much importance and forms part of the curriculum in early school years. However, in other countries there is hardly any training in public speaking. Whatever your case, it is essential in college and professional life to be able to make a presentation, defend your ideas, display a project, etc. Moreover, mastery of words (whether written or spoken) has always been a hallmark of those who seek to share their ideas, engage in common projects, and improve society. Human history is marked by great speeches (given by Pericles, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Paul II, etc.) that have become turning points in the history of the world.

The UNIV Forum provides the opportunity to orally present material that has been previously studied and written. Keep in mind that writing and speaking are two different genres of communication, each with its own rules. Therefore, to give an effective speech it isn’t enough to simply go up to the podium and read what one has written. Generally, when giving a public speech, one shouldn’t read but rather should speak “without papers.” This doesn’t mean one should improvise. In fact, the best “improvisation” is to arrive prepared; in other words, when a speech appears so natural that nobody would suspect how much time and effort went into preparing it.

The UNIV Forum also provides the opportunity to make a presentation in English. If English isn’t your native tongue, this will certainly be a challenge, but this also presents opportunities. Speaking in English is a great way of relating to university students from around the globe with whom you might share many more concerns and values than you might have expected. This cultural exchange—through conversations and dialogues you will have at the Forum—is very enriching. It’s not every day that one has the chance to discuss such important questions with people from so many diverse cultural backgrounds.

Some tips for preparing an oral presentation at the Forum:

  • Make an outline of what you will say. If necessary, write down everything you want to say. This outline will contain the essential elements of your written paper. Total presentation time will be 10-12 minutes and it’s very important that you stick to this timeframe. At the end there will be 3-5 minutes for questions from the audience. Your talk will be less effective if you go beyond the designated time and continue to speak after the moderator has indicated that your time is up, even though what you want to say may seem very important. Going over your time limit shows a lack of concern for the audience, which might be getting tired or waiting to see the next presentation, and disrupts the flow of presentations.
  • It may be helpful to use aids such as transparencies, handouts containing key ideas or texts you will read, or a PowerPoint presentation. But these aids usually serve a secondary function, supporting the talk you are giving. If you depend too heavily on these aids then your presentation will no longer be an oral presentation but rather will be a digital presentation that could have been video-recorded. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it is different from learning to speak in public, where one has to face and engage a live audience.
  • The group must decide whether one or more members will give the presentation. The latter is often the better option (usually no more than 2 or 3 members presenting), though it requires good organization and coordination.
  • Captatio benevolentiae. Begin in such a way that the audience will be attentive, interested, and in good spirits. The first minute is decisive.
  • Tone of voice: One should speak loud and clear, using pauses and articulating words distinctly. Vocalization will depend on whether there is a microphone. Normally, there aren’t microphones in smaller classrooms and a speaker will then have to project her voice. You can ask your audience, “Can you hear me alright?”
  • Language: One should choose carefully the words to be used, looking
    for synonyms and the most effective terminology.
  • Intonation and pauses: This is probably the most difficult, yet most important, aspect of public speaking. Poor intonation can make a speech impossible to understand even though it would have been a brilliant written text. You should rehearse your presentation out loud, using intonation (the rising and falling pitch of your voice) to emphasize the main ideas of your talk, properly marking transitions in your argument, and using pauses and numbered lists to punctuate your words. Speakers often forget to pause because they are nervous, and they end up speaking faster and faster (because they want to finish as soon as possible). Try to be calm and keep in mind the outline you made for your talk, pausing at the end of each paragraph or section (which can be a good opportunity to take a deep breath or a sip of water). The more you practice, the less nervous you will be.
  • If you use PowerPoint, you should decide who will change the slides and rehearse what you will say at each moment. It isn’t good to simply read out loud the text on the screen. Nor do you want the audience to be more engaged with reading or looking at what’s on the screen than with listening to your talk. PowerPoint should be used only as an aid to highlight ideas, follow an outline, publish a citation or text, show graphs or data, present an illustration, etc.
  • Engaging the audience: There is a common tendency to turn a presentation into a monologue in which the presenter forgets about or disregards the audience in the room. To overcome this, it is very helpful to:
    • Maintain visual contact, browsing the audience and making eye contact, though without fixing on a single person for too long.
    • Never stare at the floor or turn your back to the audience (speaking, for example, toward the blackboard or the PowerPoint projector). If looking directly at your audience is difficult, choose a point at the back of the room and look in that direction.
    • Be aware of the audience’s reactions: surprise, boredom, signs of not understanding what you are saying, etc. In this way you can adjust your presentation, change your intonation, explain a point more thoroughly, or even ask the audience a question (whether rhetorical or not).
  • Posture and Gestures: In addition to the words chosen and intonation, posture and gestures also communicate what we are saying. Usually, it’s more effective to speak standing up rather than sitting down. To keep the audience’s attention, it helps to move calmly throughout the front of the room, moving closer to the audience when you want to engage them more directly. Smiles, direct eye contact, upright posture, calm hand gestures accompanying your words, keeping your hands out of your pockets, and not crossing your arms, etc., all help to project confidence in what you are saying.
  • Bring an outline: In order to avoid losing your train of thought or blanking out, you should have with you a brief outline of your presentation. It may be a small paper that you carry in your hands during your talk, or a few sheets of paper left at the table or podium. 
  • Use mistakes to your advantage: Errors such as mispronouncing a word, telling a joke that is not well received, or blanking out can be used to make a comment that recaptures the audience’s attention or to highlight an idea you want to emphasize.
  • Keep track of time: Wear a watch or place one in a conspicuous place, or ask someone to signal when half your time has passed or when you have one minute remaining.
  • When beginning, state your name (and the names of your teammates), the title of your paper (and other relevant data), and the university where you study. Thank your audience for the opportunity to present your paper to them. Finish by smiling and thanking the audience for their attention.
  • When responding to questions from the audience, do not react defensively, even if the question presented includes a criticism of the presentation. Demonstrate appreciation for questions being asked, seeking to understand what is being asked and attempting to answer as precisely as possible. If necessary, remember that you might not know something or may have said something in error. The appropriate attitude is one of willingness to learn and to enrich your understanding through the audience's input. The presentations at the Forum aren’t a contest.
  • You can also prepare an unconventional presentation, in which you try to involve the audience more, or do something theatrical that involves the other members of the group, or that uses multimedia (video, music, etc.). This can be very successful if it is well prepared and well adapted to the material being presented. However, if this doesn’t work well it is usually much worse than a poorly done conventional presentation. 
  • Rehearsal and memorization of the material are usually the keys to an effective presentation.