Most college students will have to give a public presentation at some point in their academic career.
1. Start preparing well ahead of time. Usually, when given a big assignment, people will procrastinate until close to the last minute. I’m guilty of doing this many times in the past. However, although a presentation can be pulled together in a short period of time, the quality will probably be poor. As such, do a bit of prep work – whether it’s researching, drafting your remarks, or rehearsing your presentation – daily. The quality of your work will be higher, your remarks will seem more thoughtful, and your stress quotient will be significantly lower.
2. The amount of necessary prep time is directly related to the scale of the presentation. If you’re giving a ten-minute presentation in class, you can start anywhere from a week to three days out. If you have to present a paper in a seminar, begin at least two weeks in advance, since you must read primary and secondary literature, then write a paper. And if you’re given a much larger project, like a twenty-page term paper or, in my case, an hour-long lecture, start your daily preparation regimen at least one month in advance.
3. Shun Wikipedia like the plague… except for the list of sources at the bottom of the page. Wikipedia is invaluable for pointing the way toward scholarly books, journal articles, and online resources. But do not rely on Wikipedia for actual research material, because the standard Wiki article is usually a watered-down treatment of a particular subject. Professors, peers, and job recruiters can tell who has actually read primary and secondary literature, and who is merely regurgitating Wiki articles. This prohibition of Wikipedia can be extended to include Spark Notes and other quick-answer websites.
4. Outline. Get all of your ideas in one place. Include both your planned remarks and a list of key sources in your outline. Sometimes, when speaking, you will asked tricky, detailed questions, and it’s good to know specific books and articles you can reference.
5. Write a substantive presentation. If you’re presenting a paper, your first focus should be the paper, but you should also put together a list of talking points for your presentation, separate from your main academic argument. If you’re giving a lecture, put every idea you have into the lecture, then prune it down a bit. I encourage you to include more material than you can cover in the time allotted, though. This will give you room to change your lecture on the spot, if needed, and gives you plenty of material to draw from during a Q&A period.
6. Cut down all filler phrases. Even though you should get all of your details and facts on paper, cut down all but the most essential technical jargon, and cut out every single adjective. Most appositive phrases need to go, too. Adjectives and asides take up time that could better be used by outlining an aspect of your argument.
7. Rehearse for an audience. Adequate rehearsal time is the key factor separating great presentations from the mediocre ones. Grab friends, family, or random people off the street, if need be, and rehearse your presentation in its entirety. By reading your argument aloud, you can edit your remarks to sound and flow better. An audience can also critique your body language, volume, enunciation, and stage presence.
On a final note, if you’re using a PowerPoint or other slideshow, use photographs judiciously. You don’t want too busy of a slideshow, because too many images will distract your audience. You, not the images behind you, should be the focal point of your presentation.
Don’t think that you can ever deliver a perfect lecture – there is always room for improvement, and you should analyze your performance after the fact. Still, with adequate preparation, you can definitely give a great presentation. Besides, the more prepared you are, the more fun you can have while presenting your work.