It’s the project no one wants to see on the syllabus: an oral presentation. Believe it or not, your professor’s goal is not to humiliate you in front of your classmates, nor do they derive any kind of sick pleasure from watching you stew in your own discomfort. Of all the skills you learn in college, from writing essays on Shakespeare to geometry, presentation skills are one of the most useful things that you will come away with — IF you take it seriously.
When you first get your topic assignment, hit the Internet. Not to look at dank memes, but to actually learn more about whatever it is you’re supposed to talk about. Write down as many important and/or interesting facts as you can find; it’s better to have too much information than too little, because this gives you room to condense. Having extra tidbits in your head will also help answer questions from your audience. And don’t forget to note your sources — you’ll probably have to cite them at the end.
Incidentally, being able to find, organize, and present data is a key skill sought by many employers.
2. Appearance DOES matter
There are a lot of people who like to say that appearance doesn’t matter, and it’s what’s on the inside that’s most important. That’s nice, but doesn’t apply in the professional world. When you have just minutes to get to know and make a judgement about a person, appearance is going to be a factor. So look nice, and dress appropriate for the occasion. If you’re in a business management class, wear a suit. If you’re in a freshman English class, nice jeans and a button-up shirt or blouse will be fine.
- Clothes should fit well; neither too tight nor too loose.
- Clothes should be clean and unwrinkled.
- If you’re a woman and normally wear makeup, keep it neutral but attractive. If you don’t, apply a little mascara or subtle lip color.
- If you’re wearing a dress or skirt, keep it knee length or longer.
- No shorts or capris.
- Nothing low-cut.
- Layering can help you look more put together
- Avoid crazy patterns or jewelry.
- Tuck in button-up shirts.
- Hair and facial hair should be neat and clean.
- Wear close-toed shoes.
3. Don’t use the slides like a teleprompter
A common mistake made by college students and businesspeople alike is reading from the slides like a script. The resulting dialogue is unnatural and you’re not engaging your audience. Give them more. Tell a story. Make a joke. Let your voice rise and fall according to what interests you most. Overall, be human; if that weren’t a requirement for teaching, we’d all be learning from Siri by now.
Also, involve your audience as much as possible. Many presenters make the mistake of just trying to get through the slides uninterrupted, which can make anxiety worse and fails to engage the audience. Encourage questions and interruptions — with bribes, if necessary.
4. Slow down
It’s natural to speed up when giving a presentation — after all, you want it to be over as soon as possible! However, when you rush, you’re more likely to mumble, skip points, and discourage audience participation, all of which will fetch a poor grade. Slow down and let yourself think as you speak, choosing your words with care instead of rambling. This will also give you time to gesticulate with your hands and make eye contact with your audience, attracting their attention in return.
5. Do something different
You don’t have to use a powerpoint, you know. Unless specifically requested by your professor, an oral presentation is a great chance to play to your strengths. If you like to draw, use the whiteboard or chalkboard. If you’re more of a film buff, use a series of video clips. If graphic design is your thing, consider an infographic.
Visual aids like costumes or props can also help, especially if you get the audience involved. You’ll end up having more fun giving the presentation, and your professor is more likely to give you a better grade.
Oral presentations are not essays — they can’t be thrown together with a Redbull at 3am. The more time you give yourself, the more time you will have to practice giving your presentation.
Run through it as many times as possible, preferably timing yourself. This will help you feel less nervous when it comes time to actually do it in class, and it will also help you memorize your notes. Bonus: it will help eliminate your bad habit of saying “um.”
7. Have a backup plan
Accidents happen, like that nightmare where you show up in your underwear — but in real life. Maybe your computer decided that presentation time was the perfect time for a Windows update. Maybe you forgot your flash drive. Maybe you can’t connect to the network, have the wrong adapter cord, are out of battery, the video won’t load, etc.
Prepare against these mishaps the night before, and then put together a backup plan. Make 2 different plans to deliver your presentation. If both rely on technology or require special equipment/props, have a third ready, just in case.
Remember: if you can impress the professor, you can get the grade! And more importantly, internalizing critical oral presentation skills will eventually help you land and keep the job you want when it’s time to enter “the real world.”