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I have been attending a number of academic / professional conferences recently and one thing that really awed me was the flawless and natural way in which the speakers presented on their topics.

Sure, they had the occasional mispronunciations or awkward pauses but they spoke with authority and confidence.

Some of them used powerpoint slides but were not reading from the slides; they were just talking on the points and they had so much to say on each point that I felt they could not do it without notes, but they were not even looking at their notes most of the time.

(The advantages of not looking at their notes too much was that they could maintain eye contact and could use very interesting slides that were not crammed with the dot points of their speeches.)

I hate to think that they had memorised their speech notes but some of the presentations went for more than an hour.

I know rehearsal is important but I wonder how could anyone remember so much in a nervous situation. (Its one thing to know everything on your topic; its another thing to present that 'everything'!)

Question: What background / foreground things do presenters do that make their presentations flawless and natural?

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Practice, practice, practice –  ff524 Mar 10 at 0:43
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speaking.io –  Fabian Blechschmidt Mar 10 at 10:00
    
Here is a related and helpful question/answers: What do I need to ensure my presentation will go smoothly? –  Austin Henley Mar 10 at 21:03
    
I recommend reading: sitacuisses.blogspot.nl/2009/03/…. It is the best advice I have ever read. –  jmc Mar 11 at 8:18
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What conferences are these? I honestly feel that the vast majority of all presentations at (especially scientific) conferences are abysmal, or at the very least not good. There always one or two exceptions, but the emphasis here is “one or two”. –  Konrad Rudolph Mar 11 at 14:11

9 Answers 9

up vote 26 down vote accepted

A natural presentation comes from practice, and lots of it.

From practice comes confidence. Excellent speakers rarely have more than a few words bullet pointed on their slides. This means that the audience's attention is focused on the speaker. The speaker then tells the audience what the speaker wants them to hear, or directs the audience's attention to an image displayed on the screen.

Aside from not splitting the audience's attention between speaker and loads of text on-screen, having few words on your slides means that you are not tempted yourself to read your presentation to the audience. Such recitation is only suitable if you are analysing the text itself closely.

Further to that last point, having only single or few key words on your slides forces you to know your subject and what to say on each point. You don't have the slides to fall back upon, allowing you to lazily read them to your audience.

Which brings me back to practice. One way of getting familiar with what you want to say on each point is to write down a few detailed notes for yourself. When you practice your talk, you can refer to these detailed notes. Next time through, distil your notes down to only a few key words. Next time through - or when you are confident - your notes should be only the key words on the screen for the audience, and are therefore redundant. No notes, fluent delivery.

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+1 for having a few key words on your slides. These become trigger-words to remind you what you want to talk about. They keep you focused on what's important. –  earthling Mar 10 at 5:05
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@earthling I just don't get this view. Slides are for the audience. Notes are for you. –  StrongBad Mar 10 at 11:36
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@Strongbad I use the keywords not just to focus myself but also to focus/ provide a roadmap for my audience, most of whom have a weak command of English and can easily misunderstand me. –  earthling Mar 10 at 12:06
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@StrongBad Also, as a participant I'd rather have a slide with just The Point, rather than a wall of text. The speaker will fill in the details. –  Allen Gould Mar 10 at 14:37
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@AllenGould my point is that The Point might be different from the trigger words. –  StrongBad Mar 10 at 14:50

Question: What background / foreground things do presenters do that make their presentations flawless and natural?

I don't think I've ever seen a flawless presentation by the way ... much like I've never seen a flawless conversation.

In any case, I think if you do not have a lot of experience, as ff524 says (edit: and Nicholas), practice is important. In particular, if you are going to present at a conference, for example, try present in front of (and get feedback from) your colleagues.

With more experience comes more confidence. With more confidence, presentations become less about "speeches" or memorised text and more about having a conversation with the audience.

At this stage, when you prepare a talk, you can imagine the flow of exposition, how the slides should be ordered, what the audience will understand at that point, what questions they might have and how they could be answered, how to order the points of conversation, how to clarify the "why" before the "how", how to ask the question and engage the audience's curiosity rather than just provide the answer. When you deliver the talk, you have the outline of the conversation you're about to have and you follow through with it, improvising the exact phrasing as feels right.

For me, it often helps to think about the audience as one person that I'm trying to engage with. An audience can be daunting -- a blur of faces -- but if you rather think of trying to engage directly with that guy/gal who came in late and is sitting right at the back of the room ... and make it almost more personal ... I think this is the attitude to have. (This is orthogonal to memorising exact phrasing, which I often find leads to unnatural talks. Having a few nice catchy phrases is nice, but they'll stick in your mind naturally when you prepare the talk.)

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There's a lot of great answers here, and most of them say practice. Well, I agree, but I didn't see this particular point in any answer yet, so let me try and explain what usually helps me "keep the flow" and how.

Well, it's all about practice, but:

  • when I write the slides, I always have a rough idea of what I would like to say and try out a few (different) phrasings in my head (only the key points / words end up on the slides)
  • (ideally), I do multiple rehearsals, improvisation-upon-improvisation. At this point, it is not uncommon for the first rehearsal to last 4 or 5 times as much as the allotted time.
  • at early-stage rehearsals, I will try multiple phrasings for the same slide. If I start saying "Um...", my sentences get lost in the middle or something similar, I will just calmly stop at this point and try a new approach to what I want to say.
  • I tend to do around 2 more rehearsals after I get the presentation down to the allotted time (for me, personally, going on much longer I might unintentionally shorten the presentation too much)
  • now, what, concretely, I get from all these rehearsals is multiple, different ways to handle every slide.

    The reason presentations sound flawless is because not just every sentence by itself is good, but the transitions between sentences, slides and sections are well done.

    And, after doing 4-5-6 rehearsals for the presentation, you know multiple ways to say each thought, and then multiple ways to transition to the next thought, and even if you "slip" and say something other than the "perfect, planned version", you still have a rehearsed back-up strategy.

  • as for writing down the notes, I usually sit down after a rehearsal number 2 or 3, and focus only on difficult transitions.

    If, in those few first rehearsals, I sill didn't find a fluent way to say something, or if I did but I stumbled around it, I will try and write down verbatim what I want to say, sometimes even multiple versions.

    Just writing it down usually helps, but if I'm going to go over any notes minutes before presenting, these are going to be it.

  • finally, making a rehearsal if front of a test-audience helps. I dread anybody hearing me on the rehearsal number one or two, but I like for somebody to listen on around the pre-last rehearsal.

    By this time, I usually "know" my presentation well enough so I can easily integrate suggestions in, but I still have a go to test if the suggestions fit fluently.

  • this all helps the presentation sound more natural. Since you can handle multiple "lingual" situations, you do not sound like you're reciting by heart. On the other hand, you're sure that you have multiple "fallback" options which allow you flexibility and that all of them will deliver the same idea.
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As someone who has been trained in creating and presenting presentations, let me tell you the secret: it's practice.
With practice and learning comes confidence, and with confidence you manage to make up for all the minor flaws most people might not even notice with nothing but a simple smile.

There is one technical aspect to it, which has something to do with how the brain works. In stress or panic situations, the human brain has a functionality to switch off all higher-level areas to focus on the situation at hand. While this is perfectly good and useful when i.E. fighting lions, it is absolutely not helpful when in a test situation. So the prime rule for good presentations is: keep calm and present on.

The second trick is to generate so called island-knowledge. Basically you take all the required topics, then learn enough about them that you could hold a speech for each one of them without having to prepare. Once you did that you not only have the knowledge to speak more freely but also the confidence when it comes to questions. Because for every question asked or for every mistake you make, you know which island to hop to, to find an immediate solution that at least sounds professional.

And then there is still the good old "sorry, I don't know" answer. If you preset something about a topic, it is perfectly fine if you do not know everything. Admitting that is a strong sign of confidence and the audience will honor you for not talking "bullshit". Knowing that the audience will react positively if you openly lack some knowledge will help you to present that lack as perfectly fine.

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The first thing that you need to know is that it is not "natural". If you're lucky enough to watch the same person give the same talk more than once (as I have) you will discover that it is a lot less spontaneous than it appears to be. Giving a live talk draws on several different kinds of preparation at once:

  • the talk itself is typically prepared and practiced over and over. There may be notes in the speaker notes section, or the bullets on the slide may be enough to remind the speaker what to say to each slide. The talk is organized in a way that makes it easy to remember all the points that need to be covered, to be able to drop some material if necessary, and so on.
  • the speaker has a wide collection of stories and jokes that can be used to provide time to think, to lengthen a talk that is going too fast and will run short, or to relax an audience that isn't interacting enough
  • the speaker knows a physical vocabulary: where to stand, how far and how fast to walk, what arm positions to use, whether to pause at the far edge of the stage or hidden behind the desk, and what effect all of these will have on the audience
  • the speaker knows the overall length the talk must be and often knows some milestones within the talk (finish demo 1 by 12 minutes; should have 5 minutes left when we get to dog picture) so that subtle lengthenings or shortenings can keep the talk on schedule
  • the speaker has learned to drop meta talk (oh, I see I covered these points earlier, hm, I guess there isn't time for this demo, ah, this is awkward I seem to have finished early) and to project tremendous confidence even while internally panicking over a demo that isn't working, a slide that has gone missing, or the sudden realization of the current time.

It's hilarious to watch a well done "spontaneous" demo that is exactly the same every time. I tell you what, the speaker says, let's throw some code together to let you see what I'm talking about. Closing the Powerpoint (or at least minimizing it) and bringing up a developer tool, the speaker goes on: I can do this in C# I guess, of course it works in other languages too. Let's make a .... pause .... look at the screen as though trying to decide ... Windows app, sure that can work, I'll put a button or two and a text box, yeah, that should work. ... the demo goes on and on to all intents and purposes just being made up on the fly, but I'm in the back of the room with the demo script and I know the speaker is doing exactly what we planned.

You need to know the material well in addition to practicing. If you forget to mention something, you'll need to spot a chance to work it in later. If you get a question from the audience, you'll need to be able to answer it. And if you get thrown by a technical glitch and need to speak really spontaneously, you will need to know where you were headed for sure.

All of this is something you can learn. If you think it is natural and flawless, you may think "I either have it or I don't." That's not true. You can learn the mechanics of structuring a talk, of laying out a slide so that it doesn't detract from the talking you're doing, of using your voice, your pauses, and your body to support your message. And you can practice over and over, and watch other people too, until you are good. Some people learn faster than others, but everyone can learn this if it's important to them.

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I have no idea how to give a flawless presentation, but to give a good one, follow points from:

(Don't be afraid of the word "PowerPoint" here - there is nothing specific to this program. Moreover, many points from there work for any presentation, including one only with blackboard or even one without it.)

In any way, to make in better and better there is no shortcut to preparation and practice!

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Note that presenting is a teachable/learnable skill. You may want to consider classes, if you can find them, or doing your presentation for friends and asking for feedback. Some folks suggest investigating the Toastmasters organization as a way to learn public speaking skills; I don't know enough about them to have an opinion.

As others have said, practice makes better, and -- as with most arts and crafts -- this is more about being able to recover gracefully so nobody especially notices the mistake than about a perfect performance.

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Practice, as has been mentioned.

Here's one concrete points with respect to practicing:

I like to write exactly what I want to say in the Speaker Notes section of the slide.

This point is a little contentious, because the first thing people usually learn about public speaking is "not to read". I used to subscribe by this. Now, I've gone back to writing really really complete notes and reading for practice.

Before I get a whole community down my throat let me explain. When I was practicing in the past, I kept misstating things or adding 'um' or pausing and would have to retract my words, and then that led to even more awkwardness. So I thought, "Well, I'm just going to write down exactly what I want to say then" and not have to try to find the awesome phrasing by memory. So I did. What you then need to practice is delivery, not content.

The problem that people have is that they often associate reading with how you do reading out loud in school - you just kind of drone out the text in a monotone voice that's drab and boring. In reality, you can read and still make it dynamic and interesting and fluid and fun. Do practice that. Imagine your favorite speechgiver - a famous world leader, a CEO of a company, and so forth. A lot of them are reading their speeches. Think of your favorite newscaster or comedy anchorman. They are all reading off of the prompter and yet it feels like they're just talking to you.

It is pretty important that, when developing a dynamic reading habit, to get a sense of how you sound. Record yourself and play it back and see if it sounds like you're just talking to someone in conversation. That's how it should sound like. It shouldn't sound like you're reading a research paper. Figure out if it's the content that's doing this or if it's the delivery.

Once you practice this a lot - just reading dynamically - then you're going to start to know your talk so well that you won't need the notes, and you won't need the slides, and you won't need to worry about interruptions or anything.

Another thing: I don't write notes for every section for my talk: just the tricky parts that I stumble on. I often do it for the very beginning of the talk (Yes, I actually write "Thank you very much for the introduction. My name is Irwin and I'm happy to be here today" in my note slides because when I'm at my most nervous moment, I need to be able to start off without any ums, ifs, or buts), technical portions, and places where I have big "A-has" and "punchlines" and so forth.

Hope that helps.

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A number of factors that are I have found to be important to giving a good presentation. I have not yet given a academic presentation yet, other than at undergrad level, but have attended some. In my professional career as an Accountant (I am also a part-time Post-Graduate) I have given some and attended many. The number of people I have normally given a presentation range between about 50 to 300.

  • Good knowledge of topic

This may seem like a given but you'd be amazed haw many poor presentations can be put down to this fact. This gives you the ability to expand on your presentation naturally if the need exists. It also can help if your preparation, for whatever reason, was not the best. Trust me it can happen.

  • Preparation

That said about knowledge; preparation is very important. I've found over the years that this can vary from presentation to presentation. At first & I still do I would type out my whole talk. This would serve as a template for my talk and I would follow it pretty closely but would go off script if or when I felt it would be of benefit. Sometimes with time you can sense a vibe off a room that you may need to expand on a point you were talking about. On other occasions I would just make bullet points to keep me on track when I am comfortably with the topic. For me preparation also includes being comfortable in the space in which you are giving your presentation. I have found it is good to get to the venue early to survey the room that you would be speaking in. Walk the room if you can; note how big it is. Is there equipment for you if you need to use slides, a podium or table for you to use and water available. These may seem small issues but it's good practice so as to keep yourself in a good frame of mind before you speak. Nothing worse than 30 minutes messing with a laptop and projector to frustrate you before hand.

- Practice

This has been dealt with in many of the answers so I won't dwell on it to long. It is important so the more you can do it the better. As said already if you can do a trial run with friends or colleagues that is good. I know in my university there are some workshops available that help with public speaking and I believe Toastmasters was also mentioned where you could practice. You can also practice on your own. Two techniques I use are 1. when out for a walk I run over in my mind little short sections of make talk and see how well I can present them and then check my notes when I get back; 2. (this may sound a bit vain) you can practice in front of a mirror which I think helps you get comfortable with how you look when talking and you may also notice bad habits you will wish to eradicate from you presenting style.

  • Confidence

This is noted in most of the answers as well. You can be naturally confident or it may be some thing you have to work on. If it come naturally then nerves can play less of a role in your presentation style and people can notice a nervous speaker. That said, all the confidence on the world will not help you if you don't research your topic, prepare and practice. Where confidence is of benefit even if it acquired over time is that it helps ensure you are more relaxed when giving the talk and when you are relaxed you are better able to concentrate on what is important, the material.

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I would really appreciate it, if there is any misunderstandings concerning my answer, that you leave a comment instead of editing my question, or that you keep your edits contained to only grammar/spelling. I participate very often and I can correct my mistakes/clarify my points. You edit, approved in the meantime, changed the meaning of one of my points and my text is now saying what I never intended! –  penelope Mar 11 at 13:21

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