Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Oral Presentation Tips

Here are some observations about what makes an effective oral presentation. I try to follow these stylistic guidelines when giving talks, although I am still far from mastering them. These tips focus on presentation style rather than content. Content-related tips will vary based on the type of talk you are giving and your target audience. Here we go!

Pace

  • Slow down and pace yourself. People usually talk too fast when they're nervous on-stage. If you're trying to cram too much content into your talk, then cut out some of it rather than just talking faster.

  • Pause occasionally for emphasis rather than talking in a continuous stream. Well-timed pauses are like "aural whitespace". Instead of saying filler words such as "ummm", "uhhh", "okay?", "like ...", "alright ...", "you know ...", just say nothing and turn those stutters into well-timed pauses.

  • Always respect the time limit, no matter what. Put a stopwatch next to your laptop so that you can easily glance down and see how much time you have left (I use my cell phone's stopwatch app). Don't wear a wristwatch because it looks bad if you're glancing at your watch throughout your presentation. If you don't keep track of time, then you might be shocked when the host warns you or cuts you off, and you might also mumble meta-comments such as "hmmm I wonder how much time I have left."

Voice

  • Moderate your voice. Don't yell or sound overly-loud throughout your talk. Also, make sure not to stand too close to the microphone (but not too far away, either).

  • End all statements with a firm downward tone. Only end your sentences with an upward intonation if you're actually asking a question.

  • Don't talk like a robot who just memorized a speech. The best way to avoid robot-speak is to get comfortable enough with your subject matter so that you don't need to read from a script.

  • Highlight sparingly. Don't say that every bullet point on every slide is "VERY IMPORTANT!" or a "KEY POINT!" or "VERY CRUCIAL!". That's like if you took a bright highlighter and highlighted almost every paragraph in a book, which is useless. If you emphasize everything, then your audience doesn't know which parts are actually important.

Poise

  • Stay on topic. Don't go off on tangents or ramblings. And don't mention "meta-content" such as observations about your presentation slides. e.g., "whoa the projector displayed those colors funky!" or "I took this image from Bob, but the edges got cut off on this slide" or "I inserted this slide last night after I saw that people seemed to be confused about this concept." These meta-remarks make you appear nervous and detract from the content of your talk (especially if you're mumbling them softly to yourself).

  • Avoid nervous laughter. If you've said something genuinely funny, then the audience will laugh, and then you can laugh along with them. But nothing looks lamer than the speaker nervously chuckling alone when nobody else is laughing.

  • Be diplomatic. Don't dogmatically insult related or competing work. You can't pull this off unless you're Steve Jobs, and since you're not Steve Jobs, you'll end up sounding like an ass if you insult related work, especially because somebody in your audience probably supports what you're insulting.

  • Your final slide should be a summary of the take-home messages of your talk. During the Q&A period, people prefer to be looking at a summary rather than a meaningless "Thanks!" or "Any Questions?" slide.

  • When someone asks a question, first compliment their question and then repeat the question in your own words. Doing so will let you verify that you've actually understood their question before crafting your reply. Also, this will let everyone else hear the question, even people watching the recorded video.

  • Pay close attention to your facial muscles so that you don't inadvertently grimace or squint when someone asks you a question. I've seen people look like they're full-on angry when someone asks them a question, and I don't think they do it on purpose. They just contort their faces as a reflex reaction to hearing the question. You need to consciously control your facial muscles so that you don't end up doing that. Also, if you have a loud voice, speak softer so that you don't sound like you're yelling at your questioner.

Posture

  • For posture tips, watch some good talks on mute so that you can pay attention to the speaker's body positioning and hand motions. I recommend starting with TED talks. In particular:

    • Stand up straight and keep evenly balanced on both feet. If you rest your weight on one side, then you will get fatigued and sway side-to-side, which is distracting.

    • If you feel the urge to sway, then take two full steps to the side and stand still again, then two-step back to your original position later.

    • Don't cross your arms in front of your chest, put your hands in your pockets, or wrap them behind your back.

    • Put your hands in front of you comfortably at waist level, and make sure not to lift them to scratch your face, hair, or other body parts.

    • Keep your arm gestures subtle and light. Don't constantly karate chop the air while you're talking. Only make bigger motions to visually highlight important moments.

    • This TED talk by Melinda Gates is an example of steady, calm posture:

  • Mirror your gestures. If you're trying to make gestures with your arms (or body), remember that the audience sees a mirrored image of what you see. For example, if you're trying to move your arms left-to-right to convey some idea, then your audience actually sees your arms moving right-to-left from their perspective. The correct gesture is to move your arms from right-to-left, so that your audience sees the left-to-right motion that you intended.

Practice

  • The simplest and most effective way to improve your oral presentation skills is to record your talks and then watch the videos. I guarantee that you'll instantly find several ways to improve. (Your laptop's webcam makes for a fine video recorder. Mac laptop users can record using iMovie.)

  • Practice your talk 5 to 10 times from start to finish. The first few times will stink, but power through the entire talk and don't stop early. After each practice, reflect on your performance and adjust your slides or timing based on what parts felt too slow or too rushed. You can also record audio or video so that you can get a more accurate sense of timing.

    • However, if your talk is really long (e.g., 1 hour), then it may be hard to practice so many times. You could get burned out or bored from over-practice, which makes you less enthused when you finally deliver it in person. For long talks, I recommend practicing the first five minutes repeatedly so that you can get the opening down cold, since that's the most important part. That way, you can get through at least 10 practices in an hour.
  • You don't need to practice at full volume or enthusiasm, since that may strain your voice too much. However, it's important to actually stand up and give the talk instead of silently talking through it in your head. You'll easily notice which parts sound awkward when you try to say it out loud.

Sincerity

  • Empathize. Start with a genuine desire to connect to your audience and to help them understand your message. (This tip is from my very empathetic friend Youngsun.)

    • If you truly empathize, then you will be able to streamline your presentation by removing all content that doesn't directly help your audience understand.
  • Be yourself. Don't try to mimic the styles of other speakers. Instead, present the best parts of your natural personality on-stage, and people will sense your sincerity. Use the above tips as guidelines, but don't follow them so rigidly that you act like a robot.

  • Finally, don't freak out if you try to memorize these tips but then find yourself forgetting them while on stage. Just try to relax and slow down. I promise that you'll get better with more practice and a genuine willingness to improve.

Created: 2011-07-15
Last modified: 2015-03-06