They make it seem so easy, those people who stand up on a stage and speak extempore, without so much as a scrap of paper to refer to. I have always envied that ability to express ideas with confidence and style, one thought flowing into the next seamlessly, unbroken by the unnecessary fillers that help many of us through a presentation — “basically”, “actually”, “as a matter of fact”...
Almost every teacher of presentation skills will tell you that this apparent fluency comes with practice and preparation — a lot of it. Yes, there are a few natural-born orators, but most people become good speakers because they put a lot of work into it.
I have noticed that most students, when asked to make a presentation, go into a tizzy preparing for the event. What this means is that they put a lot of time and effort into making slides, dressing them up with photographs and graphics, throwing in animation and special effects for good measure. But they spend little or no time thinking about and practising the narrative. What are you going to say while the slides are up there? So, most end up simply reading what is on the slide — leaving much of the audience tuned out.
I would suggest flipping this approach. The slides are simply placeholders for your ideas, and the real story is in your narrative, in what you say. By all means, put together a lovely deck of slides, but also spend some time writing out what you are going to say, and then practice it. Get comfortable with the words and the difficult names that you might need to pronounce. Make sure that your sentences are short enough to be intelligible to the audience. Try to create logical and smooth transitions from one idea to another — as also from one slide to another. Build in pauses that give your audience time to soak in the ideas. Remember, the point is to keep the audience’s focus on what you are saying, with the slides functioning only as a visual aid.
But what if you are in a context where there is no PowerPoint presentation, where you simply have to speak? You could approach this in a couple of different ways. If you are a relatively confident speaker, comfortable being in front of audiences, then, it may be enough for you to have a list of talking points. But I have found that it is useful to write out your talk in full, even marking out points of emphasis and pauses. This is particularly important when you are dealing with a complex topic. Having it all written down ensures clarity and helps you keep to the time limit while covering everything you need to say. Good radio presenters almost always speak from a script; the spontaneity we hear is the outcome of much practice and preparation. That is the only way they can time themselves to the second.
Putting some thought and effort into a talk is an act of kindness to your audience. If people are going to listen to you — either out of compulsion or choice — they should get something out of it. Thinking about your speech in this way can help you not only focus on clarity but also on engagement. It is not only about what you want to say, but even more importantly, what you want people to take away from your talk.
The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. email@example.com