Oral Presentations and Formal Speaking in the Curriculum

Mumbling voice shuffling feet averted eyes fidgeting fingers on crumpling note cards These are the common elements of a student struggling to give an oral presentation in front of a class of their peers. As oral presentations and public speaking continues to be an important part of the curriculum at all levels, finding a way to ensure students are capable of confidently delivering information in front of audiences is paramount to academic success. Both teachers and students can follow a few guidelines in preparing to deliver oral presentations.

1. Start Simple. On the first day of class, have students stand and introduce themselves to the rest of the class, including something they think is interesting about themselves. This encourages oral communication from the very start, and establishes speaking in public as an expectation of the curriculum. Continue the culture of oral presentation by consistently asking students to stand and face the class when answering simple checking for understanding questions. As the curriculum becomes more interactive and the students feel more relaxed about speaking aloud to the group, teachers can expand upon opportunities for presentation. If two students disagree about a story element, for example, have them stand up before the class and present their sides of the argument in an impromptu debate. By making simple, short and unrehearsed presentations a natural part of the curriculum, students will become more comfortable with the idea of speaking in front of a group.

2. Audience Rules. Establish strict guidelines for the audience from the very beginning. Those listening to a presentation should be respectful of the speaker. There should obviously be no talking or distractions from the audience. Do not allow as an instructor, or condone as a student, teasing presenters for any reason. Everyone should remember that they would want respectful treatment when they are presenting. Questions and comments should be made after the presentation in a respectful manner. For longer presentations, students in the audience should be expected to take notes or keep presentation logs. Presentation logs are especially useful because they encourage attentiveness and allow the audience to analyze the effectiveness of the presentation, which in turn gives them insight in how to improve their future presentations.

3. Research. The content of a formal presentation should be well researched and documented. Like speaking itself, start simple. Make sure there is a solid topic selected. Outline specific content to be included before beginning the research. Start the research with a stable, constant source. For this, a library or class set of printed encyclopedias, or a controlled search from one internet source, is best. Students tend to be overwhelmed by the amount of information so readily available, which in turn muddles the focus of their research. This is why, especially when first starting research, it is better to control the sources. As students build confidence in their topic, more expansive and independent research will be easier to incorporate into a focused presentation.

4. Multi-Media. As a rule, avoid PowerPoint presentations. The art of using PowerPoint effectively is an entirely different topic, and, for any professional who has ever sat through a mind-numbing hour of someone reading projected slides verbatim, requires a different set of skills to master than just public speaking. Instead, have students put together a slide show of images that relate to their topic. These images serve as a background to reinforce the oral message, but do not require reading words that the audience already understands. The projected images also serve to engage the audience with something other than the speaker, which can help alleviate some of the pressure of a timid speaker and also keeps the audience engaged in the presentation for longer periods of time. Encourage other media elements which speakers can use to engage their audience. Music, played lightly in the background or in a short burst to emphasize a particular element, can be extremely effective. Avoid poster boards of random images and words collectively covering the presentation topic, as speakers tend to react to these in much the same way as a PowerPoint presentation, turning away and repeating what is already visible to the audience. Another option is to have students bring in an artifact representative of their topic. It can be an actual object or something that is homemade, but serves as a three dimensional anchor for their presentation.

5. Rehearsal Time. The number one killer for oral presentations is the fact that too often students are presenting their speech for the first time in front of the class during the graded final. Students should be encouraged to practice until they have the presentation ready to deliver confidently. In class, students can be broken into groups to practice their speeches during class and receive feedback in a more informal setting. Students should develop note cards to use during their presentation, then practice using the note cards as guides rather than reading each line. A neat trick to add to the grading for a speech is to have the student write down the exact length of their presentation, then provide bonus points for hitting the time within a reasonable range.

6. Dress for Success. Formal presentations should be scheduled in advance. Students should be encouraged to dress for the part. Changing from casual to formal clothes automatically increases the confidence of the speaker, and initiates a more serious attitude from the audience. If the presentation is specific to history or another more flexible genre, speakers can even be encouraged to appear in costume. Costumes also act as a focus for the presentation topic.

7. Grading. Make sure the specific requirements and expectations for grading the presentation are published well in advance. Review the grading rubric with the students and provide examples. Students can be involved in the assessment process as well. Break out portions of the rubric and have different groups of students provide feedback for each presentation. For example, someone can be watching for pacing, another student for eye contact, and others for specific content or use of media. By rotating assignments during the presentations, students tend to be more engaged in the presentations and teachers receive a broader range of feedback on the presentations.

In the end, make sure students understand that communication through oral presentation will be a part of their regular adult lives, should they choose to pursue any positions of responsibility (even parenting). More than just writing, oral presentations provide a unique format in which to focus details of a specific message. At the same time, educators and students must remember that public speaking is not easy for everyone. It takes practice and patience, and should be established in a setting that is as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.