It’ll be all right on the day
David Allison and Nigel Bramwell
Manchester University, UK and the Bronson Methodist Hospital,
Giving a talk for the first time can be a nerve-racking experience.
The authors offer some practical advice to all aspiring raconteurs.
Picture the scene. The auditorium quietens. All eyes are on you, as the audience eagerly
awaits your talk. As you prepare to make your opening remarks, a wave of nausea passes
through your body. You open your mouth and... out comes an unrecognisable, high-pitched,
garbled, trembling whine. In your embarrassment you spill your lecture notes all over the
floor and your mind goes blank.
The Mumbler/Plodder. Head down, reading assiduously from prepared notes. Does not
address audience or point appropriately and is barely audible as voice is directed at shoes.
This nightmare scenario is familiar to many individuals faced with making their first oral
presentation since, like it or not, most of us have to ‘communicate in public’ at some stage of
our career. Whether presenting research data, running a team meeting, persuading an outside
backer to finance a project or simply making an after dinner or wedding speech, we would all
like to be able to make fluent, engaging presentations. However, whilst the careers of many
silent film stars ended with the advent of the ‘talkies’, the prospect of speaking in public
should not be viewed with the same ‘career-dependent’ philosophy. Indeed, as with many
other skills, there are certain ‘tricks of the trade’ which can be adopted to boost one’s
confidence. They can be useful for many situations and will lead to a more assured,
In general, the art of oral presentation can be subdivided into three distinct parts: verbal
delivery, visual delivery and points of general awareness. Advice is also offered to those
making specific presentations of 10-15 minutes duration.
Preparation of your notes or script depends very much upon the occasion, the subject matter
and your own ability as a speaker. Although public speaking requires a little more nerve and
thought than everyday conversation, this does not mean that you have to undergo a complete
Do not read from a full script, otherwise spontaneity and emotional impact will be lost from
the talk. Instead, to prompt your memory and to make certain that you follow a planned
sequence, write short headings or key phrases on index cards. These should be written on one
side only, numbered in sequence and small enough to be easily held in the hand. Different
colours can be used to mark the place of any audio-visuals, etc. Make sure, however, that
your writing is large enough to read without too much concentration!
Always prepare the notes yourself. Only you know how the information should flow.
Although the writing of good, clear English is fine for reports, it is not suitable for reading
out loud. Choose your vocabulary to suit the audience and keep it simple. Don’t use words
that you have difficulty in pronouncing, since nerves will only exacerbate the situation.
Make sure that you are audible. People are often put off by the sound of their own voice, so
practice speaking out loud and projecting your voice. During your talk, look at the audience
to gauge reactions. If there is the faintest doubt, ask whether you can be heard clearly. This
is also a useful way of relaxing the atmosphere and warming the audience to you.
Diction can be improved by opening your mouth and using your lips and tongue to shape
words clearly. Regulate the pace of your talk, beginning slowly and then varying it
throughout. Effective punctuation can be achieved by periodically inserting pauses into the
talk, rather than by filling in with verbal mannerisms. Similarly, try and avoid using the same
word or phrase over and over again.
The Symphony Conductor. Waves pointing device all over the place, often in a distracting
fashion. May or may not stick to text, prone to time over-runs and addresses walls, ceiling
and assorted inanimate objects, apparently at random.
The use of charts, graphs and text illustrations can play a very useful role in many
presentations. However, the best speakers, irrespective of subject matter or status, lavishly
illustrate their talks with short striking vignettes. In fact, the most powerful talks are often
little more than a series of such sketches, loosely linked by an outline. Although a number of
different visual aids are available, the most commonly employed are the overhead projector
(OHP), slide projector, chalkboard and flip-chart.
If using an OHP or slide projector, don’t spoil the effect by projecting your own shadow or
blocking the screen. Stand (or sit) slightly to one side. Discipline yourself not to look over
your shoulder to check that there is a picture on the screen, Worse still, do not turn your back
on the audience and talk to the screen.
Keep any text short and simple. As a general rule-of-thumb, have no more than 6-7 lines of
text per OHP transparency/slide, seven words per line. Use a large, bold font. Whereas
sharp, dark colours should be used for the main body of text, brighter colours can be used to
highlight a specific point. If using a chalkboard or flip-chart, it is best to write in capital
Don’t try and draw attention to a detail on the OHP screen by jabbing at it with a baton. This
will only cause you to lose eye contact with the audience and, consequently distract them
from what you are saying. Instead, use a thin pointer (e.g. a pencil or pen) to highlight detail
on the transparency. Touching the end of the pointer on the acetate itself can hide the fact
that your hands may be shaking. If you want the audience to concentrate on the same detail
for a time, lay a small pointer (e.g. a key) on the transparency. Nowadays sophisticated laser
pointers are available to indicate specific points on a slide projection. Although they require
a relatively steady hand to operate, they do save you from leaving the security of the podium
and having to stretch up to reach the screen with a conventional style pointer. Be careful,
however, when it comes to using this type of pointing device. Many people naturally
gesticulate when they speak; the presence of a laser device on the end of a waving limb can
make for a distracting and annoying sound and light show.
Prepared OHP transparencies often provide too much information to be taken in all at once.
It is better to ration it, in order to focus the audience’s attention. This can be achieved by
revealing the text line by line, or detail by detail. Simply cover the transparency with a large
card before switching on the lamp. Then, move the card up, down or sideways in stages until
the whole transparency is revealed.
Whenever you want the audience to stop looking at the screen and pay attention to something
else, switch off the OHP or projector lamp. Alternatively, a ‘blank’ slide (or perhaps a scenic
view) can be inserted into the projector carousel. Like moths, human beings are attracted by
bright objects and will be wondering what will appear next on the screen rather than listening
to what you are saying.
The Hyde Park Corner Ranter. Scythes his/her way through presentation at high speed and
high volume to get the damn thing over with. Clarity is the major casualty and the audience
may be shell-shocked.
By now you will have carefully prepared your script and visual aids. Is there anything that
can be done to control your nerves on the day? Obviously, constantly practising your talk is
important, particularly if you need to co-ordinate the use of slides or illustrations at different
stages. There are one or two other steps that can also be taken:
Make sure that you breathe! Take three or four deep breaths before going up on stage. If you
feel shaky, hold on to the podium or rest your knuckles on top and slowly breath out.
Always be polite. Thank the chairperson, smile and begin your speech with a friendly
greeting. Not only does this break the ice, but also gets those initial, awkward sentences out
of the way before you start your actual talk. Don’t risk upsetting people with questionable
jokes or language.
Include everyone in your talk by scanning the whole audience. Think of them not as a crowd,
but as individual people whom you would be quite happy to talk to on a one-to-one basis.
Stick to a topic that you care about, and share your passion for it with the audience. Almost
all audiences want to like speakers and will be receptive to those that are obviously
enthusiastic about their subject.
Do not run over your allotted time. Keep an eye on the time during your talk and regulate the
pace accordingly. If asked a question, again be polite, acknowledge it, and think before you
answer. Never reject a question.
Many conferences programme oral presentations of papers so that each speaker is allotted 15
minutes at the podium, with 10 minutes for the presentation itself, and 5 minutes for
questions from the floor. A 35mm slide projector is the preferred audio-visual aid. Not
infrequently, the chairperson(s) will have a timing device in view of the lectern, with warning
lights which flash as the time limit approaches. As if this wasn’t intimidating enough, the
chair will often preface any introductory remarks by admonishing speakers to stick to the
prescribed time. While there are good reasons for all of this exactitude, even seasoned
veteran presenters may find the tight time constraints unnerving. Once again, there are
guidelines which can be followed to enable the presenter to overcome the situation and
achieve his or her basic goal, which is to present ideas and findings to an appropriate forum,
without undue stress and anxiety.
Write out a text. A 10-minute talk is short enough that this can be done in full.
Rehearse the text out loud as many times as possible, timing yourself. Rework and rewrite as
often as necessary to get a 10-minute time frame.
Incorporate time and remarks to address and refer to your slides. A rule-of-thumb is one
slide per minute of presentation, i.e. 10 slides in all. An opening title slide and a slide giving
final conclusions are advisable. In between, slides should not be overly detailed or difficult
to read. Again, it is useful to have salient features or points highlighted in some way
(different colours, arrows, circles, etc.) so that the audience’s attention is immediately drawn
to the area you wish to emphasise.
When you’ve become familiar with the presentation, give it under ‘combat conditions’, to an
audience within your own department or research group. Your aim should be to follow the
text, and be prompted by it, but to primarily address and look at the audience and the screen
(when pointing) rather than reading, eyes down, slavishly following every line. This dress
rehearsal should enable you to bring the presentation into its final form, and to get input from
an audience as to how well everything is coming across, all (of course) within the allotted
The 5-minute question session which follows the main presentation is an integral part of the
whole, and not a sadistic ritual tacked on at the end to make you squirm. With critical review
of your talk by colleagues, it is often possible to anticipate likely lines of questioning and
have responses ready to hand. Regard this time as an opportunity to enlarge upon your main
themes and to put forth further information; in short, a well-handled question period can be
the ‘icing on the cake’.
The ‘Ideal’. Relaxed, assured, confident and enjoying the experience. Presentation is audible
and regulated, illustrations are simple and appropriate and used unobtrusively. What was all
the worry about?
There are really only two golden rules which apply to oral presentations. The first, and by far
the most important, is that your talk should be well thought out and prepared. It is all very
well practising, but it is what you practice that is important. Time spent on the preparation is
well worth the effort in the long run. Secondly, be realistic. There is no such thing as the
‘perfect’ speech. If you believe that ‘this is the one’, you will put yourself unnecessarily into
a state of extreme anxiety. Be satisfied with making a competent, professional delivery that
reflects the true you.
So, the moment has now arrived when all your careful preparation will bring its reward. You
have confidence in what you are about to say, you are well rehearsed and the audience will
appreciate the time you have taken in preparing your talk. Take a deep breath, relax and
Dr D. G. Allison is a lecturer in Pharmaceutical Microbiology in the Pharmacy Department,
Manchester University, Manchester, England and Dr N. H. Bramwell is a Staff Pathologist at
Bronson Methodist Hospital, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA.