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Designing Effective Oral Presentations

Understanding the Speaking/Writing Relationship * Questions You Need to Ask
Oral Presentations (Page 2)
Presenting to a Multicultural Audience

The ability to speak effectively is as crucial as the ability to write effectively according to studies about kinds of communications most often required of employees.

During a routine week, employees will actually spend more time speaking than writing; using the phone; conversing informally with colleagues, subordinates, and superiors on routine office topics; conducting meetings; working in problem solving groups; conducting employee evaluation sessions; participating in teleconferences and sales presentations; and frequently becoming involved in formal speaking situations before groups inside and outside the organization. Communication research also reveals that the higher an employee moves in an organization, the more important speaking skills become.

The purpose of this section of the OWL is to provide you the basic strategies for presenting technical and business information in an oral presentation. You will use many of the same strategies in developing an oral presentation that you use in preparing an effective written document. Understanding similarities between writing and speaking can be helpful for several reasons. Many times, you will be asked to document an oral presentation you have given; that is, you must submit what you said in written form. Or, you may be asked to make an oral presentation of a written document.

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Understanding the Speaking/Writing Relationship

Being an effective speaker and an effective writer requires you to

Because listening is a different processing method than reading, you will need to know how to adapt guidelines for organization, style, and graphics to fit the speaking situation. However, you will see that writing and speaking are, nevertheless, similar communication activities.

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Analyzing the Situation

Analyzing the situation is often difficult to separate from analyzing an audience; in a sense, audience is one facet of the larger situation. In analyzing the situation, you need to know why your presentation is required.

  • What is the broader concern underlying the need for the presentation?
  • What primary issues underlie the presentation?
  • How does your presentation relate to these issues?
  • What will be happening in the organization when you make your presentation?
  • How does your presentation fit into the organizational situation?
  • If you are one of several speakers, what kinds of presentations will the other speakers be making?
  • In what surroundings will you be making the presentation?
  • What will happen in the situation before and after your talk?
  • How does your talk relate to other participants' actions?

For example, delivering a presentation at a regular meeting of project directors is different from briefing other people in your team about what you've been doing. Making a presentation at a company picnic is different from delivering a presentation at the annual meeting of a professional society whose focus is on current issues in a discipline.

--> Thus, knowing the situation is as important as knowing your audience and your purpose. In many cases, situation will be inextricably bound up with questions of audience attitude and the way you shape your purpose. Audience attitude frequently results from situational problems or current issues within the organization, and what you can or should say in your presentation, your purpose and the content you choose to present may be dictated by the context surrounding your presentation and the perspective that your audience brings.

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Analyzing the Audience

Just as readers determine the success of written communication, audiences determine the success of oral presentations. Writing or speaking is successful if the reader or listener responds the way you desire: the reader or listener is informed, persuaded, or instructed as you intend and then responds the way you want with good will throughout.

Just as writing effectively depends on your understanding your reader as thoroughly as possible, effective speaking also depends on your understanding your listener.

  • You cannot speak or write effectively to people without first understanding their perspective.
  • You must know how your audience will likely respond based on their
    • educational and cultural background,
    • knowledge of the subject,
    • technical expertise,
    • position in the organization,
    • principal uncertainties or questions in this situation.

To achieve your purpose for communicating, you must present your message appropriately. Technique counts.

When you analyze your audience, focus on their professional as well as their personal profiles. Your audience will pay attention to some things because they're members of a department or class; they'll react to other things because of their likes, dislikes, and uncertainties. You have to keep both profiles in mind. Your analysis will suggest what you should say or write, what you should not say, and the tone you should use.

Audience Analysis Questions:

  • How much does my audience know about the subject?
  • How much do they know about me?
  • What do they expect from me?
  • How interested will they be in what I say?
  • What is their attitude toward me?
  • What is their attitude toward my subject?
  • What is their age group?
  • What positions do their occupy in the organization?
  • What is their educational background?
  • What is their cultural/ethnic background?
  • What is their economic background?
  • What are their political and religious views?
  • What kinds of cultural biases will they likely have toward me and my topic?

In viewing this list, you will note the prevalence of questions on attitude--the audience's attitude toward you as well as the subject. Some attitutes will matter more than others, according to the situation.

--> These questions are particularly crucial ones, as you need to know, before you begin planning your presentation, whether your audience will consider you trustworthy and credible. To be an effective speaker, you must know your audience, establish a relationship by being sincere and knowledgeable about the subject, then conform to their expectations about dress, demeanor, choice of language, and attitude toward them and the topic.

  When you speak to people from other countries, you should plan to do research on the culture of that country. Be aware that hand gestures you use routinely with US audiences may have different meanings in other cultures. Also, the clothing you choose to wear should also be selected with the culture of the audience in mind. If the audience and situation call for more formal clothing than you usually wear, practice your talk wearing the clothes you'll be wearing at the presentation.  

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Determining the Goal of Your Presentation

Oral presentations, like written presentations, must be designed around a specific purpose.

--> As a writer and a speaker, you must know your purpose.

You must conceive your purposes in terms of your audience's perspective. Like the report or letter, the oral presentation must make purpose clearly evident at the beginning. By knowing what they will be hearing from the beginning of the presentation, the audience can more easily focus their attention on the content presented and see connections between parts of the talk.

--> As you plan, state your goal in one sentence.

Then, as you begin your presentation, state your goal in terms of your audience's background and attitude; announce your purpose early in the presentation to prepare your audience for the main ideas to come. You may want to restate the purpose in words familiar to the audience.

Both written and oral communication often have multiple purposes. The main purpose of your presentation may be to report the status of a project, to summarize a problem, to describe a plan, or to propose an action, but your long-range objective may be to highlight or document important specific issues within the topic about which you are speaking and to further establish your credibility within the organization. You may want the audience to dislike another proposed solution, to desire a more comprehensive solution, or decide there isn't a problem after all.

Oral presentations, like written presentations, can enhance an employee's reputation within an organization. Therefore, consider every speaking opportunity an opportunity to sell not only your ideas but also your competence, your value to the organization.

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Choosing and Shaping Content

Preparing the oral presentation often requires the same kind of research needed for the written report. To achieve your goal, you will need to determine what information you will need. You will also want to choose information that will appeal to your audience--particularly their attitudes, interests, biases, and prejudices about the topic.

In selecting content, consider a variety of information types: statistics, testimony, cases, illustrations, history, and particularly narratives that help convey the goal you have for your presentation.

Because listening is more difficult than reading, narratives can be particularly effective in retaining the attention of your listeners. While statistics and data are often necessary in building your argument, narratives interspersed with data provide an important change of pace needed to keep your listeners attentive.

--> In short, vary your content, but be sure that every item you include pertains to the goal of your presentation.

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Organizing Your Presentation

--> Oral presentations must be organized with your audience's needs and perspective in mind.

  • Is your audience interested in what you will say?
  • What are the main questions they will want you to answer?
  • Which of these questions is most important? least important?
  • Based on your purpose and the audience's expectations, in what order should you present these ideas?

Generally, oral presentations have an introduction that ends with your main point and a preview of the rest of the talk, a main body, and a conclusion.

The introduction should clearly tell the audience what the presentation will cover so that the audience is prepared for what is to come.

The body should develop each point stated in the introduction.

The conclusion should reiterate the ideas presented and reinforce the purpose of the presentation. It usually answers the questions, "So what?"

* * * * *

Getting Your Ideas in Order

In planning your introduction, be sure that you state your goal near the beginning. Even if you use some type of anecdote or question to interest your audience, state the goal of your presentation next. Then, state how you will proceed in your presentation: what main issues you will discuss. The main ideas you have developed during the research and content planning stage should be announced here.

The conclusion to the presentation should help the audience understand the significance of your talk and remember main points. Write out the final statement. At a minimum, you should restate the main issues you want your audience to remember, but do so in a concise way. Try to find a concluding narrative or statement that will have an impact on your audience. The conclusion should not be long, but it should leave the audience with a positive feeling about you and your ideas.

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Choosing an Appropriate Style

How you sound when you speak is crucial to the success of your presentation. You may have effective content, excellent ideas, accurate supporting statistics. However, if the style you use in speaking is inappropriate to the occasion, to the audience (as individuals and as members of an organization), and to the purpose your are trying to achieve, your content will more than likely be ineffective.

You want to sound respectful, confident, courteous, and sincere.

--> The most effective style is usually a conversational style: short sentences, concrete language, speech that suggests to your audience that you are really talking to them.

When a speaker writes the entire speech and memorizes it, the presentation does not sound as if the speaker is talking naturally to the audience.

The tone and degree of formality will be dictated by your organizational role and your relationship to your audience.

  • Do they know you?
  • Is your rank in the organization above or below them?
  • Are you speaking to an audience of individuals from all levels within the organization?
  • What demeanor, approach, and level of formality does the organization usually expect from those giving oral presentations?
  • Is the audience composed of people who understand English? How well do they understand English?

Answers to these questions as well as your purpose will determine how you speak to your audience.

  If you are speaking before a group that is composed largely of people from another country, you need to determine beforehand how fluent they are in English. If they are not comfortable with English, be sure that you speak slowly; avoid idiomatic expressions; choose concrete words; and speak in relatively short sentences. Limit each sentence to one idea.  

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Choosing Visual Aids to Reinforce Your Meaning

Because we live in a time when communication is visual and verbal, visual aids are as important to oral communication as they are to written communication.

Visual aids

  • help your audience understand your ideas;
  • show relationships among ideas;
  • help the audience follow your arguments [your "train" of thought]; and
  • help your audience remember what you said.

In addition, the presentation that uses visual aids effectively is more persuasive, more professional, and more interesting. Many of the guidelines for using visual aids in oral presentations mirror those for written documents: they need to fit the needs of the audience; they must be simple; they must be clear and easy to understand.

How many visual aids?

Some kinds of oral presentations will require one kind of visual aid; presentations conveying complex information may require several kinds of visual aids. The point, quite simply, is that listeners are as resistant to an unbroken barrage of words as readers are to unbroken pages of prose.

You can use

 drawings,  graphs,  props and objects,  a blackboard with an outline,  charts,  demonstrations,  pictures,  statistics,  cartoons,  photographs, and even "interesting" items  or maybe a map .

Use anything that will help people SEE what you MEAN! (Weren't you attracted to the icons above???)

--> But because these will be seen while the audience is listening to you, you will need to be sure that all visuals are as simple as possible and as easy to read: In short,

  • Avoid too much information on any single visual.
  • Use boldface type in a font size that can be easily read.
  • Use sans serif type because if produces a sharper image for slides and transparencies.
  • Limit the fonts you use to two per visual.
  • Avoid all caps.
  • Use a type--size and font--that contrasts distinctly with the background.
  • Avoid visuals that use too many colors--more than four on any one aid.
  • Avoid making your audience study your aids. If they are busy trying to decipher your visual aid, they will not be listening to you.

    Bar graphs, circle graphs, simple diagrams, pictures, and lists are standard types of visual aids. Whatever aid you decide to use, limit the aid to only the concept, data, or point you are trying to make.

  • Be sure that what the visual says is immediately evident.

    Computer graphics and programs such as Harvard Graphics, Powerpoint, and Excel in combination with color printers and slide projection equipment give you the opportunity to experiment with graphic design. Try developing visual aids that are visually pleasing as well as clear.

  • Use technology whenever possible. Some web sites have visuals that you can use for presentations about that topic.

    Technology allows speakers to download graphs, drawings, and figures from the World Wide Web. The Web is perhaps one of the richest, newest, most colorful sources of visual aids.

Figure 3 shows a graphic of nitrogen oxide emission trends from the EPA web site, downloaded via Netscape through Yahoo. You might want cruise through this highly effective web site, as it has superb graphics and material for all ages of users:


Figure 4 shows data on Angolan Oil research downloaded from Texas A&M University's Geochemical & Environmental Research Group: http://www-gerg.tamu.edu

Most of these graphics have tables that accompany them. So, if you need hard data, it's there!

Many presentation rooms now have ethernet connections and even computers that have the appropriate software to run a browser such as Netscape. When the computer is connected to an overhead projector, Web images can be shown on a screen. Because of the increasingly rich range of materials available on the World Wide Web, resources available to enhance any oral presentations are almost limitless. Even if the room in which you will give a presentation does not have ethernet connections, you can still print Web materials via a color copier onto paper or transparency masters.

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Planning Your Presentation--Questions You Need to Answer

Thus, when you learn that you are to give an oral presentation, the first step in preparing for the presentation is to analyze each point listed above by answering the following questions, just as you did in planning your written communication. Once you have done so, you are ready to design, structure, and organize your presentation so that it will effectively satisfy the constraints that arise from your consideration of each point.


  • What situation creates the need for this presentation? Who is involved? What is the scenario for this situation?
  • Where will I be speaking?


  • Who is my audience?
  • What do I know about my audience's background, knowledge, position in the organization, attitudes toward me and my subject?


  • What is my purpose in giving this oral presentation?
  • Is there (should there be) a long-range purpose?
  • What is the situation that led to this presentation?
  • Given my audience's background and attitudes, do I need to reshape my purpose to make my presentation more acceptable to my audience?


  • What issues, problems, questions or tasks are involved in the situation?
  • What ideas do I want to include or omit?
  • Based on the audience and the context, what difficulties do I need to anticipate in choosing content?
  • Can any ideas be misconstrued and prove harmful to me or my organization?
  • What questions does the audience want answered?


  • What kinds of visual aids will I need to enhance the ideas I will present?
  • Which points could be understood better with a visual?
  • Where should I use these in my presentation?


  • What kind of tone do I want to use in addressing my audience?
  • What kind of image of myself and my organization do I want to project?
  • What level of language do I need to use, based on my audience's background and knowledge of my subject?
  • What approach will my audience expect from me?
  • How formal should I be?

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Oral Presentations (Page 2)
Presenting to a Multicultural Audience

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