Jon Naunton is co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series. This is the second of three posts on helping students to overcome challenges in presenting in English. You can read Part 1 here.
Preparation and research
Most good presenters readily admit that their success is a result of careful preparation and practice. Generally speaking, a presentation is a piece of carefully constructed writing delivered as an extended monologue and is often the result of research. However, expert speakers understand that there is no point in reading out detailed information or research findings. Instead, they recognise the need to keep their message simple. They will regularly summarise, return to their main points and say the same thing in different ways, so listeners have several opportunities to catch their message.
Lazy or unaware students sometimes think it is enough to find an interesting article and read it out to the rest of the class. This is usually catastrophic for the following reasons:
- Articles often contain rare and difficult vocabulary and expressions unknown to the audience. This is frequently made worse by the reader’s poor pronunciation.
- Articles may assume some kind of shared background knowledge with the reader. (A story which has been running for some time will often just add what is most recent to the tale.)
- Articles are not meant to be read aloud. The information load is dense and there is little repetition or redundancy. Remember that when we read, we can return to the text as often as we need. Simply reading the text once does not allow listeners extra chances they need.
Presentation as a process
I believe the most important thing we can do as teachers is to make students aware of the process they need to engage in to produce an effective presentation from source material.
I often follow these steps:
- I find a text and read it aloud, making many of the typical mistakes of pronunciation, poor delivery and absence of eye contact common in these cases! I then ask the class what the article I have just read was about. Few, if any, can answer confidently!
- I hand out examples of the text and get them to read it. Then we begin the business of paraphrasing and simplification. We re-phrase complex sentences, identify rare or unknown words, idioms and expressions, either eliminating them altogether, or substituting items which our listeners are more likely to know.
- We then identify the main and subsidiary points of the article and decide which key ideas we are going to use.
- Perhaps most importantly, we then discuss what background knowledge the article assumes, and how we can supply this with a more general and clear introduction.
- Finally, we re-assemble the text into a coherent summary which can form the basis of a presentation.
Problems with language
Of course, how well a student presents will be linked to their general level of English. Furthermore, the language they need to move sure-footedly through will be different according to the type of presentation. A presentation which deals with facts and figures or trends will require different words and expressions to a presentation which describes a process. Even good students may stumble moving between points, because they are unsure with the introductory expressions and phrases.
Ideally, I would always try to find the time to provide students with some kind of model of the presentation type, and then analyse the language used to move from point to point, enumerate, refer to date, make contrasts and so on. For instance, if I want my students to describe a process, then I will give a short talk on how to make home-made beer! I will then go over it and isolate and teach/revise the key phrases used for describing a process.
These I will drill and practise in the normal way, and expect to see in their own presentations at a later date.
Problems with delivery and overdependence on the text
This is largely a matter of encouraging students to be independent of their text/script. A way of doing this is to use a memory aid such as cue cards, OHP transparencies or PowerPoint technology which both the presenter and audience can follow. We have all heard of ‘death by PowerPoint’ so I insist that slides are kept to a minimum and that they never read aloud what has appeared on a slide. In addition, I do my best to discourage students from using the distracting gimmicks in software packages. I also tell them to avoid complicated graphs and statistics. It is better to have these on a separate handout which people can refer to at their leisure.
Even if a talk is carefully prepared, the convention is that we have to pretend that we are talking to the audience. Even if they are reading from a script, speakers need to raise their heads and look at their audience. One technique is to choose three people in their audience e.g. someone near the front, someone in the middle right, and a third person in the far back. Shifting your gaze between these points will create the impression that the whole audience is being addressed.
Download my helpful hints on Presentations – Expressions and introductory phrases (PDF).
What are some tips you use to build your students’ confidence in presenting? Share your experiences in the comments below.