Tips for Assigning Oral Presentations
Oral presentations can be among the best part of a class, or they can be the absolute worst. While there are few guarantees in the world of teaching and learning, here are some tips to make success a more likely outcome for you and your students.
1. Plan Ahead. Oral presentations take time—time for you to communicate your expectations and offer at least basic instruction on techniques; time for the students to prepare and rehearse outside of class; and time for them to actually give the presentations in class. Insufficient time devoted to any of these three things is likely to mean disappointing results.
2. Be Clear with Yourself About Your Goals. Why are you assigning presentations? Do you want to help your students become better speakers? Have them share the results of their research with classmates? Make them responsible for doing some of the teaching? Encourage active learning? Stimulate discussion? Transform your class from a monologue to a multi-voiced dialogue? Give yourself a break during a period you know will be busy? Break the monotony of exams and papers?
All of these are legitimate goals, and while they are not mutually exclusive, some require different planning and modes of evaluation than others. If you want to stimulate discussion and turn the class into a multi-voiced dialogue, for instance, you need to allow plenty of time for conversation afterwards and might want to have just one or two presentations a day. If your goal is instead for them to share research findings, it might be appropriate to schedule a number of presentations in the same class period.
3. Write a Clear and Complete Assignment. Writing the assignment out helps both you and your students. It forces you to articulate what you want and gives you something to return to when evaluating the presentations or pointing students to what might have been lacking in their performance. And having the written assignment gives students an authoritative document to return to for guidelines when they are preparing their presentations.
‘Clear’ and ‘complete’ means not assuming students know what you’re looking for but rather specifying all of the following in non-ambiguous ways:
Identify goals or aims of the presentation: spell out the purposes of the assignment and how it fits in with other course objectives. It is useful to put this right at the top of the assignment sheet under the heading ‘Purposes of this assignment,’ followed with a short list of 2-5 aims such as:
- to allow students to share their research with their classmates.
- to display skills of summarizing and condensing lengthy material.
- to gain practice translating technical journal articles into oral communication suitable for a lay audience
- to build upon concepts from the first unit of the course
- to give students an opportunity to set the agenda for group discussion.
Establish a reasonable time length: a specific range (e.g. 3-5, 8-10, or 15-20 minutes) is usually better than ‘about 5 minutes’ both because it reduces ambiguity and it encourages students to rehearse their presentation ahead of time.
Clarify all parts of the assignment: include both the steps leading into the presentation as well as the required components of the speech itself. One can require students to have their topic approved by you and hand in a working outline of the presentation, as well as a bibliography, several periods before they speak. On the day of the presentation, have the students turn in a formal, full-sentence outline along with the notes they use to speak from. You can ask them to bring a cassette tape to record their presentation and then hand in a self-evaluation during the next class period. They receive points for all of these parts.
For the presentation itself, be clear about what you expect: clear organization (introduction, body, and conclusion)? Supporting evidence or quotations from the text?A certain number of outside sources? A visual aid or handouts?
Highlight relevant due dates: specify due dates for both the different parts of the assignment and for the presentation itself. For the latter, decide who will give their presentations on what day (or let them choose).
Detail criteria for evaluation:exactly what will they be graded on? You might hand out the evaluation form you will use, or just make a list of criteria at the bottom of your assignment. Some possible criteria include:
- a clear pattern of organization (intro, body, conclusion, transitions).
- an effective delivery (eye contact, appropriate rate/tone/volume/gesture/ appearance).
- meeting time constraints (too long or too short typically means the presentation was not sufficiently rehearsed).
- a speech that is tailored to the audience (assumes proper level of knowledge, is absent inappropriate jargon).
- an incorporation of outside research or concepts from the course.
- the appropriate use of visual aids.
- evidence of independent thought or creativity.
- a presentation stimulates class discussion.
- the speaker displays knowledge during question and answer session.
- overall communication (speaks with the audience—not at them).
4. Prepare Students for Success. Once you have determined the goals, component parts, and criteria for the assignment, you can move students toward success in three ways. First, discuss the relevant techniques they will need to use—from how to select a good topic to research, adapting to your audience, using appropriate language for oral communication, and raising productive discussion questions.
Second, show good and/or bad models of these techniques. You can do this through your own speaking, by the use of videos, or by drawing attention to good examples in your students (teaching from bad student examples is a trickier business).
Third, give them opportunities to practice. The best kinds of practice involve students getting to do more than one evaluated presentation. If this is not possible, give them in-class or at-home practice opportunities. You can use peer groups here—one-on-one or small group exercises—or you could require them to tape record a rehearsal of their presentation at home and evaluate it before they give it in class.
5. Evaluate the Presentations to Help Them Improve. While giving an oral presentation in itself can be good practice, evaluating student efforts and giving them a grade can help even more. This means that you need to develop a plan for grading them.
You can use a formal evaluation sheet that includes a list of the criteria and room for written comments at the bottom. For the list, you can give students a check, plus, or minus (fine, excellent, or needed work) for each criterion with brief comments on the reasons for such a mark.
Try to put the criteria in roughly the same chronological order as the speech itself will be given (e.g. introduction at the top, Q/A toward the bottom) and fill most of this part of the evaluation sheet out as the student speaks.
Take copious notes during the speech, but make certain to grade the speech soon after the presentation, otherwise the memory of the speech will slip.
Also, use the formal outline the students turn in; it makes following the speech and developing pointed comments much easier. Students respond best when you include positive comments along with constructive ones.
Rubrics often provide comfort to students concerned about how their oral performances will be evaluated. They also assist instructors in grading speeches consistently.
I’m in the Charles Pearson Theatre at the University of Melbourne, watching 12 short speeches. It’s a 3 minute speech competition called the 3 minute Thesis.
These annual, 3 minute speech competitions challenge Ph.D and Masters students to effectively communicate 3-1/2 years’ of technical research into a short speech. Their task is to convey only the most important ideas and findings to a non-technical audience – and with only a single slide.
A short speech is a great test
As you’d imagine, it can be difficult to condense all that research and knowledge into a 3 minute speech, yet still convey all the pertinent information.
But that’s exactly why it’s such a great exercise for all speakers.
That’s because, in order to be effective, your ideas must be able to be communicated in the most brief, simple and clear manner possible. You need them to stick in the listener’s mind.
Not everyone is good at this skill – indeed, few people are. But you need to be if you want other to see the value of your ideas.
By the way, if you think giving a good 3 minute speech is hard, try doing one in just 5 words! That’s what they do at the Webby awards.
What did the winning speakers do right?
Despite giving a short speech on very different topics, there were some common practices I noticed about the winning speakers.
- They presented an exceptionally clear message.
- They included a “top and tail” element.
- They made use of metaphor and other verbal illustrations to simplify a complex idea.
- They spoke like they were having a conversation with their audience – not ‘giving a formal speech’.
The losing speakers, by contrast, were more forced. Some were so unnatural they seemed to be giving a pantomime a speech for an audience of children. The engagement of conversation was missing. We’ve talked before about the importance of an unforced, natural style.
How to create a short speech.
1. Use a simple structure.
Start by clearly saying the ‘headline’ and key idea underpinning your speech in simple, everyday language, and follow with a simple structure supporting your main point.
Here are some examples:
A: Headline and 3 supporting reasons:
With this approach, follow your “headline” statement with 3 simple supporting reasons. State each reason clearly, and explain how each one helps achieve or support the objective.
“We must change the way we work – for 3 important reasons:
B: Problem – solution:
This is a simple structure of only 2 parts. It’s an easy yet powerful way to capture people’s attention and interest when done well. But you’ll want to avoid the trap of rushing through the problem, and spending too much time on your brilliant solution.
If you really want to hook people, take some time to paint a vivid picture of the problem first. Your audience will then be clambering for a solution with both ears open.
In this type of short speech, you might cover:
- The history of the issue …
- The current situation …
- What might happen in the future …
- And the ramifications of agreeing (or disagreeing) with your main argument.
D: Metaphor/Top & Tail:
To “top and tail” simply means starting with a story/quote that hints at your message. At the end, you recall that story and link it to your message.
This short speech from a 3 minute speech competition makes excellent use of this approach.
Start your speech (“the top”) with a compelling metaphor to make a memorable point, and end the speech (“the tail”) with the same metaphor — but adjusted to show the benefit of adopting your central argument.
2: End with a memorable message:
Just as important as how you begin and structure your speech, is how you end it.
Consider the same techniques at the end of your speech. A metaphor that links back to your original premise, or finishing with a thought-provoking question, are two ways to burnish your speech in your listener’s mind.
These videos of the 1st and 2nd place winners of a 3 minute speech competition show how effective these closing techniques can be:
1st Place: Sara Ciesielski
2nd Place: Samantha Lichter
People worry that time limitations mean they have to ‘dumb down’ their valuable research — this is not the case!
A vivid message and a compelling short speech can become a window to the depth of your research, and give clarity to the value of your ideas.
A 3 minute speech gives you a huge amount of time to do this – if you use the time wisely and structure your speech to maximum effect.
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