How to Avoid Death by Class Presentation

My first experience with public speaking was through a (voluntary) school program that coached us on the basics of speech-giving, and sent us out to various functions around the city to speak in front of audiences that often numbered in the hundreds. I spoke at Rotary Club meetings, conferences, awards luncheons and other large events—sometimes delivering a trusty old speech I had given many times before, on other occasions speaking about a topic for the very first time.

At the time, I didn’t really understand why audiences were so impressed by my ability to give speeches. However, when I think about it now, it’s clear: it was 19 years ago, and I was 8 years old.

It was a nerve-wracking experience at first, and while the butterflies I got the first time I stepped up to a podium never really went away, I learned to harness and channel that energy into something useful over time. Fear of public speaking is not rare—in fact, it’s often thought of as one of the most common fears out there. Yet we live in a world in which presenting or performing in front of groups of people is virtually unavoidable, particularly so in a post-secondary setting.

As I grew up and stopped giving public speeches in my free time, I realized that not everyone had the same comfort level speaking in front of others that I did. When I got to university, I discovered that there was nothing quite so painfully uncomfortable as watching a peer absolutely bomb a class presentation. An uncomfortable speaker’s nervousness seems to radiate throughout the entire room, unfailingly infecting innocent audience members (not to mention evaluating professors). The awkwardness is palpable.

You don’t want to inflict that pain on others. More importantly, you don’t want to experience that pain yourself! So, I’ll share a couple of common mistakes to avoid and my number one tip for making your next presentation memorable (and maybe even pleasant).

Mistake: No preparation

Okay, we’ll start with the obvious one. If you get nervous about giving presentations, it’s not enough to just make a few slides and hope for the best once you get up in front of the room. Some people are capable of doing this, because they’re able to access important information stored in their memory through associations—they know the subject matter well overall, so talking about one thing progresses naturally to the next.

When you’re nervous, however, that ability to “wing it” is severely impaired, because so much of your mental energy is just focused on the immediate environment. You’ve likely heard about the “fight or flight” response: effectively, your entire nervous system goes into high gear when it senses you’re being threatened. Hence the quickened pulse, hair-trigger senses, and feeling like you could run a mile in a minute. You’re biologically less able to make associations requiring complex cognition, because your body is focusing on simply surviving.

The solution is to spend more time preparing and rehearsing so that the things you want to say become more and more automatic, and your memory requires fewer associations to arrive at them. Another helpful strategy is to employ mnemonic devices or distinctive visual cues to trigger those associations for you, so that you’re not relying on arriving at them yourself.

Mistake: Over-relying on presentation slides

Is there anything more boring than a presenter who simply reads the text off of their slides, without adding any new information or elaboration? There are two problems here: visual information overload, and incredibly flat presentations style. Have you heard of the “magic number 7, plus or minus 2”? It’s famously thought to represent the number of things we can hold in our working memory at a time. In today’s age of unprecedented access to information, it’s likely even less than that. So, if we can only really think about 3 or 4 things at a time, why present more information than that on a single slide?

As far as presentation style is concerned, a dynamic presenter will provide information that is complementary to any visuals they use. You want people to focus on you? Why would they if the only thing you’re giving them is information they can read for themselves? You have to bring something unique to the table.

Awesome tip: Tell a story

Our lives are collections of stories. We tell stories about others, about ourselves, about the world. It’s how we’ve transmitted knowledge as a species for thousands of years, to the point where we are evolutionarily hard-wired to use and understand narrative information. We grow up listening to and mimicking childhood stories, we write and act out stories in school, we read books, watch TV shows, and go to movies to be entertained by stories. It’s inarguable that stories are an integral and intuitive part of human life.

A great speech or presentation will have a clear sense of narrative structure. As opposed to a mere collection of facts or disjointed arguments, it will have a unifying, underlying story that ties everything together, giving it context, and making it more understandable and relatable.

It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it, even when you’re only 8 years old.

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