How to Give a Good Class Presentation

Class presentations are most students' worst nightmare, but professors love to include them on the syllabus. Don't let this discourage you from taking an interesting class. Here's our guide to giving a strong and stress-free presentation in your university class!

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Preparation is Everything

1. Get clear on what the assignment is

As soon as you know you are being asked to present in a class, make sure you take the opportunity to get clear on the details of the assignment. There's a lot more variation in presentation assessment than there is in essay assessment. Essays are generally assigned and graded in a very similar way across a department, so what you learn about essays in your first year continues to apply throughout the rest of your degree. This is not the case with presentations: some professors don't assign them at all, others love them and have their own unique rubric. You should be given most of this information on the first day of class and on the syllabus, but if you have any doubts, ask, and ask early!

2. Run your idea by your professor first

Some professors will structure this into the assignment, but others won't mention the possibility. Office hours are there for you, and most students don't use them until the week before finals. If you're struggling with what to choose for your topic, drop into office hours with a few options and try your ideas out on your instructor. (Of course, this advice goes for essays too, but presentation topics can feel especially daunting!) If you want extra input, talk your options through with a tutor.

3. Do your research

In almost all cases, this will include doing some set reading(s), but you should also consider if it's appropriate to bring anything extra to your preparation. If your presentation assignment asks to see some application of the ideas you're looking at, you'll need to think about how to do that. Even if it is not explicitly requested in class, using examples to explain ideas is essential for a good presentation, so start noting down ideas for how to inject your topic with colorful examples. For instance, you could use similes and metaphors to illustrate a connection, or you could explain what a theory would say about some element of pop culture or history that the audience knows well.

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4. Make an outline

This is so important to do for class presentations: just as you need an outline before you start to write your essay, you need to plan the structure of your presentation first. Presenting for even five minutes can be quite difficult when you're not used to talking to a time limit. You should aim to have: an introduction, some exposition, your own insight, and a conclusion. Budget out your time for each section to help you see how much material you need to include. For example, if you have ten minutes for your presentation and Q&A:

Introduction [1 min]: make this this nice and concise - tell your audience what you're talking about today.

Exposition [4 mins]: explain the central ideas of your topic - what do people need to understand in order to grasp the point that you want to make?

Insight [4 mins]: give some of your own insight, either through analysis or original examples and illustrations of difficult ideas.

Conclusion [1 min]: summarize what your talk has been about.

Q&A [2 mins]

5. If you're using slides, keep them light

Don't try to cram too much information into your slides. As a student, you know better than anyone what it's like when a presenter has slides that are crammed full of text. They're great for looking back on later (if they're available online), but really rough for reading in class. The motivations for cramming slides are easy to understand: Maybe the slides will take the audience's attention off you for a few minutes? Maybe they'll help keep you on track if you lose your train of thought? Maybe they'll do some of the work of conveying the information for you? Unfortunately, this is never how things work out in practice.

Firstly, if your slides are too full of text, people will either be frustrated that they can't keep up, or they will stop looking at them completely. Secondly, using busy slides to stay on track is almost impossible when you're mid-presentation and already a little nervous: what looks clear from your laptop at home will look like a huge wall of text from the front of the class. And, finally, your audience wants to focus on what you're saying: unless you wait in silence while people read your slides (please don't do this!), trying to keep up with what you're saying and read the (differently worded) slides at the same time will confuse everyone.

Slide with a wall of text
Slide with lots of negative space
Slide images from the American Psychology Association (https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2012/01/worst-powerpoint-ever.pdf)
So how should slides be used in a presentation? Slides are great for displaying quotes that you'll be analysing, pictures that you're using to illustrate ideas, or short, bullet point summaries of an argument. Stick to this kind of content and your PowerPoint will support, and not distract from, your presentation. Think carefully about your own experience of reading PowerPoints from the audience and try to recreate what works best for you. For example:

6. Practice at home

"According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy." - Jerry Seinfeld

Most people find public speaking to be intimidating - in fact, it frequently crops up in studies surveying people's greatest fears in life, and consistently ranks as our top social fear. The best way to address this fear is practice - don't let the first run-through of your presentation be when you give it in class! Using just your bullet points, trying 'giving' your presentation in your bedroom, keeping a stopwatch going to check how long it takes you. If you have willing roommates and friends, try to do a practice run with them too. Ask for feedback on how easy it was to understand you and pay attention to any sections where their eyes glaze over!

Group of friends laughing at a table

7. What if I have serious anxiety about presenting?

Students with disabilities and/or distinctive learning needs may have access to accommodations through their university. In this case, it may be possible to arrange an alternative medium of assessment. However, it's not always easy to get registered with university accessibility services, since it's not always easy to get a diagnosis or medical note from a doctor. Consequently, many people with disabilities do not have the documentation necessary to access the services they need. Obviously, in an ideal world, professors would be understanding of this and take students at their word about their access needs. However, the reality is that there's a range of knowledge levels and attitudes out there and some professors might not consider access needs when designing their class. Though they might not think to offer it on their syllabus, most professors should be willing to make some kind of accommodation if asked ahead of time.

If you have anxiety about speaking in front of the class and feel comfortable speaking to your professor about this, try to do so as soon as possible (i.e., as soon as you see that a presentation will be a component of the class). If possible, try to do this before the add/drop deadline of a class so you know exactly what kind of support/accommodation you can expect (if it's not sufficient, you can always drop the class and let the prof know why). You can make these kinds of requests over email if that's more comfortable for you. Explain your concerns and that you are interested in finding a way to get the most out of the material and do well in the class. For example, you could ask for an alternative style of assessment (e.g., writing a paper instead of giving your presentation to the professor in office hours). Or, you could ask for clarification on whether or not you will lose any marks for doing things that help your nerves (like reading the whole presentation from notes or giving it from your usual seat).

audience listening

Giving Your Presentation

1. Introduce your topic

Let your audience know what your topic is and what your thesis statement is in your introduction. This will help people to track which information is especially important for them to focus on in the body of your presentation.

If you know that you're going to be nervous on the day (most people are!), consider starting off your presentation with a question for the audience. Pick a question that would be easy for anyone to answer without knowledge of your topic, but which will link into what you want to say. Having this kind of interaction before you start the body of your presentation will calm your nerves and make your audience feel more engaged.

2. Use your notes as a safety net

Ideally, you'll use the bullet points that you've prepared to guide you through your presentation. Don't read your notes while facing into your page. Look up at the audience as much as possible and use your notes (or slides) as a support to guide you through the presentation. By all means, keep a more detailed copy of what you want to say with you - we all have bad days and just knowing it's there if you need it can be reassuring. (As already mentioned, if you have serious anxiety about presentations, talk to your professor about possible accommodations.)

3. Remember to make eye contact and breathe!

Make sure you make eye contact with your audience and try to address the whole room. If you're feeling nervous, it can be tempting to read into your notes or to just focus on the front row. Try to look up for the majority of the time that you're talking and move your focus around the room. It's likely that you'll have had plenty of class discussions by the time you give your presentation: try to think of your presentation as simply being a longer (better prepared!) contribution to one of those group discussions. These are the same people you've been talking to every week this semester - think of your talk as the lead up to an interesting conversation with them.

Remember to breathe! When we're nervous we tend to speak much more quickly than usual. If you're speaking quickly on the day of your presentation, you may find that you finish a lot faster than on your practice run. Focus on steadying your breathing and don't be afraid to pause throughout the presentation for a sip of water.

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Review

  1. Get clear on what the assignment is
  2. Try your ideas out on your prof or tutor
  3. Do your research
  4. Write an outline
  5. Get your slides right
  6. Practice at home
  7. If you need accommodations, ask early
  8. Incorporate questions and examples
  9. Remember: the audience are your conversation partners

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