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Presentations are a popular way of encouraging students to participate in seminars, and also of assessing their knowledge and skills. Short presentations are a common, routine occurrence in many seminar situations but they can be very worrying for students who are not familiar with this type of exercise.

Of course, everyone worries about giving presentations when they are doing so for the first time. You can try to overcome your nerves by:

  • Preparing well for the presentation;
  • Rehearsing your talk once or twice in advance;
  • Arriving early, and making sure that the equipment is working;
  • Not leaving any photocopying until the last minute.

    Presentations are used as an assessment device. Why?

    Presentations are used as an assessment device for a number of reasons:

    • Within any assessment, it is fairer to include some presentations, as well as written work, because some people present themselves better in speaking than in writing.
    • Presentations often include elements of peer assessment (when you are assessed by your fellow students) and self assessment (when you assess yourself). These kinds of assessment provide very useful information which could not be given via written work alone.
    • Presentations are good for getting discussions started in seminars, when silence can often dominate and people can feel awkward with each other.
    • Giving presentations is a useful transferable professional skill, as it is required in many jobs. Presentations are also a requirement for many job interviews. By gaining experience in giving presentations now, your university course is preparing you for real life.
    • Presentations can be interesting and enjoyable, and often bring the subject to life in ways that written work doesn't always manage to do.
    • Presentations give everyone a turn to speak - not only the most confident students.
    • Presentations are a useful way for language tutors to assess and evaluate spoken language skills on language-based courses.

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    What are the most common problems when giving presentations?

    The following is a list of some of the main things that might go wrong with presentations in seminar situations. They are important problems to try to avoid in advance, if you can.

    • Weak structure - there may be no clear beginning, middle or end of the presentation. The main reason for this is generally lack of preparation.
    • Poor timing - the presentation is too long to fit into the available slot or (less frequently) too short. This is made worse if the speaker is unable to edit or gloss over material as he/she goes along.
    • Unsuitable language - the lexical density/ information content of the presentation may be too high; the style may be too informal; lengthy technical words may be mispronounced because of failure to place the stress in the right place; syntax of sentences may be too lengthy and difficult for the listener to follow; this may be made even worse by poor grammar skills.  
    • Monotonous delivery - intonation may be flat and monotonous, and there may be little sign of normal rhythm patterns of English. This is especially true if the presentation has been memorised.
    • Over-detailed visual materials - there may be too much visual material on each PowerPoint slide, and too many slides altogether. Slides may be difficult to read from the back of the room. PowerPoint slides may be too 'busy' and distracting, and may detract from what the speaker is saying.
    • Over-use of/reliance on PowerPoint - the speaker can tend to be 'led' and controlled by the PowerPoint slides he/she has prepared and is not able to adapt the presentation as he/she goes along. The presentation may give the impression of being inflexible, with the speaker unable to adapt to the needs of the moment.
    • Undue reading from a script - reading aloud can work very well, but sometimes it can adversely affect the overall level of communication, and can often create additional pronunciation mistakes for international students.
    • Unhelpful/intrusive gestures - the speaker may wave their arms around or pace back and forth, thereby distracting the listener.
    • Verbal 'tics' can be a source of irritation - the constant use of words such as 'you know', 'like', 'sort of', 'errr' can be very frustrating for the listener.  
    • Poorly handled question and answer session - this section may be inadvertently omitted; insufficient time may be left to deal with questions; or perhaps the audience cannot hear/follow the questions properly.

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    General advice for improving the delivery of presentations as an international student

    The best advice when preparing presentations is to be well prepared. Here are a few other key aspects of presentation skills to remember.

    • Plan your talk thoroughly. Start your preparation several days before the talk. It takes along time to prepare a good presentation and it cannot usually be done very well at the last minute.
    • Use structuring devices to 'signpost' your talk. For example, 'Now I'd like to move on to...', 'Finally, I'd like to mention...'
    • Speak more slowly than normal. As you will be giving new information, do not underestimate the amount of time that will be needed to understand it.
    • Practise beforehand to get the right timing. Try giving the whole presentation at home as if you were doing it on the day. Time yourself. You will be surprised at how quickly time goes. If it goes too quickly, try cutting things out or try speaking more concisely.
    • If reading aloud, make sure it is done with feeling and expression. Reading aloud interferes with pronunciation and makes your paper harder for others to follow. Only read aloud if you are confident doing so, and can read with feeling and expression. When you read quotations, try to speak slowly and deliberately and try to use your voice to sound interested.
    • Think in advance about possible areas of pronunciation difficulty. Try to know what your own difficulties are. Check word stress in a dictionary before you give the paper.
    • Be aware of your own body language. Remember how important it is to communicate with the audience, but don't make your gestures too prominent or intrusive. Try to stand in one place when you speak. Be relaxed and speak at a comfortable (not rushed) pace.
    • Try to look at your audience. You obviously don't want to look fixedly at one or two people, but try to scan the audience and get some eye contact with a few people, if you can. It can help to build up the rapport and sense of communication.
    • Pause regularly to enable the audience to absorb what you are saying.
    • Use PowerPoint with care. In particular, try not to disguise any problems in language with over-flashy PowerPoint slides. And remember that not all university classrooms will have PowerPoint facilities. So be prepared and have a set of back-up OHT sides - this is very important in any case, because the computer may malfunction.
    • Be restrictive in use of visual materials. Remember that the human brain can only take in a certain amount of information at any given time. Try not to overload the listener by asking them to read, listen and watch at the same time.
    • Check up long or technical words in a dictionary.
    • Avoid memorising chunks of your talk.
    • Know how to say and pronounce the names of countries, nationalities and languages.
    • Provide a summary of your talk at the end.
    • Rephrase questions asked in your own words for the benefit of others.
    • Remember to smile!

    Recommended materials to help with presentation skills

    As with many academic language skills, the best way to improve presentation skills is to give as many presentations as possible, and to get lots of feedback from others (fellow students, tutors, friends, colleagues, etc.) However, there are some useful materials on the market that you can refer to for support in this area. A good general guide to giving presentations is:

    'Presentation Skills for Students' (Palgrave Study Guides) by Lucinda Becker and Joan Van Emden (2010)

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