Depending on who you are, giving presentations can either be a complete joy or absolute pain. If you are a new faculty member, your first presentation can be especially daunting – it’s your chance to make a good first impression.Even if you teach in front of students every day, or you were the star pupil in drama club in high school, giving a presentation to your professional colleagues can be frightening.
The stakes often feel much higher when your dean, provost, and rock stars of your field are listening!
Here some useful tips to help you get through your first professional presentation, whether it’s for a department meeting or national conference. If you follow this process, no one will ever know your knees are shaking uncontrollably behind the podium – they’ll be too enthralled with what you’re saying!
Tip #1: Know your audience!
Before you create a single PowerPoint slide, think about who will be listening to your presentation. Your audience will shape how you give the presentation, the material you choose to cover, and the overall tone. Giving a presentation to a small group of people in your field will look and feel very different from a presentation you give to a large, general audience.
Once you figure out whom your audience will consist of, answer these two basic questions: What does my audience already know? What do they need to know? Focusing on those two things will ensure your audience doesn’t feel overwhelmed, bored, or talked down to. It will also help determine the main idea or goal of your presentation.
Tip #2: Know your main idea/goal!
This is the “What’s the point?” aspect of your presentation. When crafting your presentation, you must have some overarching goal in mind for both yourself and your audience. Are you informing your audience about a new topic, technology, or theory? Are you trying to persuade them to think or act differently? Are you proposing major changes for your department, college, or professional field?
Determining a goal for yourself will keep your presentation cohesive, and keeping a goal in mind for your audience will keep them interested. It sounds strange to say, but people want you to tell them what to do – so spell it out for them clearly. By the end of your stellar presentation, your audience should walk out motivated to take action, whether it’s to spread the word or make concrete changes!
Tip #3: Know your venue!
Once you know whom you’re speaking to and what you want to talk about, now is the time to consider where you’ll be speaking and what is available to you. Here are some important questions to consider about your venue:
Is this a large or small room? Will it easily accommodate your audience, or will they be packed in like sardines?
What kind of audio-visual equipment will be available? Will the venue be able to support PowerPoint, video, overhead projection, microphones, or whatever else you may need? Will you have to request/rent the equipment ahead of time?
Will you get the opportunity to rehearse your presentation in the room ahead of time?
Are you responsible for setting up or tearing down chairs/table/podium/equipment?
Knowing the answers to these questions is vital to giving a solid presentation. For example, you don’t want to spend weeks on the perfect PowerPoint, only to find they won’t have a computer or projector for you to use. Trust me – that has happened to me before, and it’s terrifying!
Tip #4: Know your supplemental materials (but don’t lean on them)!
Once you know your audience, main goal, and venue, you can focus on creating supplemental materials to go with your presentation. Your venue will largely determine what format these take: a PowerPoint presentation, video, handout, etc.
The most common supplement people use is PowerPoint – and most people absolutely destroy their presentations by using it! Keep your slides as simple as possible, and use high-contrast colors (white background, dark text is always a good choice). Avoid using those annoying transitions, goofy fonts, or clipart. They come off as unprofessional and will distract your audience from what you’re saying. This advice also works for videos, handouts, and other materials you provide for your audience as well.
Regardless of what kind of supplemental material you provide, keep this piece of advice in mind: they are called supplemental materials. Your presentation should be engaging and make perfect sense without them! If everything else breaks down, copies don’t get made, or the power goes out, your presentation can still go on. I once had to give a presentation on the front lawn of my department building during a fire drill. I can say confidently that I couldn’t have done that if my presentation hinged 100% on my PowerPoint presentation!
Tip #5: Know your style!
Now that you have everything prepared, you can start rehearsing your presentation! How you do this will depend a lot on your experience and comfort level with public speaking. Some people simply use an outline and can easily “wing it” during the presentation, while others will rehearse dozens of times. Be honest with yourself about how comfortable you are in front of a crowd, and what you need to do to prepare for it! Try not to memorize your presentation like learning lines for a Shakespeare play – give yourself the freedom to speak naturally. Reading from a script will come off as cold and dull, no matter how well-written it is.
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Heather Patton is a writer, editor, and adjunct English instructor with 10 years of experience in helping her students become the best writers they can be. She has taught at Wright State University and Clark State Community College in Dayton, OH, and Seattle Central College in Seattle, WA. Her students often refer to her as “nice but expects a lot,” which she feels is a pretty accurate assessment of her teaching philosophy. She has an M.A. in English Composition and Rhetoric from Wright State University. When she isn’t grading papers or editing company websites, she is an avid hiker, voracious reader, and makes a mean banana bread.