Performing Your Talk

In Performance, you’re simply doing what you’ve practiced many times before (if you’ve practiced all the ways outlined in Oral Communication / Practicing Your Talk). Thinking of the actual performance in this way should help to calm nerves and anxieties about giving the talk. The following page outlines some of the main goals in performance, and strategies for achieving them. Most of these you’ll have had a chance to practice already; but some considerations will only come up in the actual performance.

1. Assuming an Appropriate Presentation Persona: When you deliver a formal presentation, you are ‘performing’ – as in a play – in front of an audience. While you don’t want to become something artificial when you talk, you do want to play the part of a speaker. The role you are playing is ‘you,’ but it’s not the same ‘you’ as we see in informal settings. This is a persona that should look and feel quite natural, but also be elevated from the everyday person [1]. For some, assuming a presentation persona may include costuming – wearing a suit or getting more dressed up than usual can help you assume the appropriate character.

2. Effective vocal delivery: includes appropriate volume, pace, and natural speech.

Adequate volume is an essential component of effective delivery. If you can’t be heard, you can’t be understood, and your main point will be missed. Being audible is often not enough. Even if you can be heard, speaking too softly means that that the audience expends energy to trying to make out what you’re saying; this may mean that they aren’t paying enough attention to interpreting and understanding what you’re saying. Generally speaking, the problems that presenters have are with low volume; rarely are speakers so loud that their speech is distracting. Speak loud enough so that the further member of the audience can hear you comfortably.

The same is true for pace. Especially when nervous, presenters tend to talk too quickly, trying to get the talk over as soon as possible. Too fast a pace results in the same difficulties that low volume presents: the audience spends most of its energy in trying to make out the words being spoken, rather than in interpreting or understanding what’s being said.

Ideally, we would all be able to speak naturally, as we do when we’re engaged in a conversation, during presentations. However, presenters often fall back on a ‘reading’ rhythm and speech pattern, even if they’re working from notes. What constitutes ‘natural speech’ differs from person to person, but it is usually marked by variations in pitch, tone, and pace, with appropriate pauses, all of which add layers of meaning to the words being spoken. The best that you can aim for is the speech that you can achieve when talking to friends on a topic you’re confident and passionate about, with a more little formality added in.

3. Effective Physical Delivery: includes positioning, eye contact, body language, and connecting to your visuals.

The first step, taking your position, should be done prior to the talk: determine the best place to stand before the audience arrives. The best place is a) where you don’t block anyone’s view, b) where you can see the audience, and c) where you can easily operate the projector / laptop and engage with the visuals. If you are very nervous, anchor yourself with a podium or desk – but not by leaning back or sitting. That is usually regarded as too casual. Instead, stand behind it, and use the desk as a front piece [1]. During the talk, you might consider moving around to make sure you’re paying attention to the entire audience.

Eye contact is an important strategy for both connecting to the audience and getting information from them. Effective eye contact is achieved when the speaker actually engages the audience. Just because a speaker doesn’t read from a speech or look at their notes often doesn’t mean that they’ve made effective eye contact: they could be just be staring outward or at other distractions, like their visuals. Look into the eyes of audience members and confirm that they’re looking back. This also requires that eye contact is sustained: looking at someone for a second doesn’t achieve the same level of engagement as maintaining that contact for four to five seconds.

If you actually engage with the audience through eye contact, you can also see whether people are confused or bored. You can use that information to help you decide whether to move on, or spend more time on a particular point [1].

Effective body language involves both posture and gesture. Posture communicates much about confidence and attitude towards the audience and material. For example, slouching suggests a casual attitude that may not be appropriate for formal presentations; leaning forward with hands on a desk suggests an aggressiveness that may make the audience uncomfortable. An upright posture communicates confidence and formality.

Gestures and movement can be used to deliver information as well. If you practiced gestures beforehand, they will happen more naturally when it comes time to deliver. Some speech coaches advocate ‘standing still’ and that is generally good advice, but some excellent speakers move a lot. Why? Because they are comfortable moving. If you look comfortable, your audience will be comfortable too. Therefore, the general guide to appropriate gesture is ‘do what makes you comfortable.’ Obviously, some comforting gestures can be annoying – key rattling, jingling the change in your pocket, picking your nose: these are called physical tics. However, if walking around or talking with your hands makes you more comfortable, it probably also makes you more effective [1].

Connecting with your visuals and managing them correctly is also a key part of effective physical delivery. If you’re using overhead transparencies, don’t fumble with your slides. Throw away paper separators before you present. When placing a slide on the projector, make sure that you look back at the screen to see that all is visible, and adjust the slide if necessary, but do not stare at the screen. Using a laptop with PowerPoint presents another potentially dangerous distraction: the computer. In fact, presenters are much more likely to focus on their computers than their notes. Using a PowerPoint presentation as a stand in for traditional notes is often not a good idea.

When possible, point at the relevant parts of the visual and direct your audience’s attention, but don’t let your gesture to the screen lure you into reading from the screen or talking to the screen. A shaky pointer blocking the view can also be very distracting. Remember to focus on your audience, not the projector or computer monitor. (See also Oral Communication / Supporting Your Talk With Visuals)

3. Show Mastery: Showing that you have mastery over your material gives your listeners confidence in you and sets them at ease. This can be as simple as showing that you are able to operate the equipment. Another way to show you are confident in your material is humour. It can lighten dry technical talks, especially after some particularly heavy going. Cartoons can be an effective way to draw parallels with points you are trying to make, if relevant. Even short verbal asides, rhetorical questions, or anecdotes can go a long way to keeping audience interest [1].

You can also show mastery by taking control of the questions, during or after the talk. During the talk, interact with the audience. Ask them if they are following you, or ask them simple questions to see if they are. Liven them up a bit.

After the talk, take control by managing the question and answer period. Always finish with a strong take away statement, allow the audience to clap, and then ask for questions. Control the question period by choosing the speakers, preparing yourself to handle certain questions beforehand, and taking the time to consider questions before formulating a response. If you encounter a question that you can’t answer, acknowledge that you can’t answer it, and tell them that you’ll consider that in the future or turn the question back on the audience.

If questions lead things astray, try to steer the topic back on track, otherwise audience participation can drive things far away from the main points of the talk. Take discussions off-line if they are consuming too much time or will not readily be resolved – suggest that you will check a fact or point and respond to the questioner by e-mail or telephone. Feel free to interrupt debates among audience members; after all, it’s your talk [1]!

[1] Irish, R., Tiede, K. and Weiss, P. Oral Communication Course Notes. Engineering Communication Program, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering,University of Toronto. 2004.