Speak Up: Giving a Memorable Presentation

Business-MeetingGrowing up, I dreaded public speaking. Despite my efforts to keep a safe distance in the back of the classroom, presentation day would eventually rear its ugly head.

Heart racing. Palms sweating. Butterflies fluttering.

Head down, I would make my way to the front and read my presentation verbatim from a stack of meticulously crafted index cards. I didn’t dare make eye contact with my peers. I got through my presentation as quickly as possible and hurried back to my seat.

Over the years, I have learned to quiet my inner teenager and trust myself. With age and experience, I’ve become less afraid of making mistakes. I’m by no means an “expert” speaker. My presentation style and delivery is under a constant state of construction. Like any skill, public speaking takes time and practice.

I don’t think my story is unique. I know many people who also fear public speaking. However, effective interpersonal and public communication is vital in our field. In graduate school, I encourage you to seek opportunities to enhance your communication skills. Challenge yourself to engage the audience beyond the podium (not behind it), experiment with different visual aids, seek feedback, or present a poster at a conference. Small steps can make a big difference. My belief is graduate school is inevitably shaping us into the practitioners, researchers, and psychologists we will become.

Below you will find some tips and resources that have helped ease my fear of public speaking. This is certainly not an exhaustive list so please comment on this post with any additional ideas. Cheers!

1. Make it a Conversation
I find it easier to talk with a friend over coffee than speak in front of a group. I like to apply this concept to presentations. I pretend I’m conversing with a friend. This results in a more natural, extemporaneous, and genuine delivery.

2. Speak with Intent
If you exude interest in your topic, your enthusiasm will come across to the audience. When planning, I like to think about what kind of presentation I would want to experience as an audience member.

3. Step away from the PowerPoint
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE PowerPoint. Designing a PowerPoint or other visual aid allows me to express my creativity. Too often, however, I see presenters rely on their visual aid by reading directly from text-heavy slides.

My recommendation is to keep bullet points short and sweet. There are several formulas out there for the number of words each slide should have and the number of minutes you should spend on each slide. Personally, I don’t ascribe to these rules. I see memorable presentations as being more fluid and less black-and-white.

Ask questions of your audience, incorporate interesting pictures into your slides, and demonstrate appropriate eye contact. Have fun with your presentation. Remember, a visual aid should complement–not substitute for–a good presentation.

4. Seek Feedback
Our hard-earned graduate degrees will be made of blood, sweat, and feedback. Graduate school is teaching me to embrace constructive feedback from my peers and professors. Practice your presentation in front of a trusted friend, colleague, or family member and seek their feedback openly. If you’re feeling especially daring, ask them to record your presentation and then watch yourself. This can be one of the best ways of identifying verbal and nonverbal habits you may be unaware of.


Presentation Zen

TED Talks

JMU Communication Center

Talking the Talk: Tips on Giving a Successful Conference Presentation (Abby Adler), APA

How to Give a Great Presentation: Timeless Advice from a Legendary Adman, 1981 (Maria Popova), Brain Pickings

10 Things You Can Do Now to Make Public Speaking Effortless (Robert Locke), Lifehack

Editor’s Note: Melissa Foster is a second year doctoral student from Virginia Beach, VA. She is studying counseling psychology at West Virginia University.