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Public Speaking Tips For Students


In this article, I’ll talk about a topic that is not often addressed: how can students improve their public speaking abilities during their studies?

All students, at least from a high school level, and especially College or University students, are often asked by their teachers to give presentations, either to the class or to a jury that consists mainly in several teachers.

In my (not humble) opinion, giving a presentation as a student is not exactly the same as giving a business presentation to potential clients, partners, employers or colleagues. I’m a College teacher (in computer science) and I’ve seen my share of student presentations. And these talks are very specific. Even if they obviously share a lot of common points with “regular” presentations, they also have tons of specificities that I’ll adress in this post.

After that, I’ll give you tips that apply to any kind of speakers, but are especially useful for inexperienced students.

The Audience

It All Starts With The Audience…

Whenever you’re speaking in front of a crowd, no matter the context, whether you’re a student or not, you must always start from the audience. What that means is:

You’re not giving a presentation in a vacuum, you’re giving a presentation to a given audience.

Sound obvious, right?

And yet, that’s a very often overlooked fact. If you ask someone who’s about to give a presentation, he’ll probably tell you something like:

“I must prepare a presentation about artificial intelligence”.

Yeah, very often the speaker will mention his topic, but not his audience. Which can be overwhelming when you come to think about it, because after all, artificial intelligence is a very broad topic. This is a recipe for failure, if you ask me.

Now, what if he said:

“I must prepare a presentation for CEOs in the automobile industry, about artificial intelligence”.

Now that’s different! Because the speaker knows he will have to appeal to CEOs, and “artificial intelligence that appeals to the automobile industry” is a much narrower topic.

And it would be completely different again, had he said something like:

“I must prepare a presentation for elementary school children, about artificial intelligence”.

See how that’s different again? The speaker won’t prepare the same way in both cases, because even if the overall topic can interest both young children and CEOs, they are not interested in the same thing exactly. Young children might be a little more excited about real-world robots that behave like humans, and CEOs about how the most recent algorithms can be used to understand their customers a little better, or detect anomalies in the assembly lines.

… Unless You’re A Student

OK, now let’s get back to class. And now, be careful, it gets a bit tricky. Imagine you’re a student and you say:

“I must prepare a presentation for the class, about artificial intelligence”.

Who’s the audience there?

You might answer “pff, that’s easy, it’s the class, meaning, other students in my class”.

And you’d be wrong. Kind of.

Yes, of course your audience is the group of students, but don’t forget the most important audience member: your teacher. Yeah, you probably did it because he asked you to do it. And, believe it or not, he has a lot of expectations, and you better fulfill them:

  • The teacher wants to see if you can research and prepare about a topic.

  • He wants to see how comfortable you are speaking in front of your peers.

  • He wants to see if you can make a powerpoint slideshow.

  • He wants to see if you can respect a given alloted time.

  • He wants to see if you can respect the instructions he gave you beforehand.

And don’t underestimate the last point! Yes, sometimes your teacher will give you very specific instructions that don’t necessarily make sense from a pure practical point of view, but you’ll have to respect them anyway.

Do you want some real-world examples of inefficient instructions your teacher might want you to follow? OK, here’s a real-world list:

  • You should have one slide per minute, no more, no less. Since your presentation is 10 minutes long, you should have exactly 10 slides, including (or not, depending on the case) your title slide.

  • You must say the exact following words at the beginning of your talk: “hello, my name is Fabien Delorme and I’m going to talk about XYZ.” Sometimes, they will even insist on you telling something like “this is the outline of my presentation”, with a powerpoint slide titled “outline”, and will insist on you telling you’ll start with an introduction, then 2 or 3 parts, and then conclude with a conclusion. This is boring and inefficient, never do that in a professional context unless you want to put your audience to sleep, but tons of teachers want you to do it, so do it.

  • Your last slide must have a big “QUESTIONS?” written on it, and you should ask “and, now, do you have any questions?”

  • You should not read from your notes, even from time to time, and you shouldn’t learn your text word by word.

  • You shouldn’t let students interrupt you with questions during the presentation.

  • You should not use anything but powerpoint, or LaTeX (if you’re a computer science student), or Prezi (if your teacher hates powerpoint and loves prezi), or OpenOffice (if your teacher is a strong free software proponent), etc.

  • etc.

Now, most of these instructions actually make sense, in a way, even if they are suboptimal and will make you deliver (in my opinion) poor presentations. But that’s what your teacher asks you to do, so it’s not like you have a choice.

Yeah, that was the bad part. Now, let’s jump to the good news.

The Speaker

It’s Not About You…

My motto in public speaking is that it’s not about you. I told it in the previous part, usually your audience doesn’t care about you, they care about the information you deliver. So, by order of decreasing importance, a public speaking event consists in:

  1. The audience, those you are speaking to. It revolves around them.

  2. Your topic, what your audience wants to learn more about. It’s very important too, but your topic does not exist in a vacuum, you must adapt it to your audience.

  3. You, the speaker.

Yeah, you’re the least important part of the rhetorical triangle. Nobody actually cares about you. Which is a bad news for extraverts who love to be the center of attention, but a godsend for introverts who hate being in the spotlight. You’re just the messenger.

… Except When It Is

But it’s all different when you’re a student. Because, since you’re presenting to your teacher, the order becomes:

  1. You.

  2. Your topic.

  3. Your teacher.

Yep. You becomes the topic of interest, because your presentation is actually a pretext. Your teacher’s goal is to evaluate you. To judge you.

Sound scary, I know. But I have very good news: most of the time, your teacher wants you to suceed. Yes, we teachers know it’s hard to speak in public. Especially when you’re not used to it. Especially when you’re learning.

Because, you’re not a seasoned speaker. You’re just learning that skill. We know you won’t be perfect. We don’t expect perfection from you.

You can make mistakes.

You are actually expected to make mistakes.

The most often told public speaking advice is: to get better at public speaking, you must practice. And practice again. You can’t be good until you practiced enough, so your teacher knows you will be far from perfect. That should remove a lot of the pressure. And if it doesn’t, let me give you some more tips.

A successful student
Yay! She followed all of my advice, look how confident and successful she is!

Tips For Students

All that being said what should you do as a student to give the best presentation you can? Here are a few useful tips.

Don’t Try To Say Everything You Know

That’s a default a lot of presenters have, but it’s especially true with students.

You see, when you research a topic, in a first time you think you’ll never be able to talk about it for 20 minutes. And yet, after researching your topic, you’ll eventually gather a ton of information, much more than you need.

You’ll be tempted to cram everything you found, because finding so much data took a lot of time.

Don’t.

Instead, focus on the most important aspects of your topic. The more you try to say, the harder it is for your audience to make sense of everything you say.

This goes double if you’re making a presentation of your internship. You have done a lot of work, and of course you want to talk about everything you did. But most of the time, it will be easier to focus on a very specific aspect of what you did and keep everything else for eventual questions from the jury. Which brings me to…

Know More Than You Need

I told you not to have too much material for your presentation. Don’t take it to far, though. Don’t forget, most of the time, there will be a question session. If you just mention an aspect of your topic in your presentation but don’t talk about it anymore, you’ll probably be asked questions about it in the end. Isn’t that cool?

Now beware. If you’re defending a memoir or a thesis, you won’t be able to talk about everything in your presentation. But the jury members will have read it, so get ready to be asked question about it, even on aspects you didn’t mention in the presentation.

Tell Them You’re Anxious

That’s not something a seasoned speaker can do. But, as a student, you’re not an experienced speaker, remember? That means it’s perfectly OK for you to be a little anxious about speaking in front of all these people. And you know what’s the easiest way to deal with public speaking anxiety? You just have to tell your audience! Just tell them:

“OK, I’m a bit nervous about speaking to all of you, but I’ll do my best”.

Remember, barring a few exceptions all people in the audience want you to succeed. Either they are your teachers, and your job is to make sure you actually become good at public speaking, or they are other students who are, for most of them, as nervous as you are.

Rehearse, At Least 10 Times

Preparing the content of your presentation and making your powerpoint slideshow is not enough. Once you made your content, you must rehearse. And don’t overlook that part. The more you rehearse, the better. My advice is: repeat your presentation at least 10 times before you actually give it. Because, the more you rehearse, the more confident you will be when you actually need it.

I’ll insist one more time. Even if you feel ready after a few repetitions, just do it 10 times anyway. Because the actual presentation will actually be more stressful than you expected it. Which brings me to…

Respect The Deadline

You’re usually given a deadline. For instance, you must talk for 10 minutes, or for 20 minutes. Do your best to respect it, that’s very important. Teachers hate it when you take too long. Heck, you may even be interrupted if you go beyond the deadline. And it really sucks when it happens, because maybe you couldn’t deliver some important information you were about to mention. And then it’s all your fault.

On the other hand, beware: when we are under pressure (and a presentation puts a lot of pressure on your shoulders), we tend to speak faster than usual. That’s natural. Don’t be surprised if, during the repetitions, the presentation was 10 minutes long, but then it only takes 8 minutes when you’re in front of the jury.

The easiest way to deal with time issues is… to use a timer. Use your smartphone if you can. Some presentation software can also be configured to show a timer on your laptop while you speak. You can also you a clicker (a remote control that lets you click to go to the next slide); some of them include a timer. But the easiest solution is to use a wristwatch, if you have one.

OK, that’s it for today. If you want more tips, you can sign up to The Introverted Speaker’s mailing list by using the form below.