Oral Presentations

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Your Audience

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Think About Who You Are Talking To

Knowing your audience is an important first step in the process of creating an effective oral presentation. Where has your audience come from? Are they participating voluntarily or are they forced to listen to your speech? The former suggests a homogenous group which will already have an interest in your topic while the latter probably implies a more heterogeneous group which may be less appreciative of your material (See Cheryl Hamilton's Essentials of Public Speaking, page 81 for more details). How many people will be in the room? What are the seating arrangements in the room? What are the general expectations of the audience members? These questions will help you to determine what style of speech will be most appropriate.

Forming a Relationship with the Audience

Right from the start of your public speech, you will be forming a relationship with your audience. The way you position yourself in the room, the tone of voice you adopt, and the way that you interact with those in the room will all help to establish this relationship.

One of the best ways to get to know your audience is to ask them questions. You can find out what they already know about the the topic that you are about to speak on so that you can tailor your address to their needs. You might also find out some interesting information about their attitudes to the topic under consideration.

You need to be able to identify with your audience. One of the best persuasive rhetorical strategies is to make your listeners feel that they are just like you. Once you've established this rapport, it will be easier for them to identify with the arguments that you are presenting.

What Does Your Audience Already Know About You?

Reputation plays a major role in the establishment of a relationship with your audience. If your audience knows you it is already likely to have an opinion of you. If they have seen you give oral presentations before and they were impressed, they are likely to have high expectations of you, and your job is slightly easier. If, however, they have no knowledge of you whatsoever, you will have to work hard to establish your credentials. People who have bad reputations in other contexts often have to work incredibly hard to prove that they should be taken seriously in an oral presentation context. For example, the class clown who likes to fool around and make glib comments throughout the semester, will face a tough audience on oral presentation day.

Keep in mind the following questions about your audience when you are preparing your oral presentation:

  • How do you relate to your audience?
  • Do you have any points in common with your audience?
  • Do you have any points that are different from your audience?
  • How do you plan to overcome any points of difference and use the points in common to your advantage?
  • Are there any examples that you can use in your oral presentation which will give your audience a better insight into your position?
  • Will the audience members be able to identify with these examples?
  • Does your audience already know something about the things that you are discussing?
  • What does your audience need to know about the things that you are discussing? Why do they need to know these things? Are you presenting these things in the best possible way to meet your audience’s needs?
  • What is in the topic for your audience? Can you give them a really good reason for listening to you?
  • What will the audience be able to do with the information that you give to them?
  • Will your audience benefit from the things you have to say?
  • Why are you telling the audience this information in the first place?
  • Is your audience already interested in the topic? If so, how can you exploit this interest? If not, what can you do to give them an avenue into the topic so that they can be interested in it?

Being a Good Audience Member

When you are listening to one of your peers speak, there are certain social rules which dictate how you should behave. For instance, it is not polite to sit and look bored, to doodle on a notepad, to read a magazine, or to brazenly yawn. Think how distracting this would be if someone was doing it to you while you were trying to present a speech that you have worked hard to prepare. So what can you do to help your peers? Here are some tips for being a good audience member.

A Good Audience Member will:
  • Listen to what is being said;
  • Think about the issues being raised;
  • Think about whether you agree or disagree with the argument being presented;
  • Often the information being discussed will be beneficial to you in an exam context so it is always best to pay close attention;
  • Practice note-taking skills--in a workplace you will need to be able to synthesize ideas that have been presented to you aurally so this is a great time to get some experience;
  • Jot down some intelligent questions for the speaker;
  • Be prepared to enter into any discussion that takes place.


Audience Feedback

You can monitor the progress of your oral presentation by paying attention to the feedback that your audience is giving to you. Remember, speaking in public is not a unidirectional communication process. The audience participates in the process by responding in a variety of ways. Most of the messages sent by the audience will be of a visual nature. For example, facial expressions and posture. However, occasionally there will be an oral response such as laughter. Audience members who are looking at you, smiling, nodding, or taking notes, are telling you that they are interested in what you are saying and they are engaging with you on the topic. Those who are looking out the window, yawning, coughing, or doodling on a note pad, are telling you that you have failed to capture their attention.

Another form of immediate feedback that your audience gives you is applause at the end of your presentation. If there is spontaneous clapping the moment you finish, then your speech has probably gone quite well. If there is a delay, followed by polite applause, this is often an indication hat you didn't really get your major points across to your audience. These general rules of thumb, however, are not always accurate guides. Sometimes, a speaker can move an audience so profoundly that applause is delayed while the significance of what the speaker has said sinks in.

After your talk, make sure that you seek out feedback from your peers. Don't ask them simple questions like "did you like my presentation?" They will be sure to tell you "it was great". Be specific with the things you ask them.

Questions to Ask your Peers After Your Presentation:
  • Could you follow my argument?
  • Was my graph easy to interpret?
  • Could you hear me?
  • Was my body language distracting?
  • Did I stand in the best place in the room?
  • How can I do better next time?
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