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As an English teacher, my students often ask me, “Is my English good enough to give a presentation?”
This question makes me laugh. Why? Because I even get my beginners’ class to give presentations! Some of them give fantastic presentations on topics like ‘My House’ or ‘My Family’.
So, yes, your English is definitely good enough to give a presentation.
In fact, instead of worrying about your English, you should be looking at ways to make your presentations more interesting and more powerful.
Let’s see how we can do that.
Does presenting make you nervous? Maybe that’s a good thing!
Nearly everyone gets nervous when they have to give a presentation. It’s normal!
Mark Twain even famously said (about speaking in public):
“There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars”
But non-native speakers have extra things to worry about: What if I make an English mistake? What if people don’t understand me?
Let’s cut out all this worrying. If you make a mistake when you speak, that’s fine. Everyone makes mistakes, including native speakers.
You should, on the other hand, try to minimise the mistakes in your PowerPoint slides. After all, people will be staring at each one for a few minutes. I recommend asking a friend to help you proofread them.
But let’s focus on your vocal skills. After all, it’s your spoken words that people will remember more than your slides.
Although I said you shouldn’t worry about giving a presentation, it’s impossible not to be a little bit nervous. And that’s a good thing!
Wait… it’s good to be nervous? Yes, you read that correctly. When you’re nervous, you have more energy and your mind is more focused.
Convert that nervous energy to ‘positive’ energy, become excited about your topic and move around. Use gestures.
Think about a boring teacher you had at school. Wouldn’t they have been more interesting if they had some nervous energy?
What about my vocabulary? Should I use long words?
Many non-native speakers worry that their vocabulary is too simple.
The truth is that simple is good.
I prefer to listen to a presentation with simple vocabulary rather than the long-winded jargon used by professors and politicians.
Remember, we want to use precise words, not long words.
As an example, a word like ‘empathy’ is good. It’s precise and it’s easier than saying ‘understanding others’ feelings’.
But a phrase like ‘conceptualisation of developmental strategies’ is jargon and it will just annoy the audience.
Be aware of cultural differences when you present
Are there cultural differences when presenting? Yes, there are some that you should be aware of when presenting to an international audience.
1 Eye contact is good. Some cultures avoid eye contact, but eye contact with the audience is very important for an effective presentation.
2 Don’t point at people. In some cultures, it is okay to point your finger at people, but in other cultures, this is very rude! Point with the flat part of your hand instead.
3 Avoid offensive jokes. A joke that is accepted in your culture might not be accepted in others. Humour is great, but avoid topics like religion and politics, and certainly don’t make jokes that might be considered offensive to certain groups.
What if my presentation is online?
All of the tips we are going to cover are great for both online and offline presentations.
And when presenting online, remember that body language still matters. The purpose of using gestures is to show your excitement and energy about the topic.
Even if the audience can’t see you (for example, when you are presenting a slide), you should still use positive body language to show you are passionate about your topic.
In fact, these tips will work well even in situations that are not technically presentations; they are tips that will serve you well whenever you need to speak in English.
Practise makes perfect
The most effective way to practise is not ‘in the mirror’ as many might tell you, but in front of a video camera.
Record yourself. Play it back and see where you can improve. It’s also a good way to spot and get rid of distracting gestures, such as scratching your nose!
You could write out a script to help you. But you should consider this very carefully.
A script might help you to practise, but you should not use a script when you deliver your actual presentation. People don’t want to see you read from a script - they want to feel like you are speaking directly to them.
And don’t try to memorise a script either. Instead, speak from simple notes.
Remember that if you are using PowerPoint, the slides are your notes. Write them in point form, so that you don’t end up just reading from the slides.
Ten tips for a great presentation
Here are ten simple tips that you can use immediately to improve any presentation, online or in person.
1 Speak slowly
As I mentioned, when you are nervous, you have more energy. This can cause you to speak faster than normal.
Instead, use that extra energy to project your voice and use more gestures.
If you find yourself speaking too quickly, simply stop and take a breath between points. Take a sip of water if you have it.
You are familiar with punctuation in writing, but what about ‘spoken punctuation’?
Where you might write a comma, insert a short pause. Where you might write a full stop, insert a longer pause. Where you begin a new topic, insert an even longer break.
A good public speaker feels confident pausing for a long time, but it does take some practice.
3 Use sentence stress to highlight important words
You should also use something called sentence stress. Don’t worry! It’s simpler than it sounds.
It just means that you need to stress – make louder and longer – some words in a sentence. Which words? The important ones!
This is an excerpt from Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Try saying it slowly and stressing the words in bold:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
Try saying it a few times until you feel confident. Why not compare it to a professional?
4 Start with a hook
You want to start with a powerful opening. One way to do this is to use a ‘hook’.
What’s a hook? It is simply a statement – or picture, or video – that gets the audience to sit up and pay attention.
I like to use WHAT-IF statements to do this. A WHAT-IF statement challenges the audience to think about a certain scenario.
“What if I told you that you could retire before age 40?”
“What if you found out that you were adopted?”
“What if you had one insurance plan that could meet all of your needs?”
Another great lead in is “think of a time”.
Think of a time when you experienced terrible customer service. How did you feel?
Think of a time when you were overwhelmed by work. How did it affect your productivity?
5 Find ways to make it interesting
A hook makes the introduction interesting, but the rest of the presentation should be interesting too.
You can do this by sharing personal stories, telling jokes, highlighting interesting facts and quotes, showing images or videos or bringing something to show the audience.
Perhaps you've learned something interesting in the latest episode of English Learning for Curious Minds.
Check out how this fireman gives a talk in his firefighting outfit.
6 Make it interactive
Getting the audience to interact guarantees that your presentation will be fun.
The most common way to get audience interaction is to ask them questions.
But this isn’t the only way. You could give them puzzles or even ask them to discuss things in groups.
7 Use rhetorical questions
I mentioned that questions are a great way to make a presentation more interactive.
Let’s look at a certain kind of question: rhetorical questions.
A rhetorical question is simply a question that you ask without expecting an answer. Here’s an example.
Have you ever wondered what happens to the 800 kilograms of garbage that the average American produces per year?
When we ask a question like this, we don’t stop and wait for the audience members to answer. We simply ask it for rhetorical effect.
However, even though we don’t wait for the audience to give answers, each person will think about the answer in their own mind.
This means that rhetorical questions increase audience focus and interest.
8 Use signposting
Have you ever considered that a presentation is like an essay? There’s an introduction, a body and a conclusion.
When someone reads an essay, they know exactly where they are on the page. In fact, people also like to know “where they are” in a presentation.
To do this, we use a simple but effective technique called signposting. This just means signalling the structure of the presentation to the audience.
For a longer presentation, people like to have a preview of what’s to come. Note the language in bold, which you can use in your own presentations:
First, I’ll be discussing cryptocurrency basics. Then, I’ll move on to how blockchain works. Finally, I’ll cover the pros and cons of the most common cryptocurrencies.
It’s very important to show people when you are moving on to a new point and you can make this clear with signposting:
Okay, so we have learned cryptocurrency basics. The next important topic that I want to cover is blockchain…
9 Predict what the audience will ask
Answering questions from the audience can also be scary!
To prepare for this, write down a list of questions that you expect the audience might ask and prepare answers.
Some people like to answer questions anytime during the presentation (it’s more interactive). Others like to have a Q & A session at the end (it’s easier to manage your time).
You can make your preference clear to the audience at the beginning of your talk:
“Feel free to interrupt me if you have any questions.”
“I'll try to answer all of your questions in a Q and A session after the presentation.”
Occasionally, someone might ask you a question that you don’t know the answer to. This happens to all presenters, so don’t worry.
Simply ask the person for their email address or give them yours. You can find the answer later, after the presentation, and continue the discussion via email or chat group.
10 Get inspired
A great way to prepare for an upcoming presentation is to watch other people present.
TED.com can help you do this; it’s a website that offers thousands of short presentation videos that you can watch for free.
If you have, say, a big presentation to give on Monday, why not spend an hour or two on Sunday night watching TED talks to put you in the zone.
You can learn interesting techniques from Ted speakers and look for examples of the tips in this article.
Each Ted Talk comes with a transcript, so you can explore the language the speaker uses.
Take any opportunity to present
The tips here can help you to give a powerful presentation.
But you won’t become a good presenter just by reading about it. You have to do it!
Take every opportunity that you can to practise presenting. Volunteer when you get the chance, or join Toastmasters.
Only by stepping up to the challenge can you really improve.