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  1. Formulate a STRATEGY for the specific audience
  2. Develop a flexible, flowing STRUCTURE
  3. Combine prepared material with an enhancing, not distracting, presentation STYLE; it is important to remember that how you present is as important as what you present.
  4. SUPPLEMENT the presentation with confident, informed responses to questions and challenges


1. Strategy

  • Understand your purpose and role: It is critical to be clear about your purpose in the communication. This involves knowing your audience, the occasion, and the expectations of your audience. Knowing the audience will be a critical determinant in what information is presented and how it is presented.
  • Tailor your message to the audience - understand their needs, desires, knowledge level, and attitude toward your topic
  • Be concrete, specific, practical, and relevant
  • Clarify your objectives - is it to motivate? ... inform? ... persuade? ... teach? - each calls for a different approach
  • Clarify what role you will be performing - coach? advocate? teacher? be devil's advocate, watch dog, or messenger?
  • Develop a logically compelling case for your plan - how will it help resolve a pressing problem, advance a salient value, or help reach a common goal
  • Research your topic


2. Structure

Once you know what you want to say, you need to consolidate your materials into a meaningful message. Do not assume that the information will speak for itself. Your audience is capable of hearing your information in very different ways based on your organization and presentation.

The audience needs to have these basic questions answered:

  • Why should I pay attention to you when I can think about more interesting things?
  • Now that I am listening, why should I care about this issue?
  • I agree with the significance of the topic, but how are you justifying your ideas?
  • So, now that I am convinced, what do you want from me?

The following lists some points to think about when organizing your ideas:

  • begin by placing your topic in context; you might want to provide an outline or a road map
  • provide the intended, expected benefits, organization of the presentation, and ground rules
  • organize the body of the presentation logically - make it easy to follow - go from the simple to the complex
  • incorporate visual aids effectively - don't let mechanics of presentation interfere with your message
  • when appropriate, plan ways to encourage audience participation
  • maintain credibility: discuss the pros and cons
  • conclude on a "high note" - include an overall summary and proposed actions or options
  • prepare for contingencies –
    • practice your presentation and prepare for contingencies
    • rehearse
  • think about what might happen and prepare
    • What if the overhead bulb blows out?
    • What if the audience is more prepared than you expected?
    • What if there is an unexpected question?
    • What if a disruption is particularly obtrusive?
      You might relieve the tension with a joke or humorous comment (Use humor only in good taste – be careful with this one)


3. Style

Effective presenters recognize that communication is both intellectual and emotional. Organizing your ideas is part of the task. The other is to gain and maintain attention. The following lists some basic techniques to maintain attention:

  • Convey "controlled enthusiasm" for your subject - the audience will forgive a lot if the speaker is enthusiastic.
  • Pay attention to your posture – stand up straight, don't lean.
  • Your audience will mirror your attitude - radiate confidence without preaching
  • Develop an easy style – open and relaxed.
  • Don't confuse enthusiasm with loudness. No one wants to be yelled at.
  • Candidly discuss pros and cons – explain advantages first then present risks or challenges.
  • Be real. Robots may get the job done, but they’re not much fun to be around.
  • Show commitment to your message.
  • The best verbal style is your natural one.

Are You Distracting the Audience and Drawing Attention away from your Message?

When we want the audience to focus on what we have to say rather than on us, it is important to think about anything that might detract from our message. This can be a sensitive issue since some of these factors are personal or "part of who we are."

  • Regional accents or colloquialisms: If we are in an audience of people who share our "accent" no one will notice. However, if we are in a more general audience, our accent may make the audience focus on this rather than our message. This is not to say that you should abandon your ethnic or regional identity and individuality; however, you need to be aware of the impact of accents on audience. This can be done positively as the Kennedys have done; but more often these mannerisms tend to detract negatively. We don't have to all talk alike but we need to know how we are perceived.
  • Physical mannerisms: speakers who pace, pound the podium, jingle change in their pockets, or do other things can focus attention on themselves rather than the subject; sometimes this can be done for affect, but more often it is inadvertent and distracting.
  • Voice tone: Professional speakers generally emphasize the lower registers of their voices (both men and women) and avoid dramatic variations in the pitches of their voices. Occasionally this "rule" can be broken for affect.
  • clothing and jewelry: same as under regional accents
  • Keeping your audience's interest:
    • provide variety and relief if possible; novelty and uniqueness will increase the impact
    • use physical space and body movement to enhance your message
    • try to add stories, anecdotes, testimonials, analogies, demonstrations
    • use humor appropriately - make it in good taste. Determine if humor is relevant to the topic and appropriate for the particular audience.
    • presentations are movies not snapshots – prepare the space for movement
    • try to position yourself to enhance rapport with the audience
    • eye contact is your primary tool for establishing audience involvement; look at your audience in random rotating order
    • use gestures naturally; do what is natural to you: some gestures are always wrong, however – jingling change in a pocket, toying with notes, shifting from one foot to the other; any repeated gesture


4. Supplement: Questions and Challenges

Use of Questions

  • ask "friendly" questions - don't use questions to embarrass or badger; avoid known "sore spots"
  • avoid asking risky questions - that is, questions that may imply lack of knowledge or intelligence
  • make the interchange a mutually satisfying experience
    • give respondents time to think and phrase their answer
    • help people save face by summarizing what they have said so far and asking if anyone else has something to add
  • don't let respondent wander or attempt to take control of the presentation; a polite "thank you, that's what I was looking for" can get you back on track
  • if extensive audience discussion is desired, avoid isolated one-on-one dialogues with specific individuals
  • when challenged, be candid and firm but avoid over responding
  • maintain control of the session
  • be firm and assertive without being aggressive or defensive
  • don't let interruptions disrupt your composure
  • avoid circumstances that require an apology
  • anticipate questions and prepare responses; rehearse answers to difficult questions
  • if necessary, offer to obtain additional information and follow up
  • use questions to strengthen your main arguments-answer questions candidly but positively link objections to attractive features
  • avoid rhetorical questions - ask interesting questions that are thought provoking but not too difficult to answer
  • ask some open ended question with no right or wrong answers - encourage sharing experiences, feelings, opinions
  • put "you" elements into questions - make them relevant to the audience's personal experience
  • prepare key questions prior to the presentation; it is difficult to think of good questions on your feet

Guideline for Answering Questions

  • Anticipate Questions: think of the ten most likely questions and plan out your answer
  • Understand the Question: paraphrase it if necessary; repeat it if needed
  • Plan the Answer: particularly if you anticipated the question
  • Do Not Digress
  • Be Honest: if you can't answer the question, say so
  • Reinterpret Loaded Questions: if attacked try to show the similarity to other situations
  • Control Interchanges: if a questioner becomes a heckler try to enlist the audience; if a questioner digresses, try to remind the audience of the goal of the presentation
  • Use the Last Question to Summarize

Reference: Northeastern University, College of Business Administration. 2001. Making Effective Oral Presentations.

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