Assessments at university are varied, but are generally a mixture of exams and coursework. Essays aren’t the only forms of coursework, so it’s wise to expect some form of assessed presentations during your degree. During my undergraduate history course, I only had two presentations. One was a group presentation of work completed during a public history module, and the other was linked to my dissertation. However, I took part in many group and solo presentations during seminars, and I found them a great way to build up my public speaking skills and learn from other people. If you’re nervous about this aspect of university learning, please know that you won’t be the only one, but it’s important that you give it a try! Whether it’s graded or not, getting up in front of your classmates to deliver your findings is part of sharing knowledge and being part of a collaborative working environment, so I’ve compiled a list of tips to help make things a bit easier.
Get some experience
The first months of university are a whirlwind, but after you find your feet (and some friends), I’d advise getting involved in work or activities that encourage you to contribute, and develop your presentation skills in this way. I became a student ambassador, which required me to give presentations about by life as a student to parents and prospective applicants. My work led a great training session which showed how to build an effective PowerPoint presentation, and encouraged us to deliver it as much as possible. I very vividly remember my first shot at my student life talk, and I can’t deny that I was nervous, but practice definitely does make perfect. Now, talking to large groups of people has become almost second nature to me, mostly due to presenting around once a week as part of my job.
Joining a society may be a good way to achieve similar results, such as debating or a business-related activity. There, you’ll meet like-minded people and be able to practice presenting or pitching your ideas in an informal space. Don’t be afraid to try out some taster sessions before you commit to anything! Volunteering at a school or museum is a fantastic way to get talking to people by delivering informal guided tours or answering questions. I promise that the more you put yourself out there, the easier class presentations will be.
Be well prepared
This may sound obvious, but it’s still worth mentioning because there’s definitely a tendency to overcomplicate presentations if you’re feeling the pressure. If you have to produce a PowerPoint, make your slides simple and easy to read, and don’t put everything that you’re going to say on your slides! PowerPoints should just be a visual guide for those watching, and a helpful tool to structure your speech around. Don’t bother with flashy graphics or interesting animations, you’re not in secondary school anymore.
If you’re part of a group, get together in plenty of time to plan your presentation and allocate everyone a role. Even if your allocated time is short, it should still be possible for everyone to say their piece. Review the PowerPoint before the presentation date to make sure that there are no grammatical errors, and everything is formatted in a style that is clear and cohesive. These steps literally take minutes, but can really help in making a good impression on presentation day.
If your contribution is more relaxed, make sure you have noted down the key things that you want to say ahead of time, and use them as a guide to structure your argument, book review or commentary on a certain topic. I often had to give short presentations like this, and they were mainly used by lecturers to make sure that everyone contributed to the discussion and encouraged people to actually do the reading. They weren’t stressful, and soon became a normal part of my university education.
Practice makes perfect
When a presentation counts towards your grade for a particular module, there’s more pressure to pull off a polished performance. Leaving yourself enough time to plan your content and practice your delivery will show lecturers that you have a genuine interest in doing well, so make sure that you factor this into your schedule. Start by reading the brief of what you need to include, and make note of any specifics, including how long your presentation needs to be, and whether you have to provide a handout. From there, decide what you’re going to include, and structure it in an order that will make the most sense to explain it. Create your presentation, then begin rehearsal.
Presenting like you’re reading from a script can appear wooden and over-rehearsed, which isn’t the point of the task. Learning how to present complex topics to academics is an important part of preparation for your future career, as you may need to pitch ideas to those outside of your workplace in an efficient way. Instead, have a general idea of what you need to say to fit the brief, then practice presenting your ideas within a given timeframe.
For example, I had ten minutes to present the research question for my undergraduate presentation, without the aid of a PowerPoint or handout. After checking the brief, I constructed a loose script which hit my main points in a specific order, while still allowing me room to improvise. This made my final performance informative, clear but also relaxed. I think that’s a happy medium that you should aspire to, so try not to get bogged down in formal or technical language that makes your presentation feel stilted.
One tip that I use consistently is to time and record the presentation as you deliver it. You will find that as you become more comfortable with the material you’ll tend to speed up, which may give you time to add in an extra point or elaborate on an existing one. Also, when listening back to the recording, you may find yourself stalling over a certain sentence, which will allow you to replace it with something easier to say next time. Evaluating your performance like this will allow you to experience your presentation from the lecturer’s point of view, so you can make necessary changes to enhance your delivery.
Find an audience
Whether you’re presenting solo or with a group, it’ll be useful to gain some feedback from an external party. Find a friend who’s happy to listen to your presentation, and try and deliver it the way you would if it was the real thing. Afterwards, have your friend tell you what they remember from the presentation, and if there were any points that seemed awkward or complicated. It may help to present to someone that knows your topic, especially if you’re unsure if you’re explaining it correctly. However, if you want some feedback on the delivery and engagement, a friend with no knowledge of your topic will be able to listen without worrying about the content.
In a group setting, it’s important that everyone has prepared their section, which can be more difficult than presenting solo. Have everyone agree on the length of their section (if your presentation is timed) and ask them to practice to get it within the required the required timeframe. Take time as a group to manage the logistics of switching between speakers, as well as operating the PowerPoint or any technology, to make sure it looks polished on the day. If someone’s delivery isn’t particularly well-rehearsed it will clearly stand out, which may affect you in a variety of ways. On one hand, a poor section of the presentation implies that your group hasn’t rehearsed enough, but can also imply that particular individual is responsible. Try and find a middle ground that you’re all happy with, and remember that not every presentation will be your finest moment.
Try your best
Now, if public speaking terrifies you, it’s time to be honest and proactive about your situation. Your school may have allowed you to miss presentations, or deliver them after school to a broader audience, but universities expect you to behave as adults and push out of your comfort zone where possible. There’s nothing wrong with approaching a lecturer to inform them about your nerves or anxiety, and in some situations (where there is a diagnosed medical need) there may be the opportunity to make alternative arrangements to allow you to present but remain comfortable. For informal presentations you’ll be expected to get up and join in though, so don’t expect to be babied. Even if you say a few sentences, it will show your lecturer that you’re committed to the seminar, and they’ll appreciate your contribution anyway.
In a group, remember that everyone has a different comfort level, so it may be very difficult for certain members to deliver a presentation to a standard that you expect. If you’re nervous, please tell your group and be honest in the first instance, as this will allow you to work together to accommodate your needs, such as tackling a shorter or easier to explain aspect of your presentation. If a member is struggling with delivery, work together to allow them to put together a script that works for them and allows them to remain involved. Having cue cards isn’t the end of the world, and lecturers would rather you refer to notes than not speak at all. Ultimately, it’s about honesty, so be proactive and find a situation that makes the whole experience easier for everyone.
Overall, presentations are a factor of education that aren’t going to disappear anytime soon, as they’re valuable ways of teaching students to express their ideas in a simple, clear way that is helpful for jobs later on in life. Regular exposure to these situations will drastically increase your confidence, so if something goes badly, don’t be afraid to ask for constructive feedback and some advice on doing better next time. I promise that you’ll get through them, and might discover that you actually enjoy yourself in the process!