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FOUN1008 - Public speaking and presentation skills

Aprille L. Thomas public speaking

I’ve been teaching FOUN1008 for a few years now, which is a foundation course at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus, centered around preparing students for all facets of business communications, from cover letter writing, to oral presentations, and pitching proposals.

It’s always a funny class because it’s open to all majors and most students feel like they don’t need communications — especially those doing finance or math related degrees. By the end of the class though, I’m usually able to strongly convince at least 1/3 of them, that if you can’t communicate your ideas in any field, you won’t be a successful artist, manager, or even self-employed hairstylist. The other 2/3 will learn on the job (hopefully not the hard way) that being an effective communicator is what will make you successful in every career, relationship, and area of your life.

Because there are so many videos out there about presentation and public speaking skills, I won’t add to the multitude. Instead, I’ll highlight the most common, avoidable, mistakes I see students make each semester, in hopes it can help future FOUN1008 students succeed. Since this class is really focused on teaching life skills, I welcome anyone who’s looking to enhance their public speaking and presentation skills to take advantage of these tips as well. Enjoy!

1. Not starting at the end

It may seem counter-intuitive, but even when I’m doing a presentation, I always think about what I want my listeners to take away at the end. It’s easy for someone to sit and listen to a presentation for 20 minutes and walk away feeling like “okay, what was that even about?” In fact, I’d bet most presentations end that way. But when you, the presenter, think about what you want your listener to remember after you’ve left the room, you will naturally frame your presentation to take you to that end point.

For example, if you want your listener to walk away believing that Krosfyah was the best soca band to come out of Barbados, you’re not going to spend the whole time talking about Gwen Stefani and the rise of pop music in America. No, you will find tons of examples, sample music, and reasons why Krosfyah was the best. Everything you say will point to your takeaway.

Remember, start at the end.

2. Not having a main point

This goes hand-in-hand with the first tip, and may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed how many students will do the practice run of the presentation and when I ask them to identify their main point, they confess that they don’t really know.

What’s the point? I promise you that if you don’t know what your point is, your listener won’t get it either.

Understanding your communications purpose— to inform, persuade, entertain (or any mix of these), is a critical starting point.

Then, consider what your problem statement is. What is the reason you’re giving a presentation? Are you lobbying for a new legislation to address inadequate public school funding (problem)? Are you asking for $500K to start a service animal training centre for the endless stray animals in your neighbourhood (problem)? Is everyone bored (problem) and you’re going on stage to entertain them?

Every single presentation you do will have a purpose, a problem you’re trying to solve. If not, it would just be a waste of time and breath. If you want to have a successful presentation, you need to ask yourself — what’s the point?

3. Not practicing

This is in no way unique to FOUN1008. We’ve heard the old adage that ‘practice makes perfect,’ and the later adaptation that ‘practice makes permanent’. However you choose to look at it, I can always tell the students who practiced in the mirror from those who are seeing their slides for the first time on presentation day.

You can’t convince me of anything if you yourself are trying to remember what you want to say. Immediately you lose credibility when you fumble through your presentation.

Practicing allows you to feel more comfortable and confident in your delivery and that always translates to your listener. Especially if you know that public speaking makes you nervous, spend at least 2-3 sessions in the mirror watching your facial expressions and gesticulations. Focus on your eyes and lips.

Record yourself on your cell phone and listen to it. Are you rushing to get to the end? Are you pausing for dramatic effect? Are you reiterating your main point?

The other bonus of practicing is that when you know your material like the back of your hand, even if you forget a line, you can ad lib because the key to any presentation is considering ‘what do I want them to remember?’

The takeaway

I like to practice what I preach and therefore I leave with you the reiteration of my main point: once you start at the end, have a strong main point, and practice, practice, practice, I promise that you will always have high scoring presentations.

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