Editor's note: When teaching public speaking, Professor Charles Lebeau divides presentation into three aspects. The three aspects of a presentation are: the physical message, the visual message, and the story message. In our earlier article, (Improve Your Public Speaking With Body Language) we learned about one aspect of improving public speaking skills, the physical message. In this article, we will look at the visual and story messages.
English is the language of many international conferences. Sometimes a speaker might use a kind of “World English” that audience members do not understand. This can be true even for listeners who are native speakers of English.
For this reason, Professor Charles Lebeau says the visual message is important. The visual message includes pictures, charts and other aids a speaker presents during the talk. A non-native speaker of English can understand a picture. It can help carry the message when the presenter’s words are hard to understand.
“The visual message becomes a central part of the communication process because everyone can understand a graph; everyone can understand a flow chart; everyone can see the words on the slide.”
When you prepare a presentation, you might want to show how much you know about a subject. But does the audience care how much you know?
Listeners more likely want to understand the main point of your presentation. So how do you organize your talk to get that point across? Professor LeBeau says this can depend on the culture of your audience.
Cultural styles of presenting ideas
American language expert Robert Kaplan studied different cultural thought patterns in the mid-1960s. He helped English language teachers understand the differences between English rhetoric and that of Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Russian.
English speakers prefer a ‘linear’ style, which has one main idea. The speaker supports that idea with details or arguments, and then closes the talk by restating the idea. In other cultures, however, speakers may bring in other ideas before returning to the main point.
Charles LeBeau says some of his students prepare a speech without thinking of the main idea.
“Sometimes the bigger problem is the point that they want to make is not clear. They are not thinking clearly about, “What is the key point in my presentation? And how do I want to say that, where do I want to say it?”
For presentations in English, the best time to make that point is at the beginning. Speakers should make a plan to present their ideas in the order that is common in English rhetoric. When we write our ideas down without such a plan, they are not clear and our presentation will not be well organized.
“I think they prepare the presentation kind of as a stream of consciousness activity, then finally at the end of this process they figure out, oh, what do I want to say, what is the key point in this? And it ends up being at the end of the presentation.”
Professor LeBeau says he often sees the engineers he works with give a lot of technical information in their speeches. They want to tell everything they know. But the audience may have trouble understanding which information is related to the speaker’s main point. We can tell the story with facts and numbers, if they help, and then repeat the point.
“In an English language presentation, what we try and do is make it more linear. And by that, I mean, it’s more of a story - we use data, and we use evidence, we use numbers, but only to help us tell the story more clearly.”
Five tips for preparing your presentation
Preparing the story message helps speakers give a successful presentation. Professor LeBeau gives these five tips for academic presentations, such as those given at professional conferences.
1. Understand the difference between a title and a topic. A topic is general, but a title is more specific. Make sure the title explains the benefit of your subject.
2. Provide an image for those who are not experts in your subject. Explain how your research relates to other fields.
3. Work on transitions (linking words or phrases) as you go from image to image. These should make the connections between your ideas clear. Professor LeBeau says transitions serve as bridges to each new image.
4. Look at each image from the audience’s point of view. What questions might they have about each image? Prepare an extra image that would help explain the most difficult question you expect.
5. Rehearse your presentation with a timing device. At most conferences, there is a time limit. It is disrespectful to take more than your share of the time. Cut your presentation to fit the time you are permitted.
Professor LeBeau understands the difficulty many students of public speaking face.
“Learning a new culture for presentation is really, really tough for many people, as it is with all language learning. Presentation, or course, is a part of language learning. There’s culture in everything we do in English, as well as in presentation.”
Using these tips for improving your presentations in English should help make the process easier.
I’m Jill Robbins.
Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
The video below demonstrates an academic presentation. It is from the DVD accompanying Speaking of Speech Level 2.
Now it’s your turn. What techniques help you to give a good academic presentation?
Words in This Story
data - n. (plural) facts or information used usually to calculate, analyze, or plan something
academic – n. of or relating to schools and education
title – n. the name given to something to identify or describe it
topic – n. someone or something that people talk or write about
transitions - n. words that connect between parts of a composition or speech, such as first, second, third, in addition, furthermore, and so on.
rhetoric - n. the art or skill of speaking or writing formally and effectively especially as a way to persuade or influence people
stream of consciousness - n. the continuous series of thoughts that occur in someone's mind especially when they are expressed in writing as a constant flow of words