TIPS ON TALKS
Richard M. Felder
Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering
North Carolina State
So you've got to give a formal talk in your class—a
presentation on a term project or in a laboratory or design course or a class
on public speaking. That can be a scary prospect if you're not used to doing
things like that. Everybody's nightmare is looking foolish in public, and a
public speech seems to most people like a perfect opportunity to do just that.
It really shouldn't be that frightening. Almost every day you have the
experience of talking when others are listening to you and you don't even think
about it—you just do it and it works out fine. There's something about
giving a SPEECH, though, that gets people into
a total panic. I'm not talking about feeling a bit nervous before the talk, you
understand: stage fright is perfectly normal and a little of it may even make
the talk better. (If you're too relaxed you could seem bored with your topic,
and speakers who sound bored lead to audiences who are bored.) If your
fear goes too far over the line, however, it can cut way down on your ability
There are a few things you can do to make your talk effective—and if you
know it's going to be a good talk, your pre-talk jitters are much more likely
to stay under control. Good speakers all learn these tricks sooner or later.
Sooner is better than later.
to your intended audience at their level. Avoid unnecessary jargon,
and also avoid material you know will be obvious or trivial to them. Be
persuasive—make your case.
- Include a clear introduction (motivate and
preview your talk), body, and summary (conclusions,
- Never present a large body of information without
summarizing the main points on a PowerPoint slide or a transparency.
Be aware that your audience can only absorb a small fraction of what they
hear and much more of what they can see.
- Use slides containing mostly short bulleted lists,
diagrams, charts, and bulleted lists. A picture is worth a lot more
than a thousand words. If possible, use presentation software (like
PowerPoint) to generate the slides. Avoid long complete sentences.
- Keep slides
uncluttered and non-cheesy (avoid flashy colors, random builds and
transitions, frequent sound effects). Contrast the writing and
background—light on dark is usually best for PowerPoint, vice versa
- Use a san serif font (such as Arial) and large type (at least 24 pt) for text in
slides. Serif fonts (such as Times New Roman, which this
document uses) is better for printed documents. DON’T USE ALL
CAPS—it’s not that easy to read, and it looks
- Skip (or at least minimize) the math.
Collections of equations are usually boring and/or incomprehensible in a
lecture. If you're talking about a mathematical model, focus on what it
does (predicts, correlates) and how well (or poorly) it works. If anyone
wants details of the math, they can ask for them later. (They won't.)
- Print PowerPoint files as handouts, 3 slides per
page. Put supplementary lecture notes next to slides, refer to them
- Plan a closing line. Even if you give a great
talk, ending it with "Um, I guess that's all I've got" or
"I think that's the last slide" will do nothing for your cause.
Say something like "That concludes my presentation—thank you
for your attention" or "I'll be happy to take questions now—thanks
for coming " or simply "Thank
- Rehearse several times and make sure the timing is
right. Try to come in at least two minutes under your target time for
the presentation. If you're running longer than that, find ways to cut it
professional. Dress appropriately, hands out of pockets, no slang,
- Never read word-for-word from a script. Very
few people have the skill to read directly from a prepared text without
putting their audience to sleep. Use the points on the slides to guide you
through the talk.
- Make frequent eye contact with people in every
part of the room. Don't just look at your notes or the screen or the
people directly in front of you.
- Try to sound interested in your subject. If
necessary, fake it. An obvious lack of interest on the part of the
speaker almost guarantees that the talk will not go well.
- Keep track of the time. If you see you're
running short or long, try to adjust the speed of your presentation to
- If you take questions, remember that "I'm
sorry—I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer.
Trying to bluff your way through a tough question is usually a losing
And that's all there is to it. These practices
may not make you the world's most spellbinding speaker, but they're bound to
make your talk much better than it would have been without them. They also may
not make speaking in public one of your favorite experiences, but they'll
probably make you feel better about it than you do now and every little bit
helps. Give them a try in your next presentation and see if they don't work for