What do you mean I have to make eye contact?
December 6, 2010 11:02 PM   Subscribe

Presentation filter: How bad is reading, really?

I have to giving a final presentation with a partner for a class. I am in my first semester of an MLIS program and have not done *any* public speaking in, oh, 20 years. I feel prepared for my part of the talk, with a couple of good slides and interesting content. But what I have is essentially a script.

I have an iPad I can use for notes, so I won't be stuck behind the podium, but I worry that actually reading the script is going to come off as stiff, even though the content is pretty light and not too boring. But the idea of "winging it" from notes makes me nervous that what I say won't be as good as what I've written, that I won't hit my points, that the flow won't make sense without my scripted transitions. I'm also worried about talking too fast and in a non-natural tone (when I was practicing my 4-year-old asked me why I was talking funny).

So, how bad is it if I just read from my script, as slowly and with as much eye contact as I can manage? Deadly, or borderline acceptable in this context? The total length is about 12 minutes, if that makes a difference.

Any advise on how to loosen up a bit and still make sure the oral presentation is as good as what I've written?
posted by libraryhead to Education (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Please don't read. It'll be an insult to your audience's intelligence: you might as well give them a hand-out with the text of your presentation. There's no need to "wing it": you know exactly what you want to say and how to say it. Keep rehearsing up until the presentation, and you'll do fine.
posted by halogen at 11:15 PM on December 6, 2010 [7 favorites]

Rewrite your notes to only include the points you want to be certain to address. Then rehearse over and over again. Actually reading from scripts almost always comes across as stiff. It's best to just know the material in and out and speak naturally.
posted by girih knot at 11:17 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of the best things you can do in this situation is just to sit down with a friend not versed in the subject and say, "Hey, I'm doing a talk about X. Mind if I tell you about it?" Then just have a conversation about your topic. You'll find out this way what you do and don't remember, as well as what the most salient and useful points are. After doing this, you should be less reliant on notes.

If you absolutely must read, you need to adjust the content of your speech to take that into account. Treat it as a formal occasion; read it carefully and slowly, as though delivering an after-dinner speech or toast. Just build your speech with your reading style in mind, and you should at least manage to make your reading style something that can be overlooked.

Hope this helps! Good luck!
posted by LSK at 11:18 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Reading from a script makes it considerably harder to communicate effectively. That said, one of the reasons your 4 year old thinks you're talking funny is because you're using your presentation voice, not your mommy voice (or is it daddy voice?).

Any advise on how to loosen up a bit

Is it possible for you to memorize your script enough that you only have to glance at it, rather than read from it? You could format your notes to facilitate the glancing. A heavily marked up (in the sense of highlighting key transitions, e.g.) script can be a very useful tool to refer to.

Deadly, or borderline acceptable in this context?

Do you know how the instructor is going to be grading your presentation? How much of the grade is for how well you engage the audience? That would be a key indicator as to whether it is borderline acceptable or deadly.

Also, how engaging a reader are you? Some people read really well, and can hold an audience while they are doing so. This is rare. And you have to read MUCH MUCH slower than most people think you do. Like moving from a 45mph zone to a 25mph zone.
posted by bardophile at 11:21 PM on December 6, 2010

I'll bet that the reason giving a presentation is part of the class is so that people can learn to get better at giving presentations. Reading from a script because you are nervous about giving a presentation defeats the purpose of giving it in the first place.
posted by Marty Marx at 11:23 PM on December 6, 2010

I was always *terrified* to toss my script and rely on an outline, even when I knew my topic inside-out. So, for months and months until I became comfortable winging it, I used an "unscript."

The problem with reading a presentation isn't always the fact that you're reading...usually the problem is the way you read. Most people when reading aloud are stilted, they use words and sentence constructions that look good on paper but sound forced when read, and they use sentences that are way too long for oral communication. So I started with a typical script and recorded myself and worked it over again and again so that it read like something spoken. It would've looked terrible as an essay but sounded nearly natural when read. I used simpler language, short sentences, and special punctuation to remind myself to look at the audience, pause, etc. That amount of practice also helps you learn your material making it less likely you'll need your script in the first place.

Alternatively, you can divide your paper into two columns with a full script on one side and the bullet points corresponding to each paragraph on the other. It's like training wheels: hopefully you'll get by with just the billeted items, but in case you stumble the script is close at hand and easy to find your place in, due to the layout.

The problem with simply memorizing is that if you get nervous and forget one segment, it's hard to get back on track and can screw up the whole flow.
posted by Pomo at 11:36 PM on December 6, 2010 [8 favorites]

I strongly second Pomo's advice. What's worked for me is writing out a script like it was an essay, then say it out loud and make adjustments to make it sound organic. Then when you do the presentation, work from an outline.

I disagree with the posters above that a script is wrong per se. Good public speakers use scripts; they just make it sound like they don't, which is what makes them good. Better to have a script than be fumbling around with what you want to say.
posted by auto-correct at 11:47 PM on December 6, 2010

If you have a powerpoint behind you, you can include the main points both for your audience and yourself. Then you can talk naturally about the material without reading the slide word for word and not worry you'll forget something.

When I teach, and I have extra details I worry I'll forget, I do have brief notes, but they're more phrases on a sheet of paper I can refer to if I'm at a loss, and if I need to use them, I can usually look down at it while still talking and incorporate it into my discussion.

At the same time, it was a lot harder at the beginning of the semester when I first started teaching, and feels natural now. I think its one of those things that become easier with practice. Luckily, most audiences know how stressful giving a presentation is, and have enough stage fright of their own to be empathetic audiences.
posted by gilsonal at 11:56 PM on December 6, 2010

It depends on the field. Presentations in literary fields are a lot more scripted than presentations in the sciences. I don't know what the standard for MLIS is. You're probably going to have to ask someone that you respect.

My field (math) is very much a "winging it" field. If "winging it" is the standard in your field, then the method I use is to make my slides have some interesting object on them: A photograph, a diagram, and animation, etc. Anything that's not prose, definitely not equations, and preferably not bullet points. My presentation is talking about the object. I describe what I've put up, why I've put it up, and what I want people to understand from it. In doing that, the presentation generates itself in a reasonably robust way. As long as I know why I put an object in my presentation, I have something to talk about, and cutting out as much text as possible means that what I have to talk about is more likely to be interesting.

If a (fictionally unscripted) script is the standard in your field (business comes to mind as an example of this), then the above posters are correct. There's a huge gap between written english and spoken english, and it's probably a good idea to make sure that your script is in a spoken english style.

There are also fields in which the presentation standard is to read from a paper (literature). If this is the case in MLIS, then a fully formal script is expected. Many spoken presentations in literary fields are given in written english style. Not my cup of tea, but that's what many of them do.

Summary: ask your instructor what the sub-cultural standards for presentations in MLIS are.
posted by yeolcoatl at 12:17 AM on December 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

I mostly use a script, but I write it the way I speak and not the way I write. I also practise it a lot anyway. It doesn't come over as badly read. You will be ok if you decide to read.
posted by plonkee at 12:33 AM on December 7, 2010

The problem I've noticed with reading a presentation is that a lot of people read in a monotonous, halting way which is agonizing to listen to, especially when you factor in the inevitable tripping over words and getting lost on the page. If you read very smoothly and have a foolproof method for not losing your place every time you look up to make eye contact, you'll probably get by with reading, though instructors never consider it ideal.

I've found that when you know your topic well, it isn't that hard to just talk about it, with a set of bullet-pointed notes to keep yourself on track. (Not a slide to share... just a sheet of notes for your own reference.) It's probably ok if you don't hit every single point you thought you wanted to make, sometimes your talk goes in a little different direction than you planned, which is fine... being so engaged in your topic that points occur to you on the fly make you sound natural, knowledgeable and more interesting to listen to.

(This is where bullet-point slides can work against you... if your bullet point is up there for people to read, you pretty much have to talk about it, and trying to make sure you don't skip any can mess up your flow a bit.)

One thing that helped me was having a couple of props to talk about. It sort of broke up my monologue and gave me something to focus on besides my notes.

As for lessening your nervousness, what helped me was realizing that I am not afraid of talking in class on any normal day... I speak out in class all the time when I am sitting in my seat. So I try to think of my presentation as just talking to my teacher and classmates like I do any other time. Of course if you tend to be a quiet mouse in class this tip won't help you... I tried to share that one with my husband and he told me he never ever spoke up in class unless the instructor specifically singled him out.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 12:44 AM on December 7, 2010

Even if you do read the whole thing from prepared text -- take your eyes off the page and look at your audience.

Two key things which people don't realise:
  • how easy it is to take their eyes off the text then come back to it
  • how much of a block of text you can build up in your brain and remember after you've taken your eyes off the page
People think they have to keep their eyes locked onto the text or they'll lose their place. It's almost an irrational fear when you think about it. How long would it take you to locate a particular line on an A4 piece of paper? About the time it takes you to say "uh...".

So, you start reading aloud while following the text, and your brain can scan ahead and build up a buffer of text which your voice can read out a bit later. In the gap between the two, you take your eyes off the page and look at your audience. That, plus the fact that nobody minds a small gap in reading aloud, means it will all be very natural once you stop being scared of losing your place.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:12 AM on December 7, 2010

Think about your presentation in terms of what the audience can get out of it. Tell them at the start what they are going to get out of it - why what you are telling them is interesting and what they could use it for. You say the content is not too boring - make it explicit to your audience about why this talk will be relevant and useful to them (and deliver on this!). Always, always think about your audience and for every point, think about why you want to tell them that.

Powerpoint slides should add to what you are saying. Things like graphics, or relevant photographs or examples are good - basically what yeolcoatl is saying above. This may mean you need to create something to do with your presentation - this is good, it shows that you have thought about your audience and are not just reading from a paper that they could have read themselves.
posted by AnnaRat at 3:20 AM on December 7, 2010

Yeah, try your best not to just read it.

Also, this may sound obvious, but I print my presentation notes in a large enough font that I can read them easily from a bit of a distance (2 feet instead of 1). I sometimes put my bullet points in the biggest font, but put the entire corresponding sentence in regular font below it. That way if I lose my place using the bullets, I can always fall back on the full script.
posted by semacd at 3:40 AM on December 7, 2010

Just the other day I sat through fourteen 12 minute presentations for school, and I noticed a few things. The people who seemed the most deathly nervous, and who stumbled over their words to the point that I couldn't extract any actual information from their presentation, were the ones who were reading from a script. The ones who had note cards with bullet points and who had rehearsed what they were going to say seemed much more natural and comfortable, and most importantly, it was easy to follow along with what they were saying. I can almost guarantee this is what you will observe in other groups on the day of your presentation.

You just won't seem professional or competent if you are reading from a script--and you wont be able to hide the fact that you're reading, even if you try to make eye contact with the audience and so on. Just make some bullet points and rehearse until you're really comfortable with the material. It's ok to get nervous before you present, but the #1 thing you can do to counteract this is to know your stuff and be prepared!
posted by tetralix at 4:55 AM on December 7, 2010

I do a lot of presentations these days, and I find that the trick is a) to have "brief" notes as a psychological backup if you need them (if you are using PowerPoint or similar visuals, the slides serve the main function -- to remind you of what comes next) and b) practice the whole thing, with all performers, at least 3 times through completely. For me, the practice lets my mouth keep saying what it should when my brain loses track (which it will in anything over 10 minutes; I know my brain) -- so the presentation goes on while I remember where I am and what I am supposed to be doing.

For class presenting, it's worth remembering that it is pretty unlikely that anyone in your audience will know more than you do on your topic -- the chances of getting challenged are pretty low, and the audience is generally pretty sympathetic.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:38 AM on December 7, 2010

Try to keep in mind that the audience wants to like you - all you have to do is give them something to like, so yes, you can have your script (security blanket!) but you should be well versed on it and make it sound fresh.

Good luck, and as someone who felt the same way when I was in library school I promise you it gets easier!
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:55 AM on December 7, 2010

Oh, and practice it out loud at least 4 times and you'll be fine.
posted by cestmoi15 at 6:03 AM on December 7, 2010

Yep, know your key points that you have to hit. Don't read.

My key tactic is: If you have something that's particularly complex that you are worried about explaining correctly or succinctly, then memorize the lead-in comment that you're going to make about that slide. That way you will be on a roll as you start explaining whatever point you're going to hit.

Have notes as a last resort, but only a skeleton.

So basically talk your talk, with some sections that are rote-learned. That will give you a little security blanket and help you wallpaper over any difficult transitions.
posted by gaspode at 6:27 AM on December 7, 2010

I worry that actually reading the script is going to come off as stiff, even though the content is pretty light and not too boring. But the idea of "winging it" from notes makes me nervous that what I say won't be as good as what I've written

There's a large gulf between reading a script and winging it. What you need is to not read, but to have a page of notes that contains all of the "must say" details. So have a top-level bullet for each topic/slide. Optionally, include a 1-2 sentence transition to that topic if the transition to that topic is difficult to explain, but don't rely on reading every transition. Then follow up with a bulleted list of everything you have to cover for that topic/slide. This prevents you from reading a script, but you don't have to worry that you'll miss something - you can always glance at the list, and it's not unprofessional to glance at your notes and say "Also, xyz."

Oh, and practice it out loud at least 4 times and you'll be fine.

This. This is the second half of your solution. Practice out loud, to yourself first, so your brain processes the same thoughts, words, and phrases several times. After just a few run-throughs you'll be much improved and while you may not have the whole thing memorized, you'll be able to anticipate your next sentence and put it together in a way that is a) not stilted and b) sounds like you know your topic.
posted by Tehhund at 7:21 AM on December 7, 2010

Having to listen to people read their presentations at conferences is interminable. What helped me in these situations:

1. I took Library Instruction during my MLIS, which made me...

2. Practice! We had to give weekly speeches. Then I got a job as an instruction librarian, where I realized...

3. The crowd is on your side, not against you. They want you to succeed. They are interested in what you have to say. They will not boo or hiss at you.

You are definitely not alone in your fear. And it's kind of a cliche, but it's true: practice is the best way to overcome this. I went from having minor panic attacks during speeches when I was an undergrad, to having no problem winging it in front of large classrooms. You can do it, too! :)
posted by sugarbomb at 7:34 AM on December 7, 2010

Here is my advice:
  • It's okay to bring notes with you. In fact, I recommend it.
  • It's a lot less okay to bring a script with you.
  • It's even less okay to replicate that script verbatim on a slide or handout. NEVER READ FROM YOUR SLIDES. EVER.
Edward Tufte, the world's most eminent Powerpoint hater does in fact use slides during his presentation (using Apple's Keynote. If you have a mac, you should be using it instead of PPT -- it's better in every way). Slides are great for showing images, some charts, quotations, and picking apart complicated equations. When there's nothing to show, and the talk is able to stand on its own, Tufte inserts a black slide. Your audience is there to hear you speak; not to look at your slides.

If you've got a really good reason to outline your speaking points for your audience, you can do that on the slides too. However, Tufte wisely recommends a printed handout for this purpose instead. Similarly, tabular data has no place in a powerpoint. Once you've blown the font size up large enough to be legible, there's not enough room on a powerpoint slide to display a useful amount of tabular information. Tufte wisely observes that a 11x17 page folded in half can hold about 100x as much information as an entire PPT presentation. Don't overload, but you would do well to use this to your advantage.

Your notecards should only contain a skeletal outline of your talk, and "things not to forget to mention." You should be familiar enough with your content to speak on any bullet point for at least a minute, field questions, or delve deeper into a topic that the audience seemed to react well to. If you can "read" your audience, this also allows you to speed through parts that they're finding to be boring.

Stagefright is real, and it can be easy to completely forget a part of your talk. Notecards are enough of a crutch for me to make sure that I include everything that I was supposed to. If I feel like I'm approaching an awkward silence, I look down at the card, and start talking about my next bullet point.

As others have mentioned, your audience wants you to succeed, and they want your talk to be interesting. They are not working against you, and are not to be feared. If you give a damn about your presentation, they will react well to it. The presentation doesn't need to be a "lecture" either. I'm sure you'll notice that the best lecturers and presenters make their presentations look like conversations. Even though you're not talking back to him, when I watch Steve Jobs speak at a Keynote, I feel like he's making an effort to talk to me, rather than the crowd. Don't go too informal (no slang!), but also remember that you're presenting to a room full of students, and not the Queen.

At risk of sounding like a self-help speaker: I'm incredibly shy, have more than my fair share of social anxiety, and never had particularly good study skills. However, I've won awards for my presentations, and aced virtually every single verbal presentation I gave in college, despite being somewhat less than an 'A' student. As long as you construct your presentation from the audience's perspective, tell them what they want to hear, and seriously give a damn about what you're talking about, you'll do great.
posted by schmod at 8:19 AM on December 7, 2010

Thanks for all the advice, everyone. I'm starting to feel more confident, and trying to distill my script into notes. Is 45 note cards too many? Will I look like a nut if I'm up there shuffling cards every 15 seconds?
posted by libraryhead at 9:15 AM on December 7, 2010

Pomo's got the right idea...if you speak the way you write you sound awkward, but if you write the way you speak you sound stupid. So if you do have to use a script, it should sound like speaking not writing.

And practice practice practice!
posted by radioamy at 9:15 AM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is 45 note cards too many?

Yes. In debate, we teach kids to make 8 minute speeches from a single 3X5 card. Some kids use 3. In your case, I would recommend using one per major idea and that is all. So, if this were a paper, one for each section, not one for each paragraph.

If you have too many notecards, you're almost certain to get them out of order at some point in your presentation.
posted by bardophile at 9:25 AM on December 7, 2010

There are two ways to go that work for me. One is having brief notes with bullet-points to jog my memory, the other is having a full script that I learn and rehearse in the same way that an actor would. In the latter case you can have the script handy, with some phrases highlighted, like they're bullet points, but the script is no more than a prompt if you need a reminder, not something to read from.

In either case, the key is to practice. Practice with other people or on your own. Practice as many times as you need to. A useful trick is to practice in front of a mirror. That way you've got someone to look at and talk to instead of having your eyes drawn to the papers. Time your practice runs, and adjust your material accordingly. Do at least one full rehearsal as close to the "live" conditions as possible. i.e. Get some of your friends to be the audience, do it in the actual room you'll use if you get the chance, etc.

Btw, the bullet point method is the normal one. The script method is more if you're going to be doing the same talk over and over again, or it's a really big occasion and all the nuances matter.
posted by philipy at 10:42 AM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

The best thing about library school was all the public speaking practice. Not only is the audience on your side, they're "safe". Yes you're getting marked on your presentation, but the mark is as much about the content as the form.

Notecards, rehearsing, all that stuff is important, and it will help you give this first talk much more confidently, but you are going to be giving at least one talk like this in every course you take, so you're going to get a LOT of practice, and that's what makes it easier.

It gets hard again when you graduate and get a real job where you have to present to 400 engineering undergrads with your boss watching from the back of the hall. Oh wait, no. That was just me.
posted by djfiander at 12:24 PM on December 7, 2010

Yep, to expand a bit on MLIS specific responses:

You will need to have this skill (confident public speaking that does not involve reading from notes) as part of the job and now is a great time to acquire it.

Whether you do instruction for engineers (my problem students were compsci majors, djfiander!) or to a group of ESL adults studying citizenship or to an ALA committee on RDA, you're likely be giving lots of speeches. Sometimes, you won't have any notice beforehand and that would be a terrible time to realize you're inexperienced at extemporaneous speeches/talks.

In fact, confident public speakers are more likely to do well in job interviews in this field (I've had two successful offers which specifically mentioned my confident speaking skills in interviews and I'm sure I'm not the only one out there) so it's an essential skill even before the job starts.

Finally, this is a skill that will delight your professors and peers once you've mastered it. You will likely have to do some form of public speaking to acquire your degree (a thesis defense, a portfolio with a talk, whatever) and you will REALLY appreciate the skill at that point. I had to give a defense for graduation requirements and one of the reviewers raved about my public speaking skills ('best student I've seen in twenty years' from a crotchety professor who never praised anyone) and then not very politely dissed my content. I passed, thanks to speaking skills that had nothing to do with the research!

So, now's a great time to stop reading and start speaking naturally. Don't, for the love of your classmates, memorize every word in your speech and do be prepared to be able to skip around and go back to a key point you may have forgotten. 45 note cards is a terrible idea (you'll just be reading the cards instead of the powerpoint) but say, three to five is just fine. The end goal is to sound as natural and comfortable as possible--and it will potentially have much more impact than this one class, all the way into your career.
posted by librarylis at 11:18 PM on December 7, 2010

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