A common assignment in technical writing courses—not to mention in the workplace—is to prepare and deliver an oral presentation. You might wonder what an oral report is doing in a writing class. Employers certainly look for coursework and experience in preparing written documents, but they also look for some experience in oral presentations as well. That's why the real name of courses like these ought to be "Introduction to Technical Communication."
The following was written for a standard face-to-face classroom setting. If you are taking the online version of technical writing, oral reports can be sent in as "scripts," or with the right equipment, audio versions can be transmitted live or recorded. In any case, students evaluate each other's oral reports by filling out a form like the one provided at the end of this chapter.
For additional information on oral presentations and public speaking in general, see:
- Effective Presentations. Part of an online tutorial series provided by Kansas University Medical Center.
For the oral report in a technical writing course, imagine that you are formally handing over your final written report to the people with whom you set up the hypothetical contract or agreement. For example, imagine that you had contracted with a software company to write its user guide. Once you had completed it, you'd have a meeting with chief officers to formally deliver the guide. You'd spend some time orienting them to the guide, showing them how it is organized and written, and discussing some of its highlights. Your goal is to get them aquainted with the guide and to prompt them for any concerns or questions. (Your class will gladly pretend to be whoever you tell them to be during your talk.)
As you can see, you shouldn't have to do any research to prepare for this assignment—just plan the details of your talk and get at least one visual ready. If you have a report topic that you'd prefer not to present orally, discuss other possibilities with your instructor. Here are some brainstorming possibilities in case you want to present something else:
- Purpose: One way to find a topic is to think about the purpose of your talk. Is it to instruct (for example, to explain how to run a text editing program on a computer), to persuade (to vote for or against a certain technically oriented bond issue), or simply to inform (to report on citizen participation in the new recycling program).
- Informative purpose: An oral report can be primarily informative. For example, as a member of a committee involved in a project to relocate the plant, your job might be to give an oral report on the condition of the building and grounds at one of the sites proposed for purchase. Or, you might be required to go before the city council and report on the success of the new city-sponsored recycling project.
- Instructional purpose: An oral report can be primarily instructional. Your task might be to train new employees to use certain equipment or to perform certain routine tasks.
- Persuasive purpose: An oral report can be primarily persuasive. You might want to convince members of local civic organizations to support a city-wide recycling program. You might appear before city council to persuade its members to reserve certain city-owned lands for park areas, softball and baseball parks, or community gardens.
- Topics: You can start by thinking of a technical subject, for example, solar panels, microprocessors, drip irrigation, or laser surgery. For your oral report, think of a subject you'd be interested in talking about, but find a reason why an audience would want to hear your oral report.
- Place or situation: You can find topics for oral reports or make more detailed plans for them by thinking about the place or the situation in which your oral report might naturally be given: at a neighborhood association? at the parent–teachers' association meeting? at a church meeting? at the gardening club? at a city council meeting? at a meeting of the board of directors or high-level executives of a company? Thinking about an oral report this way makes you focus on the audience, their reasons for listening to you, and their interests and background.
Contents and Requirements for the Oral Presentation
The focus for your oral presentation is clear, understandable presentation; well-organized, well-planned, well-timed discussion. You don't need to be Mr. or Ms. Slick-Operator—just present the essentials of what you have to say in a calm, organized, well-planned manner.
When you give your oral presentation, we'll all be listening for the same things. Use the following as a requirements list, as a way of focusing your preparations:
- Plan to explain to the class what the situation of your oral report is, who you are, and who they should imagine they are. Make sure that there is a clean break between this brief explanation and the beginning of your actual oral report.
- Make sure your oral report lasts no longer than the maximum stipulated by the event organizers or your instructor. If you are in a technical-writing class, ask your instructor to use signals to indicate when the maximum is approaching, has arrived, or has past.
- Pay special attention to the introduction to your talk:
- Indicate the purpose of your oral report
- give an overview of its contents
- find some way to interest the audience.
- Use at least one visual—preferably slides using presentation software (such as Powerpoint) or transparencies for the overhead projector. Flip charts and objects for display are okay. But avoid scribbling stuff on the chalkboard or whiteboard or relying strictly on handouts.
- Make sure you discuss key elements of your visuals. Don't just throw them up there and ignore them. Point out things about them; explain them to the audience.
- Plan to explain any technical aspect of your topic clearly and understandably. Don't race through complex, technical stuff—slow down and explain it carefully so that we understand it.
- Use "verbal headings"—by now, you've gotten used to using headings in your written work. There is a corollary in oral reports. With these, you give your audience a very clear signal you are moving from one topic or part of your talk to the next. (See the examples of verbal headings.)
- Plan your report in advance and practice it so that it is organized. Make sure that listeners know what you are talking about and why, which part of the talk you are in, and what's coming next. Overviews and verbal headings greatly contribute to this sense of organization.
- End with a real conclusion. People sometimes forget to plan how to end an oral report and end by just trailing off into a mumble. Remember that in conclusions, you can:
- summarize (go back over high points of what you've discussed)
- conclude (state some logical conclusion based on what you have presented)
- provide some last thought (end with some final interesting point but general enough not to require elaboration)
- or some combination of these three
- And certainly, you'll want to prompt the audience for questions and concerns.
- As mentioned above, be sure your oral report is carefully timed according to the maximum allowed. Some ideas on how to do this are presented in the next section.
Diagram of the oral presentation.
Preparing for the Oral Presentation
Pick the method of preparing for the talk that best suits your comfort level with public speaking and with your topic. However, do some sort of preparation or rehearsal—some people assume that they can just jump up there and ad lib for the expected time frame and be relaxed, informal. It doesn't often work that way—drawing a mental blank is the more common experience.
Here are the obvious possibilities for preparation and delivery:
- Write a script, practice it; keep it around for quick-reference during your talk.
- Set up an outline of your talk; practice with it, bring it for reference.
- Set up cue cards, practice with them, and use them during your talk.
- Write a script and read from it (preferably, occasionally glance at it).
Of course, the extemporaneous or impromptu methods are also out there for the brave and the adventurous. However, please bear in mind that up to 25 people will be listening to you—you owe them a good presentation, one that is clear, understandable, well-planned, organized, and on target with your purpose and audience.
It doesn't matter which method you use to prepare for the talk. Of course the head-down style of reading your report directly from a script has its problems. There is little or no eye contact or interaction with the audience. The delivery tends toward a dull monotone that either puts listeners off or is hard to understand.
For some reason, people tend to get nervous if they are new to oral presentations. Try to remember that your classmates and instructor are a very forgiving, supportive group. You don't have to be a slick entertainer—just be clear, organized, and understandable. The nerves will wear off someday, the more oral presenting you do.
Getting the Presentation Started: the Introduction
To get your presentation off to a good start, plan on doing the following:
- Introduce yourself and say a bit about yourself.
- Indicate the topic and purpose of your presentation.
- Find some brief way to indicate the importance of your topic—spark some interest.
- Provide a brief in-sentence list of what your presentation will cover; provide a roadmap.
Take a look at how these elements are handled in the following example:
Using Spoken Headings in a Presentation
Plan the spoken headings you will use in your presentation. These indicate you are moving from one subtopic to the next, or they announce a new subtopic. These are like verbal signposts that help your listeners maintain a sense of how your presentation is organized. This is exactly the same idea as presented in the chapter on headings in printed documents. Some speakers use a series of questions to indicate new subtopics. Take a look at the spoken headings (called "verbal" headings) in the following:
Delivering an Oral Presentation
When you give an oral report, focus on common problem areas such as these:
- Timing—Make sure you keep within the expected time limit. Anything way under is also a problem. Do some rehearsal, write a script, or find some other way to get the timing just right.
- Volume—Obviously, you must be sure to speak loud enough so that all of your audience can hear you. You might find some way to practice speaking a little louder in the days before the oral presentation.
- Pacing, speed—Sometimes, oral presentators who are a bit nervous talk too fast. All that adrenaline causes them to speed through their talk. That makes it hard for the audience to follow. In general, it helps listeners to understand you better if you speak a bit more slowly and deliberately than you do in normal conversation. Slow down, take it easy, be clear.
- Gestures and posture—Watch out for nervous hands flying all over the place. This too can be distracting—and a bit comical. At the same time, don't turn yourself into a mannikin. Plan to keep your hands clasped together or holding onto the podium and only occasionally making some gesture. As for posture, avoid slouching at the podium and leaning against the wall.
- Verbal crutches—Watch out for too much "uh," "you know," "okay" and other kinds of nervous verbal habits. Instead of saying "uh" or "you know" every three seconds, just don't say anything at all. In the days before your oral presentation, practice speaking without these verbal crutches. The silence that replaces them is not a bad thing—it gives listeners time to process what you are saying.
Planning and Preparing Visuals for Oral Presentations
Prepare at least one visual for this report. Here are some ideas for the "medium" to use for your visuals:
- Presentation software slides—Projecting images ("slides") using software such as Powerpoint has become the standard, even though maligned by some. One common problem with the construction of these slides is cramming too much information on individual slides. A quick search on terms like Powerpoint presentation will enable you to read about creating these slides and designing them intelligently. Of course, the room in which you use these slides has to have a computer projector.
- Transparencies for overhead projector—The overhead projector used with transparencies seems to have been relegated to antiquity—but not entirely. In this method, you design your visual on a sheet of blank paper, then photocopy it, and then get a transparency of it.
- Posterboard-size charts—Another possibility is to get some posterboard and draw and letter what you want your audience to see. Of course, it's not easy making charts look neat and professional.
- Handouts—You can run off copies of what you want your listeners to see and hand them out before or during your talk. This option is even less effective than the first two because you can't point to what you want your listeners to see and because handouts take listeners' attention away from you. Still, for certain visual needs, handouts are the only choice.
- Objects—If you need to demonstrate certain procedures, you may need to bring in actual physical objects. Rehearse what you are going to do with these objects; sometimes they can take up a lot more time than you expect.
Avoid just scribbling your visual on the chalkboard or whiteboard. Whatever you scribble can be neatly prepared and made into a presentation slide, transparency, or posterboard-size chart. Take some time to make your visuals look sharp and professional—do your best to ensure that they are legible to the entire audience.
As for the content of your visuals, consider these ideas:
- Drawing or diagram of key objects—If you describe or refer to any objects during your talk, try to get visuals of them so that you can point to different components or features.
- Tables, charts, graphs—If you discuss statistical data, present it in some form or table, chart, or graph. Many members of your audience may be less comfortable "hearing" such data as opposed to seeing it.
- Outline of your talk, report, or both—If you are at a loss for visuals to use in your oral presentation, or if your presentation is complex, have an outline of it that you can show at various points during your talk.
- Key terms and definitions—A good idea for visuals (especially when you can't think of any others) is to set up a two-column list of key terms you use during your oral presentation with their definitions in the second column.
- Key concepts or points—Similarly, you can list your key points and show them in visuals. (Outlines, key terms, and main points are all good, legitimate ways of incorporating visuals into oral presentations when you can't think of any others.)
During your actual oral report, make sure to discuss your visuals, refer to them, guide your listeners through the key points in your visuals. It's a big problem just to throw a visual up on the screen and never even refer to it.
I would appreciate your thoughts, reactions, criticism regarding this chapter: your response—David McMurrey.