14 – Oral Communication
Pick the method of preparing for the talk that best suits your comfort level with public speaking, with your topic, with your discipline, and with the presentation context. Regardless of your method, plan to practice or rehearse beforehand. Some people assume that they can ad lib for the expected time frame and be relaxed or informal. It doesn’t often work that way—drawing a mental blank is the more common experience.
Here are some possibilities for preparation and delivery:
- Write a script and practice it; keep it around for quick reference during your talk.
- Set up an outline of your talk; practice with it and bring it for reference.
- Create cue cards, practice with them, and use them during your talk.
- Write a script and read from it (preferably not verbatim; instead, occasionally glance at it).
- Practice your presentation in front of a casual, supportive audience (e.g. a friend, mentor, or partner) and get feedback from them.
While most professionals are familiar with these oral presentation prep strategies, it’s still possible to draw a blank in the preliminary/brainstorming portion of composing your talk. To address this, technical and professional communication specialists can provide their organizations with a formal but adaptable template based on the rhetorical situation. Ideally, the organization can provide a training space, such as a workshop or seminar, where these specialists can walk through and coach others in their professional communities.
Table 14.8 offers suggestions on using the rhetorical situation to craft a presentation.
14.8. Using the rhetorical situation to create a talk.
|Who is your audience?
|Administrative group; city council; investors; elementary school children; protesters
|What is your purpose or message?
|Propose a solution; Inform audience about a new product; Instruct audience on how to do something; Request permission or favor; Call to action
|How much time is allotted for your presentation?
|30-minute meeting; 5 minutes at the start of class; 1-2 minutes in a line of speakers
|How does your ethos (or credibility) relate to the topic?
|Relevant credentials; Personal experience; Prior relationship with members of the audience
|What is the audience's attitude toward your topic?
|Receptive, neutral, hostile; Deeply invested, somewhat invested, disinterested; Familiar or unfamiliar
|Where will the presentation occur?
|Enclosed space like a board room or conference room; Open space such as playground or parking lot; Online video conferencing application, such as Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts
|What resources are available to supplement your presentation?
|Electronic technology such as stable computer or laptop, projector, microphone or megaphone; Non-electronic materials such as cue cards, white board or chalk board, print handouts
Each of these questions factor into making a decision about how to deliver your message, depending on the type of communication: formal speech, extemporaneous vs. scripted talk, project discussion, skills training, or other.
No matter the situation, there are universal elements to take into consideration.
What are the spoken languages at the event? Speaking to your audience means ensuring all people understand your message. Never assume all people in attendance speak the same language as you. If your first language is French, some members of the audience may speak Portuguese or communicate with American Sign Language (ASL). Learn as much as you can about your audience’s language systems and what jargon is appropriate to communicate effectively.
What are your audience’s expectations and needs regarding access to presentations? More specifically, what is the expected balance of visual information, written words, and spoken words in a presentation for your topic and audience? Certain audiences expect a person reading a script and using a slide deck to emphasize key points, while others expect more a walkthrough of major charts or visuals, while still others anticipate a more interactive presentation where the audience must participate. Knowing this information helps you decide how to present your material to best communicate with people in attendance. If you plan to use visual aids, textual components, or other materials, you must consider that audience members have a diverse means of accessibility to comprehend the information from your speech.
Though it seems obvious that an in-person speech is different from one given via digital platform like Zoom, the two share qualities to help the presenter reach their audience. The following tips address both in-person and digital speech delivery.
Dress the part. Appearances are important to match the content of the speech and the makeup of the audience. Never judge a book by its cover; however, the way you appear for a speech allows an audience to welcome or reject you. If you show up to a formal board meeting in a T-shirt and jeans to present a financial analysis report, your appearance informs the board members that you do not consider the presentation important or a serious matter. On the other hand, if you arrive to a high school classroom in formal dress attire to discuss future career opportunities in culinary arts, the audience may feel that your appearance is disconnected from the speech subject matter (though when we put both examples side by side, it is generally better to be overdressed than underdressed). When delivering a speech digitally in front of a camera, the same guidelines apply to considerations of clothing, hairstyling, and more. The way you deliver the speech and interact with the audience is influenced by how you physically prepare yourself.
Speak clearly. Depending on the venue, you may need to project so that everyone can comprehend your words. If using a microphone (in-person vs. digital), consider the distance from the device to maintain audible levels that are neither too low nor too high. A great way to connect with the audience is to ask them about the volume levels when you start the speech and to provide them a way to offer feedback during the talk if the volume changes (i.e., having someone point a finger up or down to indicate a need to talk louder or softer).
A scripted or formal speech. This mode may allow (or require) the chance to utilize notecards, a teleprompter, and/or memorization skills. Although resources are available, avoid simply reading information, since this hinders the important connection you make with your audience. Eye contact is necessary to engage with those in attendance. Pacing depends on time provided and using it wisely. An advantage for a prepared speech is practicing/rehearsing the material. Outline the various points of the talk to estimate how much time to spend on each segment, and factor in the possibility for audience questions and technical difficulties to develop a presentation that is not rushed to confuse the audience, nor presented at a snail’s pace to bore the audience.
An extemporaneous or impromptu speech. Occasionally, you may need to offer a quick presentation or update to a supervisor, client, or coworker. Perhaps you have encountered a potential client at a conference, or maybe your boss or peer has a looming deadline for a report they must write. You might even be asked to respond to an emergency or sudden development that affects your project. In these situations, you will not have the time to create a full script or even an outline. Without the aid of material resources such as slides or visuals, your focus must be directed toward presenting relevant and related content in a smooth manner to avoid straying from the purpose of the communication. Think of keywords that highlight your message in order to maintain consistency in the delivery of information as you navigate from one point to the next.
A guided discussion. In this mode, you are responsible for maintaining a relevant thread of content while people in attendance pose questions, provide information, and analyze the subject matter being covered. This is a facilitator role in which what you say is equally important to listening to foster a consistent discussion. Prior knowledge of the topic at hand and inquiries that may arise during the discussion help create a positive experience for the audience. Preparation for this mode includes brainstorming and preparing engaging questions and researching answers to audience queries that are likely to arise. Guided discussions may be enhanced by the use of visuals, such as questions, directions, or being projected on a screen.
No matter what mode of communication, preparation is the key to a successful delivery of information, as well as audience engagement and satisfaction. The presenter must make a series of decisions based on the rhetorical situation in order to craft a viable speech.
This text was derived from
McMurrey, David. Online Technical Writing. n.d. https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
University of Minnesota. Business Communication for Success. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing, 2015. https://open.lib.umn.edu/businesscommunication/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.