Instructors may want to share this page with students as they are preparing for a presentation. What would they add to this list? What has their previous experience been? You may want to ask students to write a reflection on one or two items here that they have had strong positive or negative responses to, either as a presenter or as an audience member, in the past. You may also want to ask students to work together in class to build a collaborative rubric for assessing oral presentations (or class participation), after reviewing this list of criteria.

Guide to Oral/Signed Communication in Writing Classrooms


To reflect on past oral presentations and prepare for upcoming ones

Key Terms

oral presentations

Things to Think About Before Presentations:

Students may also benefit from viewing this series of YouTube videos by a former WR student on the skills of eye contact, posture, gestures, fluency, etc. for presentations, debates, or speeches.
PART 1: Elocution and General Concerns 
(adapted from Well Spoken by Erik Palmer, 2011)

  1. Audience
    • For this class, your audience is a group of intelligent adults interested in the course topic, but who do not necessarily know much about your specific project.
    • Other assignments in other classes might require you to gear your presentation to a very different type of audience. Consider this carefully as you prepare.
  2. Content
    • Check assignment guidelines to make sure you meet all requirements.
    • Choose to present material that YOU find interesting and engaging.
    • Clarify any terms or ideas your audience might need explained or introduced.
    • Connect your topic to your audience’s experiences and interests.
    • Exclude information that is not essential and avoid repetition and generalization.
  3. Organization
    • Grab attention with an opening that makes your audience want to learn more. Strategies include a challenge, a provocative question, a powerful quote, a surprising statistic, an unusual or unexpected fact, a poignant story, or a “teaser.”
    • Choose the best organizational strategy. Possibilities include chronological/sequential, problem & solution, compare and contrast, and topical.
    • Provide clear “signposts” to make it clear how you are transitioning to new ideas.
    • Give a powerful closing that quickly reviews major points and perhaps leaves listeners with a memorable thought, a call to action, or other engaging ending.
  4. Visual Aids
    • Use a minimum of visual aids–only ones that are a) relevant to the talk, b) important (in that they don’t just repeat what you say), c) accessible, both mentally and visually, and d) as simple as possible.
    • PowerPoint slides should make no sense without you; in other words, your audience should need you to explain what is on them.
  5. Poise
    • Despite very natural fears of speaking in public, try to appear calm and confident.
    • Do your best to identify and avoid nervous ticks and habits like playing with hair, adjusting clothing, rocking back and forth, continuously smiling or giggling, mangling notes, or saying “like,” “um,” or “uh.”
    • Choose a way to stand that feels comfortable for you.
    • Try to stand relatively still except for purposeful movement like gestures, crossing to a different location, and stepping forward or backward or side to side to emphasize points or transitions in your presentation.
    • Try not to slouch, whether standing or sitting down.
    • Don’t dwell on mistakes, which happen to everybody.
    • Some strategies to help you calm down and maintain poise include visualizing the room/audience and reviewing the speech in your mind, or taking three long breaths before you go up to present, and another after you’re in place.
  6. Voice
    • Speak loudly enough so that everyone can comfortably hear every word.
    • Enunciate (even over-enunciate if necessary) so each word can be heard.
    • Practice pronunciation (and possibly grammar) beforehand.
  7. Life
    • Demonstrate your enthusiasm by putting life into your voice.
    • Emphasize some words and phrases with emotion and volume.
  8. Eye Contact
    • Make near-continuous eye contact with your audience, surveying all individual faces as you speak in order to make people feel involved and also in order to see how they are responding. Use key words, not complete sentences, on notes.
    • Familiarize yourself with your material so that you are not too dependent on looking at your notes as you speak. However, unless you are reciting a memorized passage for an assignment, you shouldn’t feel the need to memorize every word of your speech and remember it perfectly. You should be able to discuss your points in a conversational style. Effective eye contact is often dependent on a skillful combination of “extemporaneity,” “leadership,” and “retrieval” (see terms below).
  9. Gestures
    • Use hands, body movement, and facial expressions to convey or emphasize points.
    • Match motion to your words by holding up fingers when counting, using gestures to describe sound or motion, or prompting your audience–saying, “Raise your hand” while raising hand or “Look…” while pointing.
  10. Speed
    • Practice so that you don’t speak too slowly or too quickly out of nervousness.
    • Use pacing to enhance your message–some parts should be faster or slower.
    • Use pauses as a powerful tool for emphasis and dramatic effect.

PART 2: Extemporaneity

  • Be familiar with material so that you can depart from your “script.”
  • When others are speaking, don’t just wait for your turn to say something; listen carefully to what others say–a good discussion or Q & A should not be a series of isolated points, but should instead grow as participants respond to, debate, and add on to previous responses. Your audience will be more engaged if you genuinely consider and address their thoughts and concerns.

PART 3: Leadership/Authority

  • You should be able to project in an oral or signed context the mastery you’ve achieved concerning the specific topic of your major research paper.
  • Consider not just your narrow project or argument but also more general background regarding your broader topic that your audience might not know.
  • Connect presentation to class concerns, and the interests of audience members.

PART 4: Retrieval

  • When it comes to perfect memorization, there is no substitute for time and practice. Get a friend to read along as you recite to correct any small errors.