Speaking clearly for presentations

Speaking at an appropriate speed, pronouncing key terms correctly, accurate word stress and natural intonation patterns will help you deliver a clear presentation.

Speed of speaking

People often talk quickly when they are nervous, and this can be a problem in presentations. A comfortable speed of talking for listeners is approximately 150 – 160 words per minute.

Identify a section of your talk which is about 150 words long, and make sure it takes you at least a minute to deliver it. Practise several times until you can lower your speed naturally to an appropriate rate.

Pronouncing key terms

Common terms in your discipline are important to your audience’s understanding, and you are likely to say these words many times during your talk. Practise these to ensure you get them right.

Difficult elements might include word stress, consonant and vowel sounds, groups of consonants (consonant clusters) and word endings, which may contain many consonants in varying order.

For example:

  • kstr in extraneous
  • spt in clasped versus -pst in lapsed

Your first step is to listen to the key terms. You can ask another student who is confident of the pronunciation to say the term for you, or listen to it in an online dictionary.

Word stress

Listen to the word stress: where is the stressed syllable? Is it the third, as in ed.u.cat.ion or the second, as in sta.tis.ti.cal?

Consonant clusters

There are many possible combinations of consonants in English. Look for groups of consonants:

/st/ as in statistical

/ts/ as in outsource or more difficult clusters such as tst as in outstanding.

Try saying the group of consonants on its own “tst…tst…tst” then inside the word “outstanding”.

See if you can do this with the following words: 
explain /kspl/
abstract /bstr/
transfer /nsf/

Chunking and pauses

Pausing in appropriate places between ‘chunks’ or groups of words makes it easier for listeners to follow what you are saying.

Where would you pause in the example below?

That is all I wanted to say so I would like to finish my presentation now and if you have any questions, I still have a few minutes to answer them.

Appropriate pauses could be as follows: (pauses are marked with /)

That is all / I wanted to say / so / I would like to finish my presentation now / and if you have any questions / I still have a few minutes to answer them.

Write out a small section of your talk, then insert marks for pauses. Practise chunking your speech into short sections with small pauses in between.

Intonation within ‘chunks’

The next step is to add the appropriate intonation to the small chunks in your talk. Every chunk, or phrase/clause will rise or fall in pitch.

If the information is not finished, the pitch will rise (↑). If it is finished, the pitch will fall (↓).

For example:

That is all (↑) / I wanted to say (↑)/ so (↑) / I would like to finish my presentation now (↓) / and if you have any questions (↑) / I still have a few minutes to answer them (↓).

Practising

While writing out sections of your talk can help you to practise your speed, pauses and intonation,  reading aloud from a script during your presentation tends to alter these natural features of speech and makes it more difficult for listeners to understand you.

You are more likely to maintain natural patterns of intonation and pausing if you write notes for yourself using only key terms and ideas, and just ‘speak naturally’ to present your talk in full sentences.

Final tip

Small grammatical errors will be less important than natural sounding intonation patterns, chunking and pauses. So practise delivering your presentation from notes rather than reading from a script, and don’t worry too much about minor grammatical issues.

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