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Teaching Presentation Skills: Are we really helping our students?

“Make eye contact with the audience. Use strong gestures to reinforce your points. Give a clear self-introduction to start.”


 Hmmm, really?


I wonder if we are teaching presentation techniques that are unsuited to our students’ needs and purposes. I also wonder if we are often teaching presentation techniques that are outdated or irrelevant.


Why should you listen to me about this topic? Well, I’ve done hundreds upon hundreds of conference presentations and I’m pretty comfortable with them. I’ve also been teaching these skills for about 20 years… and gradually realized that some of what I was teaching to my Japanese students initially was actually unhelpful and had backfired. I’ve researched — in considerable detail — the norms and standards of academic presentations in Asia. I regularly get invited to conduct workshops and seminars on developing presentation skills. I’ve written a few papers and a book (学会発表のためのサバイバル英語術) on the topic that has generated some positive buzz:




Ever seen a TED presentation? Wonderful, aren’t they? The speakers are charismatic figures, well-known to their audiences, have up to an hour to present, a vast stage upon which to move while visual displays are perfectly manipulated for maximum impact, aided by an impressive array of real-time visual/electronic support from professionals. The presenters are all also native or near-native English speakers.




Are your students? Mine neither.


“There are cultural and environmental norms to consider”


Why then use TED as a presentation model, as so many do? Even if this level of performance were attainable by our students, it somehow wouldn’t come off right doing a bigass TED-style prezzy in a 15-minute parallel session at the Korean International Conference on New Directions in Orthopaedic Post-Op Treatments:

Hey Dae-Sung, get a load of that Japanese dude on the podium. Thinks he’s freakin’ Steve Jobs. Hey buddy, this isn’t American Idol! What’s next? Dry ice and dancing girls!?’


Yes, not every speaking environment calls for a Hollywood grandiosity or the formal gravity of a White House speech. There are cultural and environmental norms (national and academic) to consider. For one thing, most of our students will not be doing persuasive debate-style presentations. If they present at a conference, will likely be presenting in parallel sessions where:


1) Everybody is focused upon the screen, not the speaker. So that ‘all-important’ eye contact and grand gesture advice, gleaned from self-help guides or memories of high school public speaking classes, is just wasted.


med conf pres


2) The area for movement is extremely limited and very often the speaker will have to manipulate the computer and/or be expected to remain behind or near the speaker’s podium. I do though urge my students to at least shift weight and head/torso direction once every few minutes or so, if only to reduce physical tension – otherwise they might end up sounding/looking like that iconic North Korean news announcer. Too much movement though and they will start walking into the projector beam and end up with Times New Roman stamped all over their foreheads.


3) They will have 8-20 minutes to speak, with the expectation that they will be giving specialized, mostly informative, content to an equally specialized audience.


So, what does this mean?


1. Cut that self-introduction out. Your name, title and affiliation is on the title slide, right? And it was likely just read out loud by the session chairperson. Even more, it will be listed in the program and on the wall/door outside the presentation room. Nobody needs to hear you repeat yet again what everyone already knows. Get into that research content already!


2. Don’t start with jokes or little anecdotes. That would be fine, even preferred, if you are a keynote or plenary speaker, a ‘personality’ in the field with a 50 minute speech time-limit, but it’s not ok for Hiroshi Q. Parallelspeaker.


3. You might want to drop that outline slide where you read the same items on the screen, typically, “I’ll start with some background information, then move to my methods, then results…” Your peers know the scientific/research method order and your session is only 12 minutes anyway.



I’ve seen ineffective presenters use half of that time up just getting through their self-intro and outline, while the bulk of their key research discussion and conclusion points get squeezed into a hurried final two or three minutes. Instead, use intonation and keyword discourse markers to guide your audience, not an elaborate advance ‘menu’, as if your audience were invited guests to a 5-course dinner at the Vicar’s Fete or are expecting a comprehensive classical recital.


While I’m at it, let me briefly introduce my other…

‘TOP 5 Considerations for Teaching Non-native English Speaker Academic/Research Presentations’:


1. Don’t worry too much about pronunciation.


j pronounce


There is no reason that we should expect Tzu Yu- Lin, graduate student from Xiamen, to sound like friggin’ Alex Trebek. Japanese sound Japanese when speaking English, Thais sound Thai, Italians sound Italian. Accents are not an issue. Such is the nature of English as a Lingua Franca and the reality of international conferences. Of course if your students is mashing their mother tongue through the filter of the English phonetic system (i.e., katakana English), by all means intervene. Or do so to fix individual mispronunciations (one of my students was pronouncing their keyword ‘analysis’ with stress on the second syllable and the ‘ly’ as ‘lee’).


2. Don’t focus inordinately upon details of ‘correct’ speech grammar. I’ve heard numerous outstanding presentations given by non-native English speakers in which articles, plurals and tenses get mashed up or dropped and it often had little or no negative impact on their performance. Trying to get your students to state every preposition clearly and fully is akin to thinking about all your individual muscle movements when doing a golf swing. Analyzes paralyzes.


3. For the love of God and all that is good in the world, teach your students some effective transition phrases and get them to become more conscious of these devices. Japanese speakers in particular are prone to moving from slide to slide or section to section by simply repeating ‘then’ ‘so’ or ‘next’ without any cohesive or semantic purpose except as acoustic filler. This has the upshot of blending distinct rhetorical units into an undifferentiated whole, causing the audience to lose (or never grasp in the first place) the flow of the presentation.




The considered use of these discourse markers also allows the speaker to more easily vary speed, pitch, and tone, which serves as an aural guide for the audience (very important with PowerPoint presentations). Without these the speaker fails to breathe normally, which has a negative impact upon the listener, who normally wants to hear changes in pitch and tone to augment the speaker’s points and to act as coherence/cohesive devices (unless he or she is a techno fan,  in which case intense hyper-repetition might be seen as stimulating rather than annoying).


4. The presentation should never be treated as a mere visual representation of a published paper, even if the former is based upon the latter. That means no pasting huge chunks of text on a slide and then reading them verbatim. No elaborate and detailed charts that you intend to show for only five seconds, which is about enough time for the audience to perhaps grasp the chart’s heading — and nothing else. No two-second flashings of a list of published references at the end of the presentation, which no one really cares about or needs to see. No long background sections quoting numerous other studies and definitions to set the stage for your own, as if this were a PhD defense being presented in front of the University Advisory Board (yes, I’m looking at you, Taiwan and Hong Kong).


5. Your students will likely be more worried about managing Q&A than any other part of the presentation.




This is largely because, as non-native English speakers, they worry that they will not be able to understand the comment or question and thus (in their minds) end up looking like completely uneducated doofuses. In many North Asian cultures there is also a belief that Q&A is a type of test or challenge, as opposed to being a meaningful mutually-negotiable dialogue. In many Japanese/Korean scenarios it is impolite to negotiate with the questioner or to ask the questioner for clarification, repetition, or elaboration.


Our students should be encouraged to freely use management strategies when they don’t fully understand a question/comment, not to apologize for being non-native speakers, and to realize that it is incumbent upon the questioner to make him/herself understood (including adapting for NNESs) and to ask felicitous questions. Our students should be aware that miscommunication in Q&A sessions is not always their fault.


Bonus track for Japan-based presentation teachers:

Get your students to drop the ‘disco laser’ routine. Oh how Japanese presenters love their lasers and doodling in little red circles all over the screen to ‘highlight’ something like an obvious well-centered Hinomaru (‘I come from Japan’), waggling that sucker until the screen looks like a Laserium Pink Floyd show from the 70’s. Ouch!


Well, those are the main points I wanted to get off my chest. For more, buy my book, invite me to do a workshop, or use the comment space below.


Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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