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No more rabbits in the headlights


Presentation skills are vital for professionals and university students learning English, for everything from business meetings to job interviews, writes expert Susanne Lewis

Whenever your students speak, their intention is to inform, persuade or inspire.

It might just be about trivial matters, such as telling a shop assistant what they’re looking for, wanting to persuade their classmate to help them with their homework or inspiring their friend to do something new.

But one thing is certain, presenting in a foreign language can be daunting and takes time and preparation, as well as a certain amount of confidence.

Although the subject matter itself may seem trivial, the chances are the intent is not.

So, the more composed a student can be, the more effective their message will be.

Put on the spot

I’m sure you’re all familiar with this: You’ve been practising a certain aspect of the language with your students in depth and at great length.

If given some time to prepare a response, it’s evident that they’ve understood the concept and that they’re perfectly capable of applying it.

Yet, when you ask them a question out of the blue – particularly if this is outside of the normal classroom setting – panic sets in and they go blank.

Why the panic?
Expecting a spontaneous response from a beginner or intermediate student is quite a tall order, particularly as students are not expected to express themselves fully spontaneously until they reach C1.

The difficulty level of the task combined with the pressure of the spotlight cause the student to panic and freeze as if they were a rabbit caught in the headlights.

The best way to prevent your students from panicking is to prepare them well.

Help your students succeed

Presenting spontaneous responses in front of an audience, however small this audience may be, will remain terrifying for your students as long as they’re unfamiliar with doing so.

The best way to eliminate any fear is by integrating presentations into regular lesson routines. Start with short mini-presentations, where they are expected to make two or three statements, initially allowing them to remain seated.

As their confidence grows, they can be asked to present for longer, standing up and projecting their voice.

Creating a ‘roadmap’ might prove to be another very useful tool for your students.

This roadmap should include some best-practice structure for specific tasks (e.g. for sharing an opinion at a team meeting, providing their line manager with a progress report, answering an interview question, etc.).

Also, equipping your students with some stock phrases on how to open, what to say in the middle and how to conclude will give them a clear structure, helping them keep nervousness to a minimum and concentrate on their message.

A regular practice session in your lesson, as close to the real thing as possible, will help your students become more confident with their pronunciation and intonation, standing in front of a crowd and using those stock phrases.

It will become a routine and therefore will no longer feel scary and will equip them with the all-important presentation skills required to help them succeed in their lives.

All of the above is what drove me to write my new book. It aims to help people whose first language is not English to improve their ability to impress in the language.

My aim was to provide an overview of everything from preparing and structuring a presentation to cultural aspects and body language, focusing on selected aspects of the English language along the way.

Each chapter is accompanied by exercises and top tips. So however you choose to tackle the challenge of making a good presentation, good luck!

Further reading/videos



TOP 10: Presentation skills to pass on to your students

1 Speak within your limits
Use words, grammar and sentence structures that you’re familiar and comfortable with.

2 Voice one idea per sentence
This will not only make it easier for you to speak, it will also make it easier for the audience to follow you. Opt to use plain English, i.e. shorter words and sentences.

3 Pace yourself
Take your time and deliver your presentation at a speed you feel comfortable with. It is more helpful for the audience if you speak slowly and clearly than if you rush, which can cause you to muddle up your words or leave out syllables.

4 Use descriptive and meaningful words
Don’t ever assume that the audience sees the world the same way you do. Instead, paint a picture providing them with as many details as possible.

5 Use neutral language
Be specific and provide facts to allow the audience to form their own opinion. On the same note, avoid judgemental language.

6 Include additional time references
If you’re uncertain on the tense, make clear time references to the past, present and future. This will help the audience understand what tense you intended to use, even if you’ve used the wrong one.

7 Consider cultural differences
Align your presentation to the audience, based on their beliefs and values as well as how they perceive your own nation. Elaborate on topics and concepts they’re not familiar with. Avoid certain topics altogether if they might cause offence.

8 Capitalise on non-verbal communication
How something is said outweighs what is actually said, so make sure your gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice support and underpin what you’re saying.

9 Maintain good eye contact
This will make you appear confident and helps build trust, which is needed if you want them to listen to you.

10 Deliver in a conversational tone
Present as if you were speaking to just one single person; in a conversational tone with vocal variety. This will make you seem more personable and helps to keep your audience engaged.

Susanne Lewis is a Swiss native who has lived and worked in the UK since the year 2000. She is author of Presentation Skills for Non-Native Speakers and managing director of Matterhorn Languages