Basic Presentation Skills for Professors


On August 13th and 14th, Teaching and Learning Services hosted workshops by Kate Bligh, theatre director, Concordia University prof and presentation skills coach. What follows is a subjective report of what was discussed during the Basic Presentation Skills for Professors workshop; the elements that struck me most may not be the ones that would have had the greatest impact on you. Also, reading this is not a substitute for participating in the workshop so hopefully you, dear reader, will be able to attend if we invite Kate Bligh back for an encore.

Kate Bligh, Presentation Skills workshop presenterA study a few years ago in the US found that people’s #1 fear, greater than fear of becoming disabled or fear of dying, is public speaking. Why are we so afraid of public speaking? In fact it’s a very basic reaction, one that is regulated my the most basic part of our brain, our snake brain as Kate Bligh put it. We interpret a group of people looking at us as a potential threat. They want to eat me! And that kicks in the fight or flight reflex. This automatic increase of adrenaline and other hormones leads to panting, accelerated heart rate, a rise in body temperature, tensing of muscles, and an urge to hit something or someone and/or run away. Neither urge is particularly helpful when you have a class to teach; you’re stuck there and punching people or objects is frowned upon. Your system is unhappy about this state of affairs and goes for the secondary freeze reflex. Physical consequences include tense body, clenched fists, dry mouth, difficulty speaking loudly, monotone voice, sweating, shaking. Mental responses include loss of rational thought, short-term stress amnesia, heightened sensory perception, loss of sense of time, and intense emotions. There’s nothing you can do about the basic reflexes involved but you can make choices about how to process your fear and about where you focus your attention.

Use of Body

Most of the information about posture presented in the session was related to the Alexander Technique. A symmetric and balanced posture, with arms, neck and shoulders relaxed is recommended both because it seems more authoritative, which should cause your students to be a bit more attentive, and because it will help you feel calmer. Standing thus, in the middle of the front of the room is a good way to start the class. It subtly makes the statement that the classroom is your domain. This ties in to a thread that ran throughout the advice given: don’t apologize for your status as the authority in the room.

Of course, you can’t stand in one spot, with arms at your sides, for the entire duration of the class! Everyone has an internal screen-saver so movement is needed to keep it from kicking in. Movement should be synchronized with speech. For example, walk in one direction when stating one idea, change directions for the next idea. Although I noticed the benefit of this when Kate Bligh spoke, at this point I would find it overwhelming to try to work in such calculated use of movement. It’s a little too advanced for me just now.

Whether walking about or standing, it’s important to keep in mind that eyes follow fingers so be aware of what your fingers are doing. Self-touching (hands in hair, rubbing an arm, etc) will make you look vulnerable. Hands behind your back gives the impression that you have something to hide, that you’re not being completely honest. Keep your hands out in the open at all times.

Use of eyes

Kate Bligh used a lovely metaphor to describe how to use eyes and gaze appropriately in class. Your students’ eyes are flowers and yours are butterflies visiting the flowers. Just as the butterfly flits from flower to flower in an almost random pattern, so your eyes should visit every part of the room but not in a systematic manner. Your gaze should, of course, be friendly.

Use of breath

The freeze reflex leads to very shallow breathing which in turn means less oxygen getting to the brain. Not a good thing when trying to teach. Shallow breathing also robs the voice of volume. The muscles around the ribs need to be relaxed and the diaphragm used to breathe to full lung capacity. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, and make sure you do take the time needed to breathe in.

It’s good to take 10 deep breaths before starting your class. Very nervous presenters may wish to consider doing some aerobic activity 1-2 hours before class; this will help them remain calmer and breathe more easily.

Use of voice

Vocal cords are small and relatively delicate. A three-hour class of 200 students is like running a marathon: you would be wise to train and to warm up beforehand. In your shower, hum or sing; your vocal cords like the warm, moist air. Relax the muscles in you neck by doing head rolls and massaging your neck. Keep in mind that if you are breathing properly, you should not need to shout, even with a class as large as 100 students. Use a microphone rather than shouting but avoid using a microphone if you can.

During class, have a glass of room-temperature – not cold! – water at hand to sip (but remember to put the cup down after you sip otherwise eyes will follow your fingers and cause your students to be distracted by your mug or water bottle). You can use your sipping time to give your students a moment to reflect.

In English, important information is often at the end of sentences so make sure that you carry the energy through to the end. Then breathe in. Be sure that your speech is broken up into sentences, that it isn’t one long run-on sentence. The pattern should be something like this: statement with energy to the end of the sentence, inhale, statement, inhale. 

At the start of class, when you’re most nervous, speak as slowly as you can bear. Pick up the average speed gradually over the course of the period but keep in mind that slowing down for a statement gives it more weight. End your class at high speed for your closing remarks (e.g. “Don’t forget that your first draft is due on Tuesday. Have a good weekend!) to finish on an upbeat, energizing note.

Closing remarks

In her closing remarks, Kate Bligh again emphasized the importance of accepting one’s status in the classroom. She counseled that you should give yourself credit for what you do accomplish and allow yourself the practice and time needed to develop your presentation skills.

The summary of the recommendations was:

  • stand tall and firm
  • breathe
  • look at all your students
  • begin as slowly as possible
  • use your passion

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