Presentation or Speech

Presentations and speeches

Does the distinction hold perfectly? No. Firstly, people use the terms interchangeably, so of course the real world is full of speeches that are called presentations and presentations that are called speeches. Which leads to a natural blurring of the boundaries. Second, some presentations are very formal indeed, and some set-piece speeches (e.g. The State of the Union Address) can have visuals added to them but without the orator interacting with them.

The boundaries aren’t sharp. But, according to the definition, a speech is a talk or address, and a presentation is a talk with the use of some sort of visual aid. 

Speech vs. presentation

Why does this matter? Because giving a speech – for a lot of people – seems harder than giving a presentation. Bad slides are actually worse than no slides. But the reason so many speakers want slides or props is because they find it too hard to deliver speeches, and because effective visual aids makes it easier for them to get their points across.

Effective visuals – that support a speaker – make delivering presentations easier than delivering speeches for most people. Not everyone feels they can hold an audience with simply the sound of their own voice.

Great speeches are, well… great. But they aren’t the same as presentations, and shouldn’t be held up as examples of what those giving presentations should emulate.

P.S. For more on words and definitions, see Meaning and Necessity by Saul Kripke.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a speech is defined as:

a formal address or discourse delivered to an audience

According to the Scrabble fan’s choice – the Collins English Dictionary – a speech is:

a talk or address delivered to an audience

Note that in the Collins definition, the part about being formal is missing.


Both the Oxford English and Collins dictionaries define presentation as including some sort of visual element. The OED definition is:

a speech or talk in which a new product, idea, or piece of work is shown and explained to an audience

Note that this includes the word ‘shown’. The Collins definition is even clearer in explicitly mentioning the use of illustrative material:

a verbal report presented with illustrative material, such as slides, graphs, etc

The Collins Dictionary also notes how the word presentation is used more generally to talk about how things are shown – ‘the manner of presenting, esp the organization of visual details to create an overall impression’.


Write and deliver a formal oral presentation

How to write and deliver a formal oral presentation on an academic or professional subject. It should be useful for anyone who wants to know how to speak in public.

Note: by “formal presentation,” I don’t necessarily mean a Shakespeare monologue or a scientific treatise on robot-assisted microsurgery. Giving an oral presentation on any subject–your favorite book, current events, a family story–can be “formal” and “technical” whenever its primary purpose is to communicate complex information.

The content is the most obvious component of any oral presentation — after all, if you are talking, you had better have something worthwhile to say.  But a presentation is only as effective as its delivery.

Part 1: Planning the Content

1) Determine Your Goals as a Speaker

Why are you delivering this oral presentation?
Be honest with yourself.  If your answer is “for a grade” or “my boss told me,” your audience will certainly figure it out soon enough. What do you want to accomplish?
If this is a class assignment, look very carefully at the assignment instructions. If your instructor wants you to analyze, don’t fill time summarizing. If you’ll be evaluated according to how much evidence you present, don’t fill time sharing your personal opinion.
If this is a work assignment, what is at stake, and what resources are available? Are you assessing work you did over the past year or proposing a project for next year? Are you justifying a decision you made, or giving background information to assist a decision-maker? Who gave this presentation last time, how well was it received, and what’s different now? (Who would know?)

2) Prepare your material


Good speakers usually aim to look like they are speaking effortlessly, tossing off words as they come to mind. What you don’t see is the preparation that paved the way for the polished performance. It’s all an act! You can do it too, if you plan ahead.

Once you know what your goal is, and you know what your audience wants, you can start strategizing. There is no single strategy that will guarantee success. How you plan depends on many variables.

How many minutes long is your speech? About how many words do you speak per minute?

Will your audience be lost if you use jargon? Will they feel talked down to if you spend time defining terms they already know?

Do you expect that your audience will disagree with you? (If so, you might need to give more examples and more evidence and spend more time addressing reasonable objections in order to sound convincing, which may mean talking a little faster.)

Do you expect your audience already agrees with the position you will take? (If so, they may check out if your speech simply rehashes arguments they already accept without question. What can you say to an audience that already agrees with you? Why would you listen to a speaker who is restating things you already accept as the truth?)

Graphics, inspirational quotations, and anecdotes are all well-respected methods of maintaining audience interest. However, Pinterest clip art, fancy computer transitions between slides, and vaudeville tricks get old pretty quickly (see Don McMillan’s hilarious “Death by Powerpoint“), and they eat up time that you could use more effectively.

Bad Example Don’t think about delivering a speech“. Most  inexperienced speakers who approach a professional oral presentation this way end up cutting themselves off from their audience.
Whether your goal is to convince your audience to accept your position on a complex topic, to provide as much useful information as you can to the decision-maker who needs to know it, or something else, keep that goal in mind first. How will the words you say help you and your audience to reach some mutual goal?
Good Example Instead, think about “talking to people“.TV talk show hosts don’t think about talking to millions of people at once… they think of talking directly to one individual person who wants to be part of a conversation. Make your audience feel welcome.
  • Remember that your audience wants your conclusions.  Many, many speakers spend too much time on background, which forces them to rush through their final statements.
  • Rehearse  your explanations of charts and diagrams, your demonstrations of software, or your visits to web pages just as thoroughly as your introductory and concluding statements. When you “wing it”, you will tend to eat up too much time.
  • Know the venue.  Find out how to shut off the lights, to lower the screen, to focus the overhead projector, etc.
  • Prepare for disasters.  The network may crash, your monitor may start to flicker, or you may drop your notes. These things happen.   Prepare a low-tech backup — overhead projections or paper handouts, a discussion question to engage the audience, whatever.

3) Study a Model

The internet is of course full of examples of good speeches, but the YouTube users who vote on videos may not have much in common with the audience who will hear your oral presentation.

Do you have access to speeches that your discourse community values? Your instructor or supervisor may not have ready access to video recordings from last year’s class or last quarter’s budget meeting, but you can pay attention to the speaking techniques deployed by people with authority in your field.

For instance, I have a colleague who never says, “This is taking too long, and I’m watching the clock, so let’s get on with it already.” Instead, this person says, “I’m conscious of everyone’s time, so shall we move on to the next item?”

Bear in mind that

  • if you have been assigned to deliver a speech that defends a position on a topic (such as, whether Huckleberry Finn should be taught in middle school)…
  • but your instructor usually refrains from stating any one answer is the best (preferring instead to present several viewpoints and letting the students decide for themselves)…
  • then your instructor’s open-ended lecture (intended to spark a discussion) is not a good model of a position statement (intended to showcase your ability to latch onto a specific solution).

While this handout aims to provide general tips, you should ignore any general tip that contradicts something specific you learn about the goals, context, or genre of the specific speech you are preparing.

General Model

Successful oral presentations typically share some basic characteristics, owing to the nature of the spoken word.

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
  2. Tell them.
  3. Tell them what you told them.

When we read, we can go back and reread passages we skimmed over the first time, and we can skip ahead when we’re bored. In a live oral presentation, the audience can’t re-read or skip ahead. If the audience doesn’t know why they are listening to your anecdote about winning the spelling bee, or why they should care what version of the software was installed on the computer that you used to crunch your numbers, their attention will wander and it will be hard to get it back.

When we listen, we gratefully cling to orientation phrases that help us understand what the whole shape of a speech is, where we are within the overall structure, and when we are transitioning from one section to another.

Your specific occasion for delivering a speech may involve specific contextual details that don’t mesh with the general advice I’m providing here.

  • Introduction:  "I am Pinky J. Witzowitz from the U.S. Department of Bureaucracy, and I have been asked to speak for 20 minutes on 'The Government's Plan for Preventing Situation X in America's Heartland.'"
  • Grabber
    • "Situation X is the worst thing that can happen to you and your family." [Startling claim; follow up by citing the source of this quote, or giving evidence that supports it.]
    • "It happened once to a family in Dubuque, and they were never heard from again." [Anecdote; follow up with details.]
    • "I am here today to tell you how to prevent this terrible tragedy from striking you." [Demonstrates relevance; move directly to your road map]
  • Main Content:  Put up a slide with topics to cover, a specific problem to solve, or a series of questions to answer. Promise that your talk will address the material on that slide. You might even return to that slide each time you start a new subsection, with the current place in the talk highlighted.
Main Content Example A:
“…Situation X in America’s Heartland”
Main Content Example B:
“Recruiting Volunteers for Organization Y.”
  1. What is Situation X?
  2. Why should I care about Situation X?
  3. What factors contribute to Situation X?
  4. What can I do to avoid Situation X?
  5. Finally, what is the U.S. Department of Bureaucracy doing about Situation X?
  1. What is the present state of our volunteer corps?
  2. What are our most involved volunteers like?
  3. How can we attract more of these kinds of people?
  4. Should we try to make Organization Y attractive to other kinds of people as well?
  5. Volunteering in the new millennium.
  • Questions/Comments from the Audience? Even though most people save the question period until the end, they lose the opportunity to modify their conclusion to address the interests of the audience.
  • Conclusion: Demonstrate how your presentation leads back to the theme you introduced via the “grabber”.
    • Recap:  Our earnest “Situation X” speaker might give microencapsulated answers to all the questions on the main road map: "We have learned that Situation X is a blah blah blah; that we should all care about it because yada, yada, yada..."
    • Wrap it up: After reminding the audience how all these factors fit together, the speaker might say, "Now that you understand how the U.S. Department of Bureaucracy helps you keep Situation X out of your life, please take one of our pamphlets home to your family and put it by the telephone where you can get it in an emergency; your family will thank you."
  • Invite Questions:  If there is time, and if you haven’t already done so.

4) Arrange with Your Strongest Points First

Your speech is not a mystery story.
I regularly watch speakers ad-lib or chatter too much during the introduction, and just when they think it’s time to get to the good stuff, they realize they are almost out of time, and they have to rush through the material they had saved for the end. 

In rare cases — such as when you are facing a hostile audience, you might want to start out by emphasizing where you agree with your audience, and then carefully working your way towards your most divisive, most daring claims.

But usually, you should make your strongest points first. (While an online handout is not the same thing as a speech, I tried to follow this principle by at least listing all 10 of my oral presentation tips at the top of the page, before I went into details about any one tip.)

Introductions and background sections are boring.
Don’t waste everyone’s time by giving us an entire lab report, or by dropping the names of all the authors you’ve consulted, or by reading word-for-word what you’ve written on the slide.
A 15-minute speech that devotes 12 minutes to establishing that the speaker has prepared adequately (describing experimental procedures or summarizing background readings) but only 3 minutes presenting and analyzing original results of all this effort has missed the point.
Get to the point.
An oral presentation is not a timed essay test, in which you get points for spewing out as many details as possible. Most people in your audience probably won’t care how much your rats weighted, or what brand oscilloscope you used, or what version of MATLAB is running on your computer.
Use the question period wisely.
When have lots of dry details, but you’re not sure your audience will care about them, you can always say “I can give more details if you like, but here’s the main point.”  If anybody really wants to know all the details, let them raise their hand and ask you.
  • If the question is actually important to your talk, you’ll probably be able to answer right away.
  • If you can’t answer right away, or you don’t want to take the time, just promise you’ll follow up via e-mail, and then go right back to your presentation. Most audience members will probably have been annoyed by the interruption.  They will be delighted that you didn’t take the questioner’s bait.
Give a “Take-Home Message”
What is the one thing you want your audience to remember? Many speakers close their talks with a slide bearing a “Take-Home Message.”
Comedian Don Novello’s character Fr. Guido Sarducci pitches the “Five Minute University,” which was supposed to teach you everything that the average college graduate remembers, five years after graduating.  The entire economics course was “supply and demand.” If you can boil your whole presentation down into one clear “take-home message,” your audience will have an easier time remembering your point. (And if they remember it, they are more likely to be influenced by it.)

5) Practice, Practice, Practice.

Set a timer, and deliver your speech to a willing co-worker or family member, your pet fish, or the bathroom mirror.

My students are often surprised at how hard it is to fill up 3 minutes for an informal practice speech early in the term, and how hard it is to fit everything they want to say into a 10-minute formal speech later in the term.

Once you have the right amount of content, make a video recording of yourself practicing. If you plan to show a video clip, or ad-lib an explanation of a diagram, or load a website, or pass out paper handouts, or saw an assistant in half, actually do it while the camera is rolling, so that you know exactly how much time it takes.

Time it out.

  • Script out a powerful introduction and conclusion.
  • Know how long each section of your speech should take.
  • Decide in advance:
    • which example or anecdote you will cut if you are running long?
    • what additional example you can introduce if you need to fill time?

If you know your conclusion takes you 90 seconds to deliver, make sure to start your conclusion when you have at least 90 seconds left.

At several key points during your speech, maybe while you are playing a video or while the audience is taking in a complex image, glance at the clock and check to see — are you on track?

If you notice you’re starting Section 3 60 seconds later than you had intended, try to make up for time by rushing through your second example in section 3 and cutting the third example in section 4, so that you still have the full 90 seconds at the end to deliver that powerful conclusion.

Technological Considerations

  • Do you know how to connect your computer to the overhead projector? (If you don’t know, who does?)
  • What will you do if you can’t get your computer connected to the projector? (Back in 2003, when I applied for my current job at Seton Hill University, I was asked to give a teaching demonstration. I couldn’t get my laptop to work with the overhead projector, but I had posted the most important links on my blog, and I had brought along a printout of my speech, just in case. My preparations have paid off, because I got the job.)
  • In the room where you will be speaking, will you be using a microphone, or relying on your unamplified voice?
  • Will you be able to walk around with the microphone — perhaps to gesture at details in the slides — or is the mic attached to a stand? (Do you need to borrow a laser pointer, or get a volunteer to advance slides for you?)
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