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Paper ≠ Presentation

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Moving from Written to Spoken

Remind students that a speech is not “an essay on hind legs,” as James A.  Winans, a noted scholar of rhetoric, famously observed.  As efficient as it may be to borrow language and structure from a text that has already been completed (e.g., PWR 2 students who have written their RBA), there is also a lost  opportunity to engage with the audience when you neglect to reappraise your material in light of the new rhetorical situation.  The audience is not reading your ideas, but listening to them.

Because the spoken word is evanescent, listening poses distinct challenges, especially when it comes to abstract subject matter.  Studies reveal that listeners cannot process as much information as readers, they have difficulty staying oriented and unless they hear something more than once, it is difficult for them to retain it.  Given these constraints, here are some strategies to bear in mind when “translating” a text into an oral presentation:

Use signposts and transitions. Because the listening audience is at a speaker’s mercy for organizing content, “signpost” language such as “first,” “next,” or “finally” reinforces transitions and marks a speaker’s progress through the presentation.  Signposts can also link the details to the overarching thesis.  Look for logical relationships

  • Similarities: "Also..." "In the same way..." "Likewise..."
  • Differences: "In contrast..." "But..." "However..." "In spite of..."
  • Sequences: "First..." "Then..." "Third..." "Finally..."

Introduce your main points with a rhetorical question.  This can help to keep your audience on track. Questions invite subliminal answers, and thus can serve to sustain audience engagement.

Use concrete language and examples, metaphors and analogies.  Make unfamiliar things familiar, supply vivid images that pain mental pictures. These enable listeners to retain information and grasp abstractions or highly conceptual material.

  • Ask the PQRS questions (or SPQR if you enjoy Roman history) to help you assess whether your illustration/example will be on point:
    • P: Purposeful. Ask: What would happen if I took this away?
    • Q: Quick. How long does it take to explain? Ratio to overall talk?
    • R: Relevant. Will this speak to my specific audience?"
    • S: Simple. Does this support my main argument without needing a lot of explanation?

Use simpler syntax and vocabulary rather than long, subordinated sentences and technical jargon.  This conversational style will appeal more to listeners’ aural perception.

Use repetition -- tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. A clear organizational structure includes explicit transitions, internal summaries and repetition of key words and phrases.  (e.g., Martin Luther King - "I Have a Dream" )

While readers can reread a complicated paragraph, or leaf back over several pages to refresh their understanding of the central argument, listeners cannot.  This is why a strong introduction and conclusion generally include a roadmap and summary, respectively, to help the listener retain the speaker’s argument.

[Adapted from Allen, D. (2008). The Listening Mind. Speaking of Teaching, 18, (1), pp. 1-2. The Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University.]

Determining your Main Points

Make an outline:  What are the left-most bullet points? These may be the important points of the argument.

Mind mapping: Diagram with visual, Connect the ideas with lines, More incoming lines = main points

Make sure the main points develop the thesis or proposition, and align with the speaker’s goal.

Structuring your Main Points

  • Question first. Usually used in science, leads to conclusion.
  • Answer first. More common in humanities/poli sci. State conclusion up front.
  • Tell a story. Consider the main characters, setting, plot (incl. turning points), climax, and resolution.  See section “More on Stories” below.
  • Pyramid. Start big, then narrow focus. Focus on scale and importance.
  • Divide ideas into distinct groups.  This is referred to as a topical pattern of organization.

Trimming Material

Very important, and hard to do. A speech should be PERSPICUOUS (Defn: you hear it, you get it). In academia, we have a tendency to want to show off the depth of our knowledge and the breadth of our experience. Do not sacrifice perspicuity to do so. You'll want to streamline data, identify a unifying theme or idea, and have a concise research question.

Use the I.B.I. test:

Interesting? It should be.


Irrelevant? If it is, cut it. Even if it's interesting.

More on Stories

Emotionally charged events create dopamine which then helps the brain remember.

A classic story spine (which would need to be adapted for various topics, but can help speakers to develop the story of their ideas):

  • Once upon a time... (establish characters, location)
  • And every day... (establish what is and often a goal or need) Until one day... (establish an interruption of some kind)  And because of that...
  • And because of that...
  • And because of that...
  • Until finally...
  • And ever since that day...
  • And the moral of the story is...

Marianne Neuwirth explained that the idea in using storytelling as a framework for a research presentation is not to suggest speakers start their talk with, “Once upon a time there was a lonely nanotechnology device on a journey….” Rather, the intention is to help speakers visualize new and interesting ways to describe what they study, and why it matters.  Some questions you might ask to help your Tutee identify more engaging aspects of their research:

  • Were there moments of struggle or difficulty that you worked through in your research process?
  • Is your original motivation for doing this research still what drives you, or has it changed?
  • Were there clues that surprised you and helped you unfold the “mystery” of your research question?
  • What do you hope to discover, or what have you discovered that is of significance?
  • What is the “so what?” of your research?
  • What was the “ah-hah!” moment or turning point for you as a researcher?

These are the instances that can captivate and sustain the listeners’ attention. The organization of the speaker’s presentation may retain the conventional structure of research question, methods, results, and discussion, but the critical moments or turning points in the research can be highlighted in a way that builds curiosity and interest in the listeners and keeps the talk moving forward.

[Adapted from:  Neuwirth, M. (2008). Telling the tale of your research. Speaking of Teaching, 18, (1), pp. 4-5. The Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University.]

Handling Question and Answer Period

The speaker should try to re-state the question once heard (this serves 3 purposes, it allows everyone to hear the question, allows the question asker a chance to make sure the speaker heard them right, and gives the speaker a chance to think about the answer).

If the speaker doesn't know the answer, he or she should NOT try to fake it. It's better to say, "I don't know, but I will look it up and follow up with you" (and then be sure to follow up!) or "I'm not sure about that but what I do know is ... "

If you create slides that are ultimately cut from the main body of the talk, leave them available at the end of your PowerPoint in case an audience member asks a related question.  If the slide is relevant, navigate to it during the Q&A.

Exercises Relating to Content Development

For intros and conclusions

  • Write out and deliver first and last lines to practice strong delivery
  • Consider just the intro and conclusion: are they a commercial for your talk?
  • Get attention and show the main point

For determining the central argument

  • Write a summary in one sentence.
  • Give an elevator pitch (~3 minutes).  [See Doree’s Elevator Pitch Handouts]
  • Try a buzzword brainstorm
  • Have your tutees try to explain what they want to get across using logos (argument and reasoning), ethos (credibility of self and sources), and pathos (appeal to emotions, values, needs and beliefs of the audience through visuals, stories, language, etc.).
    • Do these rhetorical appeals center around the same idea(s)?
    • Which works best?

For appealing to different audiences

  • Imagine explaining the topic to different audiences. How would you describe the main point to a kindergartener? Someone in line at a grocery store? Your faculty advisor? A friend?
  • If the audience consists of some people who are specialists in the field and some people who are not familiar with the topic, the speaker should be sure to speak to both.  Try explaining an idea in specialized terms and then translating the material to relate to a lay audience ("what that means is...").

Additional Resources

The TED Commandments: These 10 tips are the heart of a great TED Talk.

  1. Dream big. Strive to create the best talk you have ever given. Reveal something never seen before. Do something the audience will remember forever. Share an idea that could change the world.
  2. Show us the real you. Share your passions, your dreams ... and also your fears. Be vulnerable. Speak of failure as well as success.
  3. Make the complex plain. Don't try to dazzle intellectually. Don't speak in abstractions. Explain! Give examples. Tell stories. Be specific.
  4. Connect with people's emotions. Make us laugh! Make us cry!
  5. Don't flaunt your ego. Don't boast. It’s the surest way to switch everyone off.
  6. No selling from the stage! Unless we have specifically asked you to, do not talk about your company or organization. And don't even think about pitching your products or services or asking for funding from stage.
  7. Feel free to comment on other speakers, to praise or to criticize. Controversy energizes! Enthusiastic endorsement is powerful!
  8. If possible, don't read your talk. Notes are fine. But if the choice is between reading or rambling, then read!
  9. You must end your talk on time. Doing otherwise is to steal time from the people that follow you. We won’t allow it.
  10. Rehearse your talk in front of a trusted friend ... for timing, for clarity, for impact.

Critiques of TED:

Recommended Book

Check out Chip Heath and Dan Heath's book, Made to Stick, about "sticky" (memorable) ideas. Sticky ideas are SUCCES (Simple, Unexpected, Credible, Emotional, and tell a Story).

See an overview of their SUCCES model here:

See their four-page handout on presentation design:

Recommended Videos

  1. Steve Jobs - "Stanford Commencement Address" - Look for the way he opens and connects with the audience.
  2. Terry Moore: How to tie your shoes - This is a fun, short example (only 3 min) showing audience relevance, audience engagement, and use of humor and story.