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Presentation Teaching Strategies for All

Jordan Catapano

No matter the age, subject, or purpose, students will often be asked to present information to one another. While the reasons for the presentations might vary, one of the opportunities educators cannot overlook is the chance to use teaching strategies to reinforce essential presentation skills. Not only are presentation skills applicable in the classroom, but it is important for students to get acquainted with the components of public speaking so they can do so effectively beyond the classroom as well. Many teachers might assume that presentation skills are the strict domain of the language arts instructors and relegated to the “Presentation Skills Unit.” This would be a major fallacy. Presentation skills, like literacy, critical thinking, and interpersonal skills, are within the domain of all courses and teaching strategies at all times. If you would like to incorporate a more intentional focus on presentation skills into what you’re already doing with your classes, then here are some simple teaching strategies to get you started and help orient you in the right direction.

Teaching Strategies Focus 1: Content of the Presentation

First and foremost, any presentation has content the presenter needs to convey to others. When something is written down, the audience can easily go back to something they missed and reread to improve their understanding. A presentation, however, must focus even more strongly on giving a clear, structured order of information so that the audience can easily follow the content.

Ask your students to consider three questions:

  1. “What do I want to share?”
  2. “Why do I want to share it?”
  3. “How can I share it in the clearest way possible for my audience?”

Asking these three questions will help students conceptualize the information, the purpose for sharing it, and the methods that will be most effective. Understanding these basic components sets a framework for how they will go about organizing their content.

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Structure and Guidelines: Set clear guidelines for your students on what content you expect them to include. Students are unlikely to automatically know what information is the most important to include in a presentation, or how to organize that information in an effective manner.

I recommend giving students one or two template structures to model their presentation off of. That way, students don’t just craft their presentation from scratch but can follow your recommendation for what works as an effective presentation organization. Here are a few easy-to-follow structures for most presentations:

  • Main Idea + Reasons = Like a traditional essay structure, students can state a main point and provide several reasons that explain or defend that point.
  • Problem + Effects + Solutions = Students can notice a problem, talk about its consequences, and propose ideas for fixing the problem.
  • Categories = Take a complex topic and break it down into its most important sub-categories.
  • Chronological = Tackle a topic by following a clear timeline, such as a historical event or a biography.

The structure you propose revolves around the topic and purpose you want students to accomplish. Do give students clear guidelines and expectations for the content, citations, structure, examples, and evidence.

Focus 2: Delivery

It’s too lazy to simply have students focus on content and then merely “Stand up and say it.” The most important part of any speech or presentation is not what students say, but rather how they say it. Do not allow students to read directly off of a script or presentation slides. Instead, focus on training students how to effectively delivery information to others with their presence and their voice.

Here are the three main areas to focus on:

  1. Vocal Control = Students should be taught what effective (and ineffective) components of their voice to pay attention to. Instruct them to limit their interrupters, such as “Um,” “Like,” and “You know.” Help them pay attention to their pace, their volume, and their vocal variety. Students should aim to sound professional and natural – not like robots.
  2. Eye Contact = We make real connections with others through our eyes. Eye contact is perhaps one of the hardest presentation skills to grow comfortable with, but challenge students to look at the people they’re speaking to! This builds connections between speaker and audience, and helps content more organically transmit from one to the other.
  3. Physical Gestures = Non-verbal language is just as important as spoken language. Encourage students to be in control of their bodies and use them as supplements to the verbal content. Students should try to limit the nervous gestures our bodies naturally want to do when we’re in front of other people.

Novice presenters will want to “Hide” behind a podium, a script, a soft voice, or a nifty slide deck. When helping students develop presentation skills, encourage them to come out into the open and use their voice, eyes, and bodies to embrace the full range of live expression.

Focus 3: Preparation and Rehearsal

Teachers who effectively include a focus on presentation content and delivery are two-thirds of the way there. But they cannot leave out the importance of preparation for presentations. A presentation is a performance, and one that students only get one shot at doing effectively. Just like any other performance, it is essential that teachers build in time for students to rehearse everything they have created.

Rehearsal can come in many forms and will vary depending on the presentation’s size and scope. The important thing to emphasize with students is that they will not get the presentation perfect on their first try – so their first try better not be when they’re standing up in front of everyone.

Once students have a chance to construct the actual presentation content, they must practice the delivery of that content. Give students time in class to do this. For some, this might be running through the presentation in a corner of the room; others might take turns rehearsing in front of peers; others might prefer to film themselves or to rehearse alone at home. The same is true if students are presenting in groups – rehearsal gives time for groups to gel together and make sure each person knows their individual role.

Focus 4: Supplemental Aids

Presentations can be as simple as students standing up and sharing something with the rest of their class. But it’s much more likely that students will need to prepare some form of supplemental aid to assist them during their presentation.

Typical presentation supplements for students:

  1. Slide Deck = It is typical for students to be asked to create a PowerPoint or Google SlideShow. I won’t go into detail here, but make sure that students treat these as true visual supplements and do not abuse them by overloading them with information or reading directly off of them.
  2. Outline = Students probably won’t need to memorize their presentation, so help them appropriately craft an outline they can use while presenting. Again, I don’t recommend allowing them to bring a full script, which they are prone to just read off of.
  3. Notes for distribution = Perhaps students will want to equip their audience with supplemental notes to follow along with. Give them time and guidelines for creating these.
  4. Visual Aids = What else can students “Show” that will embellish their presentation content? Have them bring in objects, show diagrams, act out events, or draw visual aids as they speak.

It is important for students to ask themselves, “What do I need to show or equip my audience with so they can best comprehend what I’m sharing?” Once they identify the supplements they’d like to use for themselves for their audience, they must incorporate them into their rehearsal to make sure they utilize them effectively during the presentation itself.

Focus 5: Assessing

The big day finally arrives, and students will begin presenting in class. While the main purpose of the presentations might be so that students can learn the content important to your curriculum, you can allocate at least a portion of the feedback towards how well they did with their presentation skills.

If you focused on the content, delivery, rehearsal, and supplemental components of presenting, then it’s important to offer students feedback on how well all that work paid off. Consider what portion of your rubric you will dedicate to the components listed above. Consider, if you’re assigning a grade, how much of that grade is contingent on their effective communication. Consider how students can offer feedback to one another or how students can self-reflect on their performance, too.

Other Elements to Consider

If presentation skills are universal to all ages and content areas, then it’s important for students to think of these skills as something they will continue to develop over time. Here are some additional thoughts about how to help students grow as presenters.

  • Align presentation expectations across your school. That way, students will be held to the same process and standard no matter their grade or class.
  • Offer multiple opportunities a year to present. Presentation skills, like all skills, require continuous rehearsal and should not be confined to a single project or unit.
  • Facilitate opportunities for self-reflection. Students will grow if they are able to reflect on how well a given presentation went and their process leading up to it.
  • Presentations, no matter how small, are nervewracking for most people. How can you create an environment that is positive and supportive while students present?
  • Model presentation skills every day. Students will watch you and learn, so make sure you’re embodying everything you want your students to emulate.
  • Watch experts and talk about them. Sure, you might be focusing on science curriculum content, but just because you watch an interesting TEDTalk on a scientific concept doesn’t mean you can’t discuss what made that presentation interesting or effective.
  • Give clear directives for what you expect students in the audience to do. Should they listen patiently? Prepare questions? Take notes? Make them active listeners, too.

The most important thing to remember about presentation skills is that they don’t just come in handy for students who happen to land a career that requires the occasional presentation. These skills are effective in front of large audiences and small, for formal and informal occasions. They’re not really “Presentation skills” so much as they are “Communication skills” – and we all know that the more powerful a student’s communication is, the more empowered they will be to let their thoughts and their voice positively impact the world.

Do you think this is an effective overview of the essential presentation skill elements? What else would you add? Tell us in a comment below how you would use teaching strategies to help students gain these skills in your classroom!


Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.