Presenting as Performance: Painless Practices for Presentation in Foreign Languages

Mona Eikel-Pohen

Volume XI, Issue 1, 2017, doi:10.33178/scenario.11.1.4
© 2017, The Author(s). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Presenting is a complex task for language learners. It requires them to acquire and read material, extract main points and express them in their own words in the target language, listen to other presenters and react appropriately with good questions and comments – and, of course, speak out loud while presenting. Language learners activate all these skills on a daily basis in the language classroom. However, speaking out loud in front of a group about one specific topic for an extended period of time is usually not part of the daily routine and therefore demands special attention, care, and action. This article models a sequence for preparing, planning, practicing, delivering, and evaluating presentations and briefly discusses the role of visual slides, but focuses on speaking exercises and explains how they strengthen the presenters both as language learners and as performers. Two theater theories form the backbone to these exercises: Konstantin Stanislavski’s “system”, and Keith Johnstone’s improvisation theater concept of status.The article describes each step of a practice sequence, including warm-up exercises, prompts for constructive peer feedback, and rubrics for (self-)evaluation, and reflects on the overall benefits of their inclusion in the language classroom.

In life you know how to walk and speak and sit and look but in the theatre you lose this ability, and say to yourself, when you feel the closeness of the crowd, “What are they staring at me for?” You have to be taught everything from scratch – onstage and in front of people. Konstantin Stanislavski: An Actor’s Work


  1. Presentation as Performance
  2. Topic
  3. Research
  4. Reduction and Transfer
  5. Practice
  6. Slide and Appearance
  7. Delivery Day
  8. Feedback, Evaluation, and Follow-Up
  9. Reflection

1. Presentation as Performance

We all know how painful presentations can be – for both the presenters and the audiences: Presenters are nervous, over-prepared with too many visually challenging PowerPoint slides or dizzying Prezi shows, yet often under-prepared to speak out self-confidently, loud and clear enough to a wider audience that cannot decide whether to focus on the presenter or on the slides. Additionally, the speakers have to meet not only the listeners’ language levels and their entertainment expectations, but also fulfil the instructor’s demands, who is most certain to grade the whole feat.

How do language learning presenters manage to juggle all these aspects of a presentation without giving in to the urge to drop everything and just run away?

What is there to do for language instructors to make giving presentations enjoyable? How can they enable learners to deliver not only fact-based and grammatically correct, but also passionate and professional presentations? This article offers various practices and exercises on how to approach the complex task of preparing, practicing, delivering, and evaluating presentations in seven steps. The given examples stem from the deduction of certain principles of the Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavski’s “system” as well as from the author’s experience and current practice of short presentations of three to five minutes’ length at the mid intermediate language learning level CERF for learners of German (Council of Europe: 60). However, the suggested practice exercises can be used individually, mixed, matched, or repeatedly according to language level, learner environment, and class size; they can be altered to specific needs, and added on to.

I deduct my approach from Keith Johnstone’s concept of high and low status which he developed for improvisation and theater sports in Improvisation and the Theatre, and from aspects of Konstantin Stanislavski’s “system” which demands from actors to re-naturalize their whole performing being when in front of an audience as opposed to the playacting that inexperienced actors and presenters often resort to when feeling insecure. His diaries describe how he himself went through his fears and difficulties of performing and to becoming the free and seemingly authentically acting person on stage. Stanislavski, by dint of concentration, seeks to instill a sense of heightened awareness into the performers, to reduce stage fright by focusing on the task, its importance and relevance not only for the audience but even more so for the performers themselves. My exercises for painless presentation practices are based on his “system” in as far as I seek to give learners their confidence (back) and impart the notion that what they present is relevant, noteworthy, and demands most of all practice and a great degree of authenticity that they can regain through the exercises described here as well as the awareness that presentation skills are not talent-based but trained, and that this training “does not happen in one day” (Stanislavski 2008: 612).

2. Topic

Presentation preparation should never start with an open computer, let alone with a PowerPoint slide. Rather, students should develop an offline idea (Roam 2008: 29, Reynolds 2008: 47) that is genuine, original, and authentically reflects the future presenters’ approach to a topic, for only when genuinely interested in their topic can learners deliver good and engaging presentations. Thus, the learners should be the major drive in deciding on a topic, or, if the topic is determined by course contents, what the focus their presentation should be, and learners who approach their instructor with a concrete idea are at a clear advantage as their intrinsic motivation for research is higher in comparison to that of those learners who need guidance in choosing one topic from a range their instructor might suggest. Yet even then do they have leeway in deciding on the topic’s focus, and in any case, the instructor should ask all learners to “Bring one interesting detail” with their presentation. While learners tend to think that the detail is most relevant, it is in fact the choice of what they deem most interesting: it reveals more about the individual presenting learners’ interests as they unearth anecdotes, fun facts, or give a new spin to a common or well-known subject. It ensures, in Stanislavski’s terms, that the learners do not merely say some learned text by rote but by revealing facts in anecdotal, narrative style, incorporate the “given circumstances” (i.e. the fact that they do present in an educational setting into their “roles” as presenters and “start living them and then ‘the truth of the passions’ will arise of itself” (Stanislavski 2008: 54).

3. Research

Before announcing their presentation topic to both the instructor and the class (cf. 5.1), students should be given time to do some independent research with at least three resources beyond Wikipedia (and Wikipedia in different languages) for a three-minute talk with one single slide (cf. 6.1).

When learners produce the first draft of the corresponding (one-page) paper about their topic prior to giving their presentations, they have gathered information and re-phrased the topic in their own words in the foreign language. They have to read and think through the material, acquire the respective vocabulary, and condense the relevant information for their papers and presentations. Learners bring their papers to class, and, possibly after a group editing session, revise and submit their papers, which they soon thereafter receive back corrected from their instructor. They learn from each other, and they already inherently teach other learners in their editing group new facts and new vocabulary. This step assures learners to be on the right track for their presentations, they receive both informal and formal feedback from fellow learners and their instructors that both language and contents are comprehensible, and, in fact, worth presenting.

4. Reduction and Transfer

A seemingly minor yet utterly important step towards presentation readiness is the reduction and the transfer of the mass of gathered information to the most relevant keywords of the topic. Max von Blanckenburg and Adrian Haack’s worksheet provide a most useful grid for the structure of a presentation that learners could use to prepare their talk at home (Blackenburg and Haack 2016: 35f.) In class, however, learners receive one palm-sized notecard. They extract five keywords, e.g. names, numbers, dates from their papers, and copy them to one side of the notecard. This short exercise gives learners the opportunity to review the raw structure of their paper and talk. Additionally, the use of the notecard during the following practice step prevents learners from looking at the PowerPoint slides or reading directly from their papers while presenting (Reynolds 2010: 38).

5. Practice

So far, the learners have prepared the contents of their talk, acquired vocabulary for their topic, and checked their use of grammatical structures. Now is the time to transform the written word to spoken language that sounds naturally (as opposed to learned by rote), and to practice speaking out loud facing others, and this is where theater and improvisation come into play.

There are various ways to practice presentations. Often, both instructors and learners underestimate the importance of practice, whereas anyone who has been on stage in a thespian environment knows that no play works without practice, and even improvisation is based on repetition and a great amount of practical experience: Like all acquired skills, presenting, when regarded as a form of performance, requires practice, and the more meaningful and less monotonous the practice exercises are, the more natural and convincing the final presentations will become (Stanislavski 2010: 88). Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the average number of times TED talk presenters practice before speaking onstage is 300 (!) times (Gallo 2015: 81). In comparison, asking learners to practice their presentations out loud three to seven times does not seem like such a huge commitment anymore. However, merely telling them to practice (out loud) at home hardly ever harvests any success as learners either do not have the time, the partner to speak to, or the experienced-based assurance that practice actually does make a difference. Thus, rehearsing several times in class offers all learners practice opportunities in a safe environment with fellow presenters (What happens in the classroom stays in the classroom!) and guided exercises with direct feedback from both instructor and fellow learners and time for reflection and repetition. It also transforms the classroom into a stage with, for the time being, the fourth wall being closed off (cf. Stanislavski 2008: 9ff).

5.1. Introducing the Topic to the Class

One student in class gets up from the chair, looks into at least three pairs of listeners’ eyes, introduces himself or herself and the topic, and thanks the audience (e.g. Guten Tag, ich heiße Carson, und ich werde heute über Fußball in Deutschland nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg sprechen. Vielen Dank”). It is often useful that the instructor model the expected behavior to stress and reflect on the advantages of the presenters slowing down and waiting for everyone’s attention before beginning the talks. This exercise teaches learners to take their time, own their space, speak slowly, make eye contact to establish a relationship with their audience, in short, to set their stage through body language, and to employ appropriate terms in the target language that mark beginning and end of their presentation as opposed to the awkward “Das ist alles! (That’s all!)”, which not only belittles themselves and their knowledge but also robs the audience of the opportunity to ask questions, since if that “Is all”, there is no need for the listeners to ask for additional information, clarification, or for further differentiation. Furthermore, the presenters do not indicate to the audience that it is time for a round of applause if they do not verbally declare the end of their talk. (This is also a good moment to teach learners of German about the students’ habit in German universities rather to knock their knuckles on the desk than to applause, cf. Beiseler 2004). Presenters also show get a round of applause/knocking prior to presenting to get encouraged and warmed-up, like Viola Spolin proposes counting off for improvisation contests (Spolin 1986: 20).

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Fig. 1: Learners introducing their topic to the class

5.2. Informal Partner Talk

Learners sit in pairs and talk informally about their topics using nothing but their single notecard. They receive direct verbal and non-verbal feedback about unclear information, vocabulary, and mispronunciation, which at times they might find easier to accept from peers than from their instructor (Bo Wang & Shulin 2016). This first talk also gives learners an idea how long their talk will be and they can compare themselves to their partners’ information and make adjustments where needed.

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Fig. 2: Two learners having an informal talk about their topics

5.3. Mini-Presentations

Learners present to a small group of listeners (e.g. from four to five learners in a class of 20 in the first round; to eight to ten learners in the second round of presentations) while standing in front of the small group. As several groups listen to these small-scale presentations at the same time, there still prevails a certain level of informality and privacy with a reduced level of ambient sound in the classroom. The repetition of this phase with seven to eight learners per group usually generates the best, most carefree, and most engaging presentation results as presenters perform confidently, knowing that half of the group has already heard their talk in the informal sessions, when they had the opportunity to experience how the audience responds to their language, vocabulary and pronunciation, their “interesting details,” and anecdotes, and they can still make adjustments to their final presentations. Overall, this phase is marked by extreme concentration, like in a play’s dress rehearsal. Nevertheless, it still exudes some informal atmosphere as learners feel unobserved by their instructor.

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Fig. 3: Three resp. eight learners listening to a presentation in their group, presenter standing

5.4. Status Awareness

Between this and the next step, learners hear about the fundamentals of high status and low status: According to Keith Johnstone, body language of high status suggests an open posture, with feet slightly outward, shoulders down, arms open, and an uplifted head. A person in high status appears both confident and accessible, not arrogant or superior. In body language of low status, on the contrary, a person’s posture features contracted muscles, a shy glance, limbs close to the body or hands even touching face and/or body, and a low voice (Johnstone 1987: 36ff). Low status exudes fear and discomfort, and even though presenters about to speak might not yet have said a word, the audience members will already have judged them and set their expectations (Wargo 2006).

It seems to help learners to see both states in exaggerated ways, e.g. the instructor can perform examples of high and low status presenters opening their talks. Better still is to ask learners to get on their feet and test high and low status themselves, e.g. through typical improvisation and theater warm-up greeting exercises in an assumed status (e.g. lowest status is 0, highest status is 5, learners choose a status, then add 2, then subtract 2, or have them find their natural status and add 4 for the presentation, etc., cf. Johnston 1987: 56). Beyond that, the instructor can ask learners if they can think of their own instructors, teachers, or professors in their respective high or low statuses and where they see themselves on the status spectrum. When learners recognize that status, like presenting, is not an inborn talent but a learned skill which they can acquire, they feel empowered to test it (and where else better than in a classroom, in a safe space!), for the best status is not necessarily the person with the highest status, but rather the one who can adopt their status according to situation, who can assume it at a specific height on demand. Status is fluid, and those who can direct its flow, who can raise and lower it according to current and immediate needs in conjunction with others, own not only their body language but also their status – and usually the situation as whole.

In her seminal talk Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, Amy Cuddy (2012) calls high status by the name of power poses (e.g. stretching out arms and legs, standing tall, smiling). Her own research reaches the conclusion that doing power poses for various minutes shortly before a presentation renders the speaker more powerful and in control. It is a good idea to convey these concepts to the learners at least a day before their final presentations so they have the time and the opportunity to try out the status/poses, e.g. in the privacy of their homes or dorms.

5.5. Overall Evaluation Rubrics

Learners usually do not deliver their talk on the same day as the practice session described above but during the following session because they need time to plan changes and or to practice more. They also obtain rubrics at the end of the practice session so they learn what skills will be graded during the actual presentation.

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Fig. 4: Rubric for oral skills during presentation

Learners pre-evaluate where they reckon they are on the rubrics but do not share this information with their instructor until after their final presentations. Once they will have received their results, they have material to compare and, in a one-on-one meeting with their instructor, can discuss potential discrepancies directly and examine individual strategies for improvement based on criteria that are transparent for learners and instructor (or might even have been developed together).

6. Slide and Appearance

6.1. The Slides

Only now that the presentation has been held informally and practiced repeatedly, do learners complete their PowerPoint slide and send it to their instructor for revision on the night before their final presentations. At this point, learners truly know what they want to say and do not have to stick to and rely on the slides but use them as narrative props. The instructor can correct potential spelling or grammar mistakes or ask students to reduce too wordy, messy, or cluttered slides. Then the instructor can align