Friday, March 2, 2012

10 Tips for ESL Presentation Coaching

For me, one of the most rewarding experiences as a trainer is to rehearse actual presentations and web meetings with participants.  For them, it is a huge confidence boost and helps them stay on message during the real thing.  For us, we gain valuable insight on the business, and are better able to provide targeted follow-up training.

This situation, however, requires trainers to change roles and expectations for the training event.  When setting up the training there are several keys to success.  First, try to have the training in the same environment as the real event.  If it is online, set up a web meeting.  If it is in a technical training room, reserve the training facility.  Second, try to get the presentation before the event to help you prepare.  For the most part the rehearsal will be participant led, but walking in with some warning of what you are about to see it helpful.  Third, make sure the participant brings a printed copy of the slides to the training.  Constantly changing between presentation view and edit view in PowerPoint disturbs the flow of the rehearsal.  It is better to make written notes on the slides for later reference.  This also allows the participant to review what we covered after the training.  Finally, try to enlist the help of a colleague to sit in and also give feedback and take notes.  This person will help refine the content of the presentation and can augment trainer feedback.

Once the training is arranged there are several tips for a successful coaching, here are ten.

1.  Audience Analysis

More than likely, the presenter has been so wrapped up in the details of the presentation that they have forgotten about the audience.  First, elict as much information about the audience as you can.  Who are the attendees?  What are their jobs?  What do they expect to get from the presentation?  Second, because most presentations are given to other non-native speakers, try to find out what level of English we are talking about.  Very often I see slides come back from the translators at a higher level.  We need to make sure the audience will understand what we are presenting.

2.  Modelling

It is helpful to give the participant a starting point by modelling the introduction or certain key parts of the presentation.  This could include key diagrams and graphics or particularly complex topics.  Remember to keep the model at the level of the participant.  So, if the presenter is B1 and the audience is assumed to be A2, keep the language appropriate.  Setting the bar too high is demotivating for the presenter.  We are hoping to avoid the phrase, "Oh wow!  You should give this presentation."

Modelling also provides the opportunity for the trainer to highlight discourse markers like "First..", "Next...", and "Let's take a look at..." as well as topic and slide transition phrases.  The model is only to get the ball rolling and should be as short as needed (typically 1-2 minutes is enough).

3.  The slides as an aid / hindrance

The slides can both help and hinder the presenter.  The presenter will naturally want to use the text from the slides as much as possible to help them find the words.  This causes several problems.  First, it normally distorts their body language and reduces the impact of their voice.  Second, if the attendees are not clear about the meaning of a bullet point, explaining it in the same terms will not help their understanding.  Finally, overusing the text often disturbs the flow of the explanation.  The presenter explains bullet point one... stops... reads... then explains bullet point two.  This makes it difficult for the listener to get the context of the slide and how all the parts fit together.

On the other hand, slides can provide a great reference for the presenter to organize their thoughts and signal where discourse markers should be placed.  I advise my learners not to have written notes or slide presentation notes because they already have most of the information on the slides.  Instead, we should look how we can use the text to aid the presentation.  I recommend placing some key words in bold, italics, or in different colors so that when they look at the screen they can quickly identify the main points before speaking.  Often, I will also have the learner turn away from the screen or close their eyes and simply talk about what they know on the subject.  This helps give the slide more flow and explains the text in different words.

4.  Timing

In most cases, the English presentation is copied or adapted from a presentation in L1.  The learners often fail to realize that presenting in L2 will take much longer.  Sometimes to fit the presentation into the allotted time slot, difficult choices must be made.  For example, if the most important information is at the end of the presentation, you might want to consider reorganizing the slides.  We don't want to be rushing to finish during our main point.  I find that the same number of slides and amount of content will take at least 50% more time than in L1 (depending on level).

This is also a time to remind them that going faster is not really the best answer.  Because the audience is also non-native speaker, they will need more time to to read the text, listen to the presenter, and understand the material.

5.  Audience Multitasking

Expanding on this, it helps to shows the presenter what the audience will be doing during the presentation.  In L1, it is possible for the audience to read, listen, and think about the material simultaneously.  In L2, this is a huge challenge.  Often, the presenter will change slides and dive right in talking about the material.  I typically tell the learner not to be afraid of silence.  Give the audience a moment to digest the material.  Don't ask them to read and listen at the same time... they will stop doing one or both.

6.  Two-way Communication

Many business presentations are inherently one-way communication, but in the L2 environment two-way communication is crucial for the presenter.  The audience will be very hesitant to interrupt them with questions and if they don't understand the material they might be too embarrassed to acknowledge it.  I encourage the learners to state at the beginning that if the audience doesn't understand something, let the presenter know.  The presenter will also often try to avoid two-way communication to minimize the demands in English.  They present a slide, transition, and start talking about the next.  Encourage the participant to stop, ask for questions, watch for non-verbal communication, ask for feedback, etc.

7.  Realistic Changes

Most of these training events occur shortly before the real presentation.  It would be great to be part of the drafting process, but that is not always practical.  So when making suggestions for changes we need to be realistic about how much time the learner has.  A rule of thumb is that for small edits, estimate 5 minutes per slide.  For text reorganization, 10-15 minutes per slide.  For larger reorganization and changes, 20-30 minutes per slide.  We don't want to make recommendations and then either stress the learner to make them (giving them less time to consider our feedback) or cause them to doubt the quality of the presentation.

8.  Content Gaps

One helpful thing during the rehearsal is to listen for topics they are not covering.  Have they assumed some kind of prior knowledge because they are an expert?  This is where having the colleague in the room can be very helpful.  When I am reading the presentation before the training, I am thinking of what questions the audience will have for the presenter.  Sometimes we find topics that the participant has simply forgotten to include in the presentation.

9.  Limited Language Input

This is not really the time for language input and correction.  Vocabulary retention is minimal in this context and improving accuracy should not be the aim of the training.  That said, any glaring cultural errors or errors which could cause significant misunderstandings should be corrected.  Occasionally, I will monitor for accuracy, but mostly only to drive future training.  In this scenario, we need to give the learner as much confidence as possible, pointing out verbs tenses doesn't help this effort.  I will, however, listen for words or phrases which are overly used, such as "overview" or "in this environment" and try to help the learner find other expressions.

10. Review and Summarize

Finally, save some time at the end of the training to review what you have covered, distill the feedback into general concepts, and make task lists prior to the presentation.  The coaching event is a stressful time for the learner and they have probably not had the chance to take everything in.  Also, they have been 'on stage' and have not had the opportunity to stop, take some notes, and really consider the feedback.  This review and summary stage helps them implement the advice they have received.

Of course, after the training event, check back with the learner to find out how everything went and congratulate them for a job well done.  The students will be thankful for your feedback and truly grateful for helping them make a great impression on their audience.


  1. Great tips, thanks for the insights. Will definitely use and apply for an upcoming training.

  2. Hi Charles - good tips. I know you want to keep developing yourself professionally. One thing that helped my presentations training was Toastmasters International. Why don´t you check them out in Germany

    Best regards,
    Chris Wright

  3. Hi Charles - good advice, but as a presentation trainer I don't agree with your comments about using slides to remind you what to say. I know you warn about the dangers, but far too many business presenters design their slides for their own use e.g. as their autocue, rather then for the benefit of their audience's comprehension. I have blogged about that at
    I would prefer presenters to use notes and have powerful visuals supporting their spoken content.

    Kind regards
    Richard Lock

    1. Thanks for your great comment. Yes, you are right... and your website is certainly a valuable tool. I'm assuming your face-to-face training is even more engaging. I think the difference between us here is context.

      I am referring to presenters who are not native English speakers and are giving a presentation in their second language. Even with a higher level of fluency, my Business English trainees still often 'forget' even simple vocabulary in the moment. This disrupts confidence and detracts from the message. Placing them on the slide (within reason) help support them in the second language.

      Notes are indeed a good idea but potentially rob the audience of the text as well. In most cases, these presentations are given to other non-native English speakers for whom listening comprehension is much more difficult than reading.

      So, I agree wholeheartedly with your less is more concept. But it certainly works best when everyone in the room is proficient in the same language.

    2. Hi Charles. Funnily enough, I spend quite a bit of my time in Europe working with people who are presenting in a second (or more) language.I am frequently amazed at how well they are able to present. Typically, the audience is also working in a second language and so it is important to help comprehension. The presenter should have had the benefit of preparation and practice to reduce risk associated with difficult words. Equally, if they are struggling with a phrase, the chances are so will their audience and so the phrase may need changing. If it is an essential need, then I agree - put the words, with a graphic, to help the audience understand. Generally, pictures considerably help understanding, whatever langauges are involved.
      I also managed to mistype my web details on my previous comment and am unable to access it to amend, so to keep it simple try

  4. Very interesting. A friend of mine has also been considering a coaching class for her business. In the end, I think you have to ask yourself, "What is going to make my product(s) a 'must have' item?" The answer to this lies in advertising and marketing, not in paying a coach to pump up your confidence.

    Even if you have the most attractive product, if you don't present it well and don't place it well, it won't sell. I don't think you need to pay a coach to tell you that.

    People buy things because they feel it will make their life easier, or better. Simple as that.

    For a small business, I agree with you that you need to use free resources as much as possible. about public speaker