logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Giving presentations in Business English

presenting

This guide will not attempt to repeat the content of guides to speaking skills in general (for which there are links at the end) but will focus on the purposes for giving spoken presentations in a business setting and the associated language that needs to be mastered.
A further omission from this guide is the kind of speaking skills that Business English learners will need when interacting with their peers, colleagues, customers and contacts informally, as those do not differ substantially from generalised speaking skills covered elsewhere on ELT Concourse.


multi-function

Purposes

Essentially, there are four purposes for a presentation in a business context:

  1. To report: setting out what happened, what was done and what was discovered
  2. To explain or train: to help others acquire skills and information
  3. To propose: to suggest ways forward
  4. To sell: to set out advantages and persuade

and, although there are obvious commonalities, they require different language, different skills and different text structures.  This is because the way each is structured and the language one needs to use to make a case are different in each case.  This is the case whether a presentation is made in writing or in spoken English.  Because presentations are not off-the-cuff informal events, the audience will expect a certain type of staging of the information and, if the presentation does not follow conventional staging, may become disoriented and irritated.
In other words, we need to look at the genre and the generic structure which is conventional in an English-speaking setting.

We'll take them one at a time.  In what follows, the focus is on the following five language categories:

  1. Participants
    These can be human or non-human and the reference here is to the kind of entity which forms the theme of the language in the presentation.  For example, if we begin with:
        We have noted the need for ...
    then the theme is what the presenter and team have noted but if the beginning is:
        The process is as follows
    then the theme is the process, not the people.
    It is important that people are aware of which participants in the presentation they need to emphasise by placing them in the theme position.
  2. Verbal processes
    There are three of these which we can divide like this:
    1. doing verbs:
      1. material
            This machine can process ...
      2. behavioural
            Your customers demand ...
    2. thinking, feeling and saying verbs:
      1. mental
            We believe that ...
      2. verbal
            People have reported that ...
    3. being verbs:
      1. existential
            There is an issue with production times
      2. relational
            The process is inefficient and time consuming
  3. Modality
    The three areas which concern us here are
    1. epistemic modality which is to do with what is possible or likely
          The process may take some time
    2. deontic modality which is to do with what is obligatory or recommended
          The process should be made simpler
    3. dynamic modality to do with willingness and ability
          We will be able to supply the product with days
  4. Circumstances and adverbials
    This refers mostly to adjuncts such as adverbs and prepositional phrases such as:
        crucially
        noticeably
        in practice
        on the shop floor
  5. Connections
    This refers to coordination, subordination and also to conjuncts which perform similar connective functions such as:
        so that
        because
        As a result, ...

info

Information reports

The structure of an information report is the simplest of all which is why we are starting here and why it is also a good idea to start the training of presentation giving with this form.  An information report needs, above all, to be properly organised.  Data which are presented out of order or in unconnected sections are more difficult to access and assimilate and that frustrates both the listener and the purpose of the exercise.
The structure looks like this:

structure

This is the structure that good presenters use at the planning stage.  If a lot of information has to be communicated the presentation needs to have some backup in terms of handouts, diagrams and texts for people to take away.  Reference should be made to this material as the presentation unfolds, not left till the end.

Stage Participants Verbal processes Modality Circumstances and adverbials Connections
General statement  What is the report topic?
Who requested the report?
Why?
Who constructed the report?
Existential and relative processes
Passive voice
Present and past simple tenses
Epistemic and dynamic Matter
Focusing adjuncts
Angle and viewpoint
Subordinators:
causal
purpose
comparison
conditional
Examples This report concerns ...
The report was requested by ...
The purposes of the report is ...
There is an issue with ...
It is clear that ...
The issue which was identified is ...
The report was written by ...
We wanted to find out if we could ...
It was necessary to see whether it would be possible to ...
We set out to discover whether ...
probably
possible
etc.
about
concerning
primarily
chiefly
according to the data
in the opinion of ...
in our view
because
as a result
in order to
so that
whereas
while
if
whether
unless
Information Data gatherers
Figures
Actors
behavioural
material
verbal
Little modal auxiliary verb use but some adverbial use extent
location (place)
location (time)
manner and means
Coordinators:
addition
adversative
alternative
Examples We asked ...
We investigated
The figures for this area are ...
The process is ...
Customers have said that ...
obviously
certainly
probably
etc.
for three days
in all areas
on the factory floor
in the working week
after a delay of
by telephoning
via the website
by asking
and
additionally
moreover
but
however
although
or
alternatively
otherwise
Summary Reporters
Data
Results
mental
existential
Deontic manner and means Summative conjuncts
Examples We conclude
We suggest
The conclusion is ...
The company should consider ...
It will be useful to ...
There is a need for ...
by streamlining
with greater focus on
taking into account
So, ...
Consequently, ...
In conclusion, ...
To sum up ... 


explain

Explanations

Explanations have a similar structure to Information Reports but the language that is required to give them is quite different, as we shall see.  The aim of a presentation which attempts to explain something is to enhance the skills and knowledge of the audience.  This may be overt training or it may simply be part of an ongoing consideration of how the organisation accomplishes certain tasks.
The overall structure looks like this (usually):

structure

Again, the ordering of explanation texts is critical.  It is much easier for people to follow if the stages come in a logical order without back shifting with expressions such as but before that, after we have etc.

Stage Participants Verbal processes Modality Circumstances and adverbials Connections
Identification of the topic What is the process?
What will be the outcome?
Material
Passive voice
Present tenses
Dynamic Matter
Focusing adjuncts
Subordinators:
purpose
Examples This is how ...
This is what happens when ...
This is the process by which ...
This will help you to ...
This will make sure that ...
You will be able to ...
It allows us to ...
This should permit ...
concerning
primarily
chiefly
centrally
so that
in order to
to
Explanation sequence Employees
Material
Passive voice:
behavioural
material
mental
Little modal use
The focus is on process.
location (place)
location (time)
manner and means
Conjunct sequencers
Subordinators:
purpose
result
Examples The materials are received
The process begins
The analysis is made
The orders are processed

The team ensures
The staff record
etc.
on the factory floor
in the warehouse
as soon as possible
by filtering out
through the production line
firstly, secondly etc.
then
next
subsequently
afterwards
thereafter

Summary Process stages existential Deontic focusing and intensifying adjuncts Summative conjuncts
Examples The most important things to get right are ...
The essential steps are
It is essential to ...
We must ...
It is necessary to ...
critically
importantly
essentially
in essence 
In brief,
So, ...
Consequently, ...
At the end


proposal

Proposals

Proposals closely resemble discussion texts insofar as they seek to set out the current position and weigh alternative responses to it to gain some overall benefit.  They are not one-sided expositions because the attempt is to make the proposal appear reasonable and show that any drawbacks have also been considered.
The overall structure looks like this:

structure 

This has a rather different structure and there is a need to master a different set of language exponents of the functions because a proposal has to sound both rational and persuasive.

Stage Participants Verbal processes and tenses Modality Circumstances and adverbials Connections
Identification of the issue What are we trying to do?
Why is this important?
Mental
Behavioural
Deontic Manner
Contingency
Coordination:
additive
Subordination:
resultative
Examples Many consider the problem is ...
We seek to address the issue of ...
The importance lies in ...
We need to find a way to ...
It is important to ...
The importance of this is ...
The situation ought to be improved
by ...
unless
if not
lest
for fear of
and
additionally
as a result
consequently
Explanation of the issues Processes
Non-human themes
material Dynamic time
manner and means
Subordinators:
resultative
contrastive conjuncts
Examples The materials are inadequate
The process fails
The analysis is flawed
Orders are lost
We cannot ...
It is impossible to ...
We are unable to ...
There is no ability to ...
within the time scale
by
before the deadline
with a delay
without losing sight of
because
so
whereas
On the other hand
By contrast
Proposal  Proposers mental
verbal
Deontic emphasising adjuncts Subordinators:
resultative
Examples  We believe that ...
We are suggesting that we ...
We feel strongly that ...
The future should ...
We have a clear need to ...
There is an opportunity to ...
clearly
obviously
certainly
without doubt 
so that
in order to
to
to ensure
which will ensure
Summary Process stages existential Deontic focusing and intensifying adjuncts Summative conjuncts
Examples The most important things to get right are ...
The essential steps are ...
It is essential to ...
We must ...
It is necessary to ...
critically
importantly
essentially
in essence 
In brief,
To sum up the main points
Most importantly


selling

Selling

Sales pitches are not discussions.  The purpose of the pitch is not to consider two sides of an issue or to set out alternatives.  The purpose is to persuade and support the persuasion with evidence.  The presentation should, therefore, focus only on the perceived benefits with no consideration of drawbacks.
The structure, therefore, is:

structure

This is an exposition so will contain a good deal more in the way of verbal and mental processes along with quite a lot of modality.

Stage Participants Verbal processes Modality Circumstances and adverbials Connections
Statement of position What we are offering. Material
Present and perfect tenses
Dynamic Matter
Focusing adjuncts
Subordinators:
purpose
Examples We have developed ...
We produce ...
We can now offer ...
This will help you to ...
This enables ...
With this you can ...
concerning
primarily
chiefly
centrally
so that
in order to
to
Preview of benefits Non-human and human themes behavioural
material
mental
future forms
Deontic and dynamic role
contingency
extent
cause
Conjunct sequencers
Subordinators:
purpose
result
Examples The materials will
We believe that ...
We know that ...
You will expect that ...
We can guarantee that this will ...
etc.
We all need to be able to ...
There is a clear need for ...
There must be a better way
You should be able to ...
as an example
if
say
supposing
frequently
routinely
firstly, secondly etc.
thereafter
so that
in order to
Arguments and evidence The product
The seller
The customer
behavioural
material
mental
future forms
Dynamic time
contingency
manner and means
Sequencing and additive conjuncts
resultative conjuncts and subordination
Examples This machine processes ...
We are convinced that ...
You will see that ...
This allows ...
You will be able to ...
The savings can be ...
whenever
if
by
with
Firstly etc.
Additionally
Moreover
As a result
so that
to
Reinforcement and summary The product existential Dynamic focusing and intensifying adjuncts Summative conjuncts
Examples The most important advantages are ...
The difference will be that ...
This allows you to ...
With this you can ...
Now, you can see ...
critically
importantly
essentially
in essence
In brief,
So, ...
Consequently, ...


same

Commonalities

Although the differences in the kinds of language that need to be mastered are, as you can see, quite marked, there are also commonalities.  These are:

  1. All presentations begin with a statement of the topic to orient the listeners and to set the context.  Without this, a presentation can fail before it begins.
  2. Logical staging is essential to maintain coherence: switching stages around or mixing them up will result in incoherence.
  3. Most presentations will end with a summary and/or some kind of coda to signal the end.
  4. Most presentations will allow time for and invite questions from the audience.
  5. Many presentations will be followed by a general discussion in which turn-taking skills will be at a premium.  See the link below for a guide to more on that.

ask

Questions and clarification

The final section of all four presentation types exemplified above concerns the need to have space at the end for questions and clarification.
Because this is common to all types of presentation, it makes sense to handle how to conduct this part of the presentation in a separate teaching section.
How you conduct the process depends to a large extent on who is asking the question.  Superiors have the right simply to ask and to override any constraints that the speaker may try to put in place.  Colleagues and subordinates may need to be invited to ask and are more amenable to constraint.

The role of the presenter in this part of the process is as the chair of a meeting.  The presenter needs to be able to:

apply topic constraints
In a presentation, a speaker may not have the luxury of selecting questioners because some participants may be in more powerful positions or simply happy to ask uninvited.
In this case the speaker needs to rely on topic constraint alone but the constraint can often be signalled explicitly, by the parts underlined in the following examples:
    Does anyone have a question about these figures?
    Bearing this in mind, does anyone have a question?
    Does anyone need to ask anything about
the results so far before we go on?
nominate
It is often the case that colleagues are in the audience and they may need to be involved in this stage of the presentation.  The speaker is in a strong position to constrain who contributes and who asks questions.  It is quite simple to do this:
    John, do you have anything to add?
    Can Mary explain that, please?
and so on.
decide on open endedness
A presenter need not try to constrain by topic at all but runs the risk of people going off topic and following tangents.
For example, all the following are open invitations to tangential questions:
    Is there anything at all anyone wants to ask?
    Any questions about anything?
re-focus
If open-ended invitation has, in fact, resulted in off-topic contributions and questions, the presenter needs a strategy or two to drag people back on task.  This can usually be achieved easily if the contributor is a colleague or subordinate but may be unwise if the off-topic contribution comes from a superior.  Ways of doing it include:
    That's an interesting point but not one that I can deal with here and now.
    Good question.  Perhaps we should talk about that later.
    Can I leave that until after the meeting?
sort

What type of question am I being asked?

An important skill for a presenter is to recognise the kind of question that is being asked.  People have a range of ways of asking and answers will only be appropriate if the speaker has recognised what the focus is.  There are three main sorts

  1. Checking one's own comprehension.
    Questions such as:
        Am I right in thinking ...?
        Would I be wrong if I assumed ...?
        Should I assume that ...

    etc.
    are all ways to check that one has understood accurately.
    The response needs either to be affirmative (and can be short) or refocusing when the questioner is mistaken.  Usually, something like:
        Yes, that's exactly the point
    or
        Not quite.  The point I was making is (+ repetition)
  2. Requesting repetition or reformulation.
    Questions such as:
        Could you go over that point again?
        Could you explain again what ...?
        Could you say that again?
        Is that the same as saying ...?

    etc.
    ask for repetition and are requests, not questions so they need to be responded to differently.
    This means that presenters need to be able to re-phrase what they have said in simpler (or simply different) ways.
  3. Challenging.
    Questions such as:
        Is that always the case?
        Are we to believe that ...?
        How reliable are the data?
        What evidence do we have that ...?

    etc.
    are all ways of challenging the speaker to justify comments made.
    This will mean that a speaker must be prepared to justify statements and that, of course, is something to focus on at the planning stage.
    Many find that imagining a critic on your shoulder asking this sort of question while the presentation is in the planning stage helpful.

pressure

Pressures

There are a number of pressures on anyone speaking in public.  In the classroom, we can reduce them somewhat.

  1. Preparation level
    Off-the-cuff presentations are not for most people.  Learners operating in a foreign language are even less able to present impromptu and it isn't fair to ask them to do so.
    It is important, therefore to build in preparation time to any teaching programme aimed at presentation techniques.
    Being well prepared and knowing that you are, reduces the pressure considerably.
  2. Topic familiarity
    Trying simultaneously to research a new topic and prepare a presentation on it is an unnecessary pressure in the classroom so care should be taken, especially at the beginning, to allow the learner to decide on the topic and type of presentation they want to plan.  That way, they can focus on the presentation not the data because the latter are well known to them.
  3. Audience size
    Pressure increases in direct ratio to audience size so one way to reduce the pressure is to get people to practise their presentations in small groups of three or four before they have to take the step up to presenting to the whole group.  Repeating a presentation may seem somewhat dull to us but it is not seen that way by learners who appreciate the opportunity to repeat a presentation more than once.
  4. Using visual aids
    Visual aids can be extremely helpful or just an irritation depending on how well they are designed.  There are two issues:
    1. They act as an irritation when they are used instead of explanation and description; they are helpful when they are used to supplement explanation and description to present data which cannot (or should not) simply be read out.  We have probably all attended a presentation in which the speaker projects a slogan and then reads it to us.  That's a waste of everyone's time.
    2. They have a further useful function when used well and that is to replace the speaker's notes.  If, for example, slides are projected which refer to key data and ideas, they will serve to remind the speaker of what should be emphasised.  If they are used indiscriminately, they simply overwhelm the audience with detail and people lose the thread.  A rough rule of thumb is not to use more than one slide per five minutes of the presentation.
  5. Language unfamiliarity
    1. The first area of language which needs to be tackled before most people can even begin a presentation is that of verbalising graphical data.
      Practising the skill of looking at, say, a graph such as:
      bar
      and being able to say something like
      As can be seen, Series 3 remained around 2.0 for the first two Categories but increased by 50% in the third Category and had more than doubled by Category 4.
      is valuable practice for anyone aiming to be able to present data verbally.  We need to do more than show the data, we need to be able to explain them.
    2. Secondly, learners need to master a range of prefabricated language to increase their fluency.  Examples are:
      1. To gather one's thoughts when questioned:
            Well, let me see
            Thank you for the question.  It's an important one
            Hmm, that's an interesting question
            Well, now, what I can say is ...
      2. To present a personal opinion (a coda, usually):
            as far as I'm concerned
            to my mind
            in my view
            as far as I can see
            it seems to me that
      3. To orientate the audience:
            Now we can move on to the second issue
            To summarise ...
            The essential point is ...
            Finally, ...
            Another way of saying this is ...
            An example of what I mean is ...
      4. To invite questions:
            I am happy to try to answer any questions you may have
            Does anyone have a question they'd like to ask?
      5. To deal with interruption:
            I'll come to that at the end, if I may
            I'll take that point later.
            That's an interesting point but we don't have time for a full discussion now.

meditate

Visualising a presentation

A useful technique for (not only) Business English learners asked to give a presentation is to get them to visualise it before they deliver it.  It has advantages:

  1. It makes them less reliant on their notes, helping them to be more mobile and maintain eye contact with the audience
  2. It increases their confidence because they will feel better prepared
  3. It lets them see where they may need more content (or fewer PowerPoint slides)
  4. It allows them to predict what people may ask and prepare some kind of answer

It works like this:

Step 1: learn the presentation

Learners should sit with their plan for the presentation and make sure they can, without looking at it, recite the essential stages of the talk.  Depending on the genre (see above), this will require three or four stages to be recited.

Step 2: run through the stages

This is where the use of visual aids such as projected slides is most helpful.  As was noted above, slides and other graphics can replace the speaker's notes altogether if they are confined to the key ideas in the talk.

Once the staging is clear and memorised, learners need to focus on

Step 3: reduce the notes

Learners can now re-visit their notes and reduce them to key words on cards.  If this procedure has been followed to the end, they may not need the cards, but most people like some reassurance.

Step 4: visualise the whole presentation

The learners should now find somewhere comfortable to sit or lie and, with their eyes closed, visualise the whole presentation from start to finish.  In particular focusing on getting the order and staging right and going over in their minds the short language chunks they need to memorise to help them speak fluently

Step 5: questions

The final stage, before repeating Step 4 as often as necessary, is to try to imagine what questions people are likely to ask and how they will field them.

deliver

Delivering the presentation

There are a few logistical matters to attend to, not least:


group

Other speaking skills

That is obviously not the end of the range of speaking skills that learners will need when using English in a business environment.
However, most other speaking skills do not lie specifically in the realm of Business English.  They include:

and all these skills will form just as much a part of a General English programme as they will form part of a Business English course.



Related guides
turn-taking the general guide to the area
expressing cause and effect a separate guide to the functional area
speaking the more general guide to the skill
teaching speaking for some classroom ideas
visualisation as a teaching technique
the A - Z index from where you can track down other guides to verbal processes, modality types and so on