The “je ne sais quoi” of ELT presentations

I’ve done it. I’ve taken what is, in my opinion, one of the naffest phrases in the English language and made it the title of my latest blog post. I may be wrong, but I don’t think French people ever use “je ne sais quoi” in  this way, do they?

Ah, yes – where was I? The “je ne sais quoi” of ELT presentations.

I couldn’t have happened across Mike Griffin’s recent blog post What elt conference attendees want at a better time.

Trawling through my favourite blogs is often a pleasant (if slightly dangerous) displacement activity for me. I can lose myself in the ELT blogosphere for hours at a time: strangely enough, the heavier my workload is, the greater the lure of my favourite blogs becomes.

Anyway, on this particular occasion, I happened upon a blog post which was totally relevant to the task I was trying to achieve (preparing two seminars, a lecture and an “inspirational speech” for a forthcoming trip to Vilnius in Lithuania later on this month), as Mike had helpfully collated responses to the question: “What makes for a quality presentation?”

The answers make fascinating reading. Here is feedback collected from the horses’ mouths – what a gift for the conference presenter.

Many of the conference attendees wishes seemed fairly straightforward to grant. “Encouraging (but not forcing participation)” seemed like a simple target to aim for when planning and delivering a session. “Relevance and preparation” also seemed like an achievable goal.

Other items on the conference attendees’ wish list seemed more elusive. “Confidence”. “Solid presentation skills”. “Wit and humour- but not at the expense of the topic”.

Tricky, tricky. After all, how can we exude confidence when we don’t feel it? Can we force ourselves to be confident? How can we be “solid” when our knees are knocking together like castanets? How can we hope to make our audience laugh (with us rather than at us) when we feel like climbing into the nearest cupboard?

I suspect answers to these questions will vary considerably from individual to individual. What’s one woman’s confidence booster is another’s downfall, after all.

Reading Mike’s post made me reflect on what I’ve learned about presenting over the past few years as well as inspiring me in my preparation for forthcoming events. Here are a few things I’ve learned with regards to ticking the aforementioned elusive boxes of confidence, solidity and wit.

Solid presentation skills

  • At the writing stage, make sure your message is clear and you presentation is focused. Can you sum up the main message of your presentation in a sentence? No? Then it’s worth asking yourself if your presentation is sufficiently focused. Enlist the services of a critical friend.
  • Cut irrelevant bits ruthlessly.
  • Keep text on slides to an absolute minimum so you won’t be tempted to read from them. Because we all know this is the cardinal sin of presenting and no one does it anymore. Do they?
  • Have notes with you but try to keep them “noteish”. If you’ve practised as much as you should have done, you’ll hardly need them anyway.
  • Pause. Let what you’re saying sink in. People need time to process all the amazing things you’ve shared with them.


  • Knowing what you are going to say inside out and back to front is crucial. Practise your talk, especially the opening chunk. Record your voice and play it back, checking for tone and emphasis. Once you’ve done that, stand in front of a mirror and watch yourself. Work on expression and gesture. Extreme? Perhaps. Worth it. Oh, yes.
  • Do you have any nervous tics? Know them and work around them. During my first few presentations, I was cursed with knees that literally knocked together in an embarrassing cartoon comedy fashion. I had to make sure I stood behind something, (i.e. a table) so that audiences didn’t get distracted. *
  • If you have friends/kind colleagues attending your talk, make sure you ask them to sit somewhere visible. If you start to feel wobbly, make eye contact with them. If they’re worth their salt, they’re sure to give you a reassuring smile and ask you an interesting yet answerable question at the end of your session. If you know no one, pick out the pleasant faces in the audience and return to them sporadically throughout your presentation. The miserable looking punter in the front row is probably suffering from trapped wind – his saturnine countenance does not reflect on the quality of your presentation. Best ignore him.
  • Get there early. I like to interact with participants as they arrive. If people are up for it, engage them in conversational niceties. Breaking the ice in this way will make you feel so much calmer.
  • Choose your clothes carefully. You should be able to bend over without showing your pants, stretch without revealing any flesh, stand in front of a window without your underwear shining through and stand sideways without everyone knowing how much you like beer. Don’t wear anything too comfortable: smart clothes will make you stand up straight and look more confident. Always dress a season’s worth colder than it really is (I read this advice in a Paul Theroux travel book and have always liked it).


We all know that the star performers of ELT are the natural comedians. How can you include wit into your presentation without making it look forced and without detracting from your content?

  • My personal feeling (and do feel free to disagree, dear reader) is that you should not write stand-up comedian style jokes into your presentation. Write an erudite talk full of insight and learning. Then deliver it with passion. If a witticism occurs to you on the day, and you are feeling bold, then throw it to the floor.
  • The exception to this comes in the form of amusing anecdotes which are specifically related to what we are talking about. I’m sure we all have a favourite teaching story. Just make sure it doesn’t contain anything inappropriate for your audience. Take your time with it, and make sure any your punch line is delivered slowly and clearly.
  • Of course, humour can also be non-verbal. Visuals, gestures and facial expressions can all generate laughter.

I hope that the above reflections will provide helpful food for thought for those with conference talks to prepare. Good luck, and may your presentations have people shaking their heads in wonder at your “je ne sais quoi”.

*Happy ending. This doesn’t happen anymore.




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4 Responses to The “je ne sais quoi” of ELT presentations

  1. Matthew says:

    Definitely going to use this as a guide while planning for an upcoming presentation. Thank you!

  2. Joanna Malefaki says:

    Great post but dress for a season colder? Nope nope! You sweat and your face aka makeup comes off!☺☺☺

    • joco75 says:

      Hi Joanna! Ah, you may be right about this. 🙂 I feel the cold terribly, and most of the talks I have done to date have been in chilly, northern climes. It might be a different story if I was speaking somewhere sunny and exotic!

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