Language is at the heart of everything we do as humans. Without language you wouldn’t be here reading this article on the web. You wouldn’t be doing a presentation or teaching presentation skills. There would be no schools or universities. And there would be no history, laws, political dialogue or literature.

It goes without saying then that language is pretty important. And so it is with oral presentations. Getting the language right is key to creating the synergy between the three main elements: delivery, visual aids and content.

Three Principles

When preparing what to say in a presentation, we usually emphasise three principles in the use of language:

Principle of simplicity: Always try to use simple language. Deliver utterances that are short and simple. Keep the language on the visual aids down to just a few keywords and phrases, and get rid of redundant phrases and terminology.

  • This principle is based somewhat on skill theory which describes how novice users need to time to practice basic skills in order to convert declarative knowledge into proceduralized knowledge before they attempt to take on higher level tasks. Of course, simple is a relative term and may mean that some students are already able to handle higher level processing tasks than others. But, in general, teachers should encourage students to look for simplicity in the process wherever they can, for example, choosing the language to use, designing visual aids and structuring the presentation.

Principle of explicitness: Always try to be explicit. If something needs to be said, say it. Don’t leave it for the audience to infer it. If needs be, say it twice or more times. Put key information up front, don’t leave it to the end. For example, the main thesis should be clearly stated in the introduction.

  • This principle borrows from the principle of simplicity somewhat in that an explicit rhetorical form and style is a more parsimonious solution for a novice second language writer especially when we consider that students have limited control over the language they are using. This is particularly true of students of English from some Asian cultures who often study expository writing in their first language where it is considered the norm to leave the main point of the essay unsaid until the end (Oi and Kamimura, 1995). When students of English transfer this rhetorical style across into their second language, this can cause problems for the audience  who expect the main point to be explicitly stated at the beginning of the presentation, although we are not suggesting one style is better than another.

Principle of repetition (and summary): A presentation is not just a linear list of utterances from start to finish. We often pause during a presentation to reflect and give the audience time to digest what has been said.

  • Don’t be afraid to slow down during a presentation at some point. Summarise what you have said so far and ask the audience if they understand. Repeat what you have just said if necessary. We often repeat messages for emphasis and to make sure the audience has got them, especially if they are key interpretations.


At the heart of language is: grammar phonology and semantics. Phonology refers to the sounds that come out of our mouths. These sounds are mapped onto meaning via the grammar. It is sometimes said that the grammar is the ‘switchboard’ between sound and meaning.

Grammar is the switchboard between sound and meaning.


The language used during an oral presentation is spoken language. This is quite different from written language which tends to have lengthy sentences, subordination and embedding and formal grammar and lexis. Spoken language, in contrast, tends to consist of shorter more fractured syntax and uses a less formal style.