Hints on presenting a paper

These notes were prepared for the Institute of Historical Research, University of
London, by Catherine Delano-Smith and Susan Reynolds, who are pleased to
share them with speakers at International Conferences for the History of
Hints on Presenting Seminar and Conference Papers
There are just two Golden Rules: Be Audible and Keep to Time.
1. Be audible
Soft voices are nice in general but no good for public speaking of any sort. Audibility also
involves not talking too fast, especially if you are speaking a language that is not your own or
addressing people in a language that is unfamiliar to them. Even American, Scottish, Indian,
and English English can all sound very different in the way words are pronounced and
inflected. Each one of us has an accent for someone in the audience.
So, remember
—to speak to the back row
—to articulate distinctly
—that personal and place names may be unfamiliar to your listeners.
Being audible also means being in control of your communication, interesting your listeners
and making sure they understand you in the way you want them to. Whether you read from a
script or extemporise from brief notes is largely a matter of personal luck; relatively few
people can maintain fluency and coherence over a sustained period without detailed notes of
some sort, so don’t worry if you feel you want to write out every word. It may be better to
write a full script, designed for reading aloud, than to risk speaking too slowly. Pauses while
you think of words, and ums and ahs, are tedious for your audience. Just bear in mind that
there is a big difference between writing for speech and writing for publication. The prose
style can be less formal and, most importantly, you want to excite interest in your topic and
the argument you are presenting, however complicated, by the way you modulate your voice,
stress words and phrases, and pause for effect so as to give your listeners time to assimilate
that last point before moving on to the next. To make things easier for you, there are ways of
arranging your prose on the page so that you will not have to glue your eyes to the page from
start to finish, or um and ah while you find the next sentence when you have got lost.
So, the first tip for when you are writing out your script is: think of your audience as you
write; you are telling them something.
The second tip is for yourself: make your script easy to deliver.
The third tip is: engage your audience by looking directly at them from time to time,
modulating your voice and stressing key words and phrases.
In short, it may be worth your while giving thought to the best way to set out your text on the
page. Instead of typing out page after page of undifferentiated continuous prose, with just the
occasional paragraph break, think how you can break up the prose—with extra line-spacing
and indented sections — to give yourself visual prompts, so you have time as your eye
follows your layout to adjust your cadence according to the points you are emphasising.
Finally, you can always try out your presentation on a friend. Make sure he/she sits as far
away as possible, as if in the back row of the room where you will be talking.
2. Keep to Time
Find out in advance how long you are to speak for. It is generally 50 minutes at a normal
seminar, but sometimes 20 minutes for a conference paper. Conferences vary, so again, make
sure you find out well before starting to plan or write your presentation. Make sure too that, if
at all possible, your Power Point is loaded up before the session starts.
When preparing your paper, time yourself, speaking out loud and at the speed you will go.
Practise over and over so you know the text and can keep looking up without losing your
place. Remember:
— to allow for all extras (preliminary chat, extemporary remarks)
— that a useful rule of thumb may be 1000 words in 10 minutes (in English to an
English speaking audience).
— that pointing to something on the screen takes time (make sure you have
budgeted for all you need: 800 words in 10 minutes may be all you can fit in if, for
instance, you are displaying slides.
Do not set out with a paper that is too long, thinking you can cram everything in by speaking
very fast (see above on audibility). If it is too long, cut it. Check your word count constantly.
You can never say everything about anything anyway, so be selective in what you say and
tailor it to the occasion. Your listeners will quickly notice if you are offering them a paper
that clearly was not intended for them, but is just an unadapted chunk of your thesis or book
or a much longer lecture. That is not the way to make friends.
Never find yourself asking if you are going on too long or how much time you have left. If
you do, you have failed. If you overrun by five minutes or less, say nothing: the perfect
seminar paper will ensure that this amount of overrun – but no more—will not be noticed or
Planning a paper
Any paper that takes 20 minutes or more should have three sections:
1. Introduction: Set the scene by saying what your main argument is. (This applies to
published articles too: they should not be written like detective stories where you only find
out at the end what was significant in the story so far). Keep the introduction brief and to the
point, i.e. focused. If it is a 20 minute paper this part should last no more than 5 minutes
(maybe 500 words). Do not waste time explaining how you started on the subject etc. For a
full length (50 minute) paper, you can allow 10 minutes.
2. The middle: This is the meat of your argument. Allow 10 minutes (c 1000 words) in a 20
minute paper, perhaps 30 minutes in a 50 minute paper. Make sure the structure of your
argument will be conveyed to your audience; people listening to a paper cannot turn back and
read it again. Remember to include signpost phrases to introduce the next chunk and link it
with what has just been said. Avoid unattributed pronouns (his, him, they, theirs) and repeat
names to avoid ambiguity. Short and simple sentences usually help convey a complex
argument clearly.
3. The conclusion. This should be brief and focused on the topic as described in the title
of your presentation. Allow 5 minutes (c. 500 words) in a 20 minute paper, 10 minutes in a
50 minute paper. Do not say ‘In conclusion’ and then go on and on … If, as is probable, there
are issues that you feel will need further exploration, or points you aren’t sure about, say so:
there is nothing disgraceful in that, and it helps the audience think of questions to ask.
In general: Always remember that however expert you may think your audience will be, not
everyone will be expert on the topic you are talking about, or even particularly
knowledgeable in your general field. Remember the KISS principle (Keep it simple, stupid)
and avoid indulging in a mass of detail that cannot be absorbed by a listener. Details and
general points should walk hand in hand. Make sure that you are clear in your own mind
about words that may have different senses in different contexts (eg. state, nation, race,
feudal) and that your meaning will be transparent to your listeners.
Never say (or write) ‘It is interesting that’: leave it to your audience to decide whether they
find what you say is interesting.
Visual aids
Tell the organizers in advance what visual aids you will use and get there in plenty of time to
make sure all is ready. If you use Power Point get it organized in advance. Avoid too many
PowerPoint ‘effects’; remember that it is difficult to read text on the screen and listen
simultaneously. If you are addressing an academic audience they will be clever enough not to
need very simple lists of words. At the same time, they may appreciate a list of technical
terms, or unfamiliar names, either on screen (as you come to them) or as a handout (in the
order in which you will refer to them).
Maps can be particularly useful, but make sure they fit your argument. A rough sketch map
showing the places you refer to is likely to be much more helpful to your audience than a
detailed map scanned from a book with place-names far too small or faint for your audience
to see and that you will waste valuable speaking time searching for on the screen in order to
point to them.
For all visual aids on the screen (illustrations, maps, text) make sure you have, and use, a
pointer of some sort (even a ruler is better than a vague gesture or nothing at all).
In anticipation, the worst part of giving a talk is the questions—and indeed these can be
terrifying, especially when, as can happen, some of them are aggressive and point-scoring.
Try not to be defensive. Say (or imply) ‘That is a good question’, but, whatever you do, do
not say that after every question; the effect of that is not impressive! Never be afraid to ask
for the question to be repeated or rephrased if you are unsure whether you heard it correctly,
or to say 'I'm not sure if I understand you correctly.’ If a question included two points and you
forget the second while answering the first, say so and ask for it to be repeated. If you cannot
supply information requested, say you’ll be happy to find out and tell the questioner later.
Never go on too long with your answers. This is easy to do when you are tired after giving the
paper, but a question is not an invitation to give another paper. Answer as directly and
succinctly as you can. If you are asked to elaborate a point you made in your talk, try to pick
out just one or two key aspects. Avoid waffling on in a bid to give yourself time to think what
they are.
If someone refers to something you did not know about, ask them to give you the full
reference afterwards. Try to give the impression you are learning from the questions.
November 2010
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