G I V I N G P A P E R S
This paper originally appeared in the January, 1984 issue of American Antiquity
Oral presentation of papers has assumed ever increasing importance as a mode of information dissemination among the professional community. Many oral presentations are diminished in effectiveness by disregard of formal and mechanical aspects of presentation. Discussion of these aspects among professionals is as essential as is formal instruction in them for students.
The oral presentation of research
at professional gatherings is a routine part of academic life.
Since there is often a considerable time lag between the first,
oral, notice of research accomplished and its final appearance
in print, papers given at meetings assume an even greater importance,
since they may be the only source of information on a subject
for years to come. Yet, to judge from the casual manner in which
many papers are presented, it seems that this activity is considered
unimportant within the profession. All too many papers clearly
show that insufficient effort and skill have been expended in
their preparation. In addition, many of our colleagues seem to
have a minimal understanding of, or interest in, the mechanics
of effective public speaking. To make matters worse, they pass
on this attitude to their students.
The following comments deal
with the most basic aspects of orally presenting research to an
audience. These are the elements that frequently are violated
in the symposiums and general sessions of professional meetings.
One should note that there are numerous books which discuss these
and other points in much more detail, and which consider aspects
of public speaking that are beyond the scope of this article.
A brief list of the most readily available titles is appended
The paper one presents at
a meeting should never be the version written for publication
or for submission as a technical or seminar report. Written and
spoken American English have rather different stylistic conventions,
different cadences and to some extent, different vocabularies.
If one is planning to distribute copies of a paper to colleagues,
such copies may be a more complete version of the oral presentation
and may be written in a more formal format. If a copy being distributed
is merely a rough draft, it should be so labeled and should include
some clear caveat against quoting from it without the express
written permission of the author. Circulated papers should include
the name and affiliation of the author, the name, place and date
of the meeting, and any other pertinent information.
Titling papers is a difficult
task. It is helpful to the audience if the title clearly evokes
the content of the paper. Eye-catching titles are acceptable for
oral presentations, as long as they are also informative, but
are less appropriate in publications.
Abstracts, consistently, are
among the weakest sections of papers, both those which are given
at meetings and those which are published. An abstract is expected
to be a brief, substantive synopsis of the content of the paper,
not some maundering peroration such as "This paper discusses
and purports to show that ...". Abstracts are not transitive
statements (Landes 1951).
Oral presentations are almost
always closely limited in terms of the time available to the speaker.
This means that the entire paper, not just the abstract, must
be a succinct synopsis of the research. It is not possible to
present an entire thesis, dissertation, or forthcoming monograph
in 15 minutes. One's entire paper must be, in essence, merely
an expanded abstract. A good paper begins with a pithy statement
of the subject. What did you do (i.e., what was this piece of
research on or about)? If it was field research, where did you
do it? If not, what is its geographic, cultural or temporal scope?
When did you do it? (This is especially important for interim
reports of an on-going project.) How did you do it? The methodologies
employed might affect the credibility of your results. What was
your sample (if this is relevant to how you went about what you
did)? And, finally, were there any circumstances that affected
or interfered with the work accomplished? These matters considered,
one then briefly states one's results; a single statement of results
is generally sufficient.
References in an Oral Report
When referring to another's
work in an oral report, it is best to say something like "so
and so's 1971 book, article, movie..." in those cases in
which a reference is strictly necessary. One can give credit to
others without the details of referencing or citation; indeed,
references are best avoided in an oral presentation except when
strictly relevant to the posing of the problem, the methodology
employed, or the results.
One can usually assume that
the audience at a professional meeting has some familiarity with
the literature. Since one tailors one's presentation to a specific
audience at a professional meeting, it is usually inappropriate
to borrow from the introductory lecture you deliver to your class
or seminar; nor is there need for great detail about related theoretical
works -- unless these are themselves the topic of your research.
Complexity and Comparison
Presenting very complex papers
requiring the audience to pay close attention to detailed reasoning
is not advisable. One can count on at least half the audience
missing any particular pertinent statement. Papers which involve
mathematical or other abstract topics tend not to be communicated
well in an oral format and are thus better published than presented
orally. Another type of paper more effectively presented in print
than orally is one which involves very broad comparisons. There
are few more hopeless tasks for an audience than that of struggling
to keep track as the speaker tries to do justice to 50 tribes,
150 cities or 80 species within 15 minutes. Although such papers
can be managed with care, experience, and a judicious use of handouts
and graphics, they are seldom successful.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt
Giving the same paper over
and over is a poor reflection on any person's scholarship and
industry. It is unfortunate that one must present a paper in order
to obtain any travel assistance (indispensable to most people
on academic salaries). Furthermore, many scholars lack the time
to rework or to develop new aspects of their research so that
there is something worthwhile to present. While these are difficult
problems, presenting the same paper twice (or more often) does
not solve them, is discourteous to one's colleagues, and reflects
poorly on one's professional reputation. This is not to say that
one shouldn't present the same research to very different audiences.
But papers, like articles, need to be written to a specific audience,
emphasizing those aspects that are of potential interest to that
Unless you are an experienced
and accomplished public speaker, your presentation should be written
out fully. That is to say, with full sentences, punctuation, all
comments on the visuals, etc. in place. Here the differences between
spoken and written American English are crucial; the paper must
be written as you would speak it. Difficult as this is, it is
the only way to learn how to pace a paper correctly and how to
finish on time.
Typing the paper with a large
typeface and a new ribbon is helpful. Lecture halls are often
quite dim and many an otherwise excellent presentation has been
ruined because the speaker could not see the notes. The text should
be double, or better, triple, spaced with a large left margin
into which can be inserted reminders like "slide 1"
or "see page 3 of the handout." Comments on visuals
and handouts should be included within the text. Pages should
be clearly numbered.
At this point one takes the
draft of the paper, assembles the illustrations, and does a dry
run with a timer set to the precise number of minutes allowed.
Have a friend or colleague listen to you as you read the paper
aloud. This person can tell you when you are rushing and when
something is unclear. The listener will also doubtless remind
you that reading tables, or commenting on what is obvious in graphics,
is redundant. Alternatively, one can tape the practice session,
or one can do both, with various versions of the paper. It is
at this point that all pronunciations of words such as people's
names, foreign terms, and geographic localities should be checked.
A dry run also permits the identification and removal of tongue
twisters, jaw breakers, redundancies (e.g., "two-wheeled
bicycles") and the like. The more loathsome pieces of gobbledy-gook
should also be removed; although specialized vocabulary (or jargon)
may be what you commonly use when discussing the subject informally
with your colleagues, it is inappropriate in an oral presentation.
Standard American English terms are usually much more effective
in oral presentations than are the currently fashionable buzz
If your paper is too long,
even by 10 seconds, cut it. Consistently running overtime marks
one publicly as selfish and egotistical. If time is to be allotted
for questions, do not consider this as your time: someone
else might have a question or even a pertinent comment.
Being rude or snide is unacceptable
in a formal presentation. Such a speaker merely demonstrates bad
manners. If a critique of someone else's ideas, data, etc. is
an integral part of one's work, it is only fair to send that person
a copy of the paper beforehand, or as soon as is humanly possible.
There are legitimate differences of opinion in all the sciences;
there are also always differences of interpretation, methodology
and so on, and these do form legitimate topics for public discussion.
But there is no need to be rude with one's criticisms of others'
If you cannot deliver your
paper yourself, the chair of the session should be so informed
as soon as possible. If someone else will be giving the paper,
the chair should also be informed, preferably before the meeting,
and the reader should receive a copy in time to practice with
the text before the meeting and to discuss with you any changes
of length, vocabulary, visuals or other materials that might need
to be made.
Slides are the usual means
of illustrating a paper. Use 35 mm slides whenever possible. If
your slides are of another size you must so inform the session
chair (or the program chair) as far in advance as possible because
special equipment will be needed. Remember that there will have
to be as many different machines as there are slide formats. It
is far better to have all slides of one size; any photographer
can, given time, produce slides of all one sire from any range
of originals Slides should be mounted in unbent, unfrayed cardboard
or ultrathin plastic mounts. These can be acquired at any camera
store and remounting a slide is easy. It is, in fact, a good idea
to keep a store of new mounts on hand in case last-minute accidents
occur. The more elaborate mounts, such as those made of heavy
plastic, metal or glass, do not work with some projectors and
always have a tendency to jam.
It is a good idea to put your
name on each slide. A little rubber stamp for this purpose is
helpful and inexpensive. You might also consider using a dot or
star stamp to mark the upper right hand corner of the slide as
an aid to loading the tray properly. This latter consideration
is essential, since having slides upside down, backwards, or out
of order interrupts your presentation. It is unreasonable to expect
the projectionist to be able to sort your slides correctly in
a hurry, in the half light, and so you must present this person
with the slides already loaded or, at least, in order and ready
to put into the tray.
Slides are most easily sorted
on a slide sorter or a light table. At this time they should be
numbered in their order of appearance for the paper. An alternative
system, invented by the late Junius Bird, is to take your slides,
once in order, hold them tightly, and make a big V down them with
a broad felt-tip pen. This simplifies getting them back in order,
should they be dropped. Make a practice of showing your slides
along with the first run of the paper so that the inevitable upside-down
slide is caught before its public appearance. Slides go into a
tray upside down and backwards; that is, with the emulsion side
(the dull one) towards the screen. Slides which have been processed
by one of the major photographic companies will often have "this
side towards screen" printed on the mount, but remounted
slides or those processed by a smaller company may lack such an
aid. One must thus learn to tell the emulsion from the non-emulsion
side. Again, using a dot or star stamp will make it easier to
sort and re-sort your slides.
If you know what type of projector
will be in use at your session, it is safest to bring your slides
already loaded in your own tray. The tray should be marked with
your name and address. If you cannot procure the appropriate tray,
or your chair is not sure of the facilities to be provided, bring
your slides to the session in order, right side up, in a cardboard
slide box or a fitted plastic slide carrier. In this situation
slides should be labeled in order of their appearance, since there
is always a chance that they will be disarranged while being loaded.
If an illustration is to be
repeated, have two. Never, ever, expect the projectionist to bounce
back and forth through all your slides looking for the repeat,
or the audience to put up with it. Duplicate slides cost about
50 cents apiece. They take approximately a week to have processed,
so plan accordingly. Kodalith slides, negatives or positives of
line drawings are also not very expensive, although the price
becomes astronomical if you must have them within the hour. In
a symposium where many of the speakers are going to show the same
maps, artifacts, etc., duplicate slides are equally necessary
to avoid holding up the proceedings.
Double projection is becoming
more and more common and can be very useful. Facilities for double
projection are not yet universal, however, and a person who needs
such a facility should make sure of its availability. For double
projection the trays must be loaded ahead of time, and marked
with labels for "left screen" and "right screen,"
referring to the audience's left and right. Such notes should
also be made in the margin of your paper. Duplicate slides are
essential for double projection. Black slides may also be needed
to avoid having different numbers of slides in each tray and leaving
a great white blob on one screen while you discuss the image on
the other. Black slides are useful in many contexts, such as when
you have finished with one image and are not yet ready for the
next. They can be made by mounting some of the black film left
in the bottom of the box when the slides come back from the photo
shop. It is also possible to cut slide-sized pieces of cardboard,
but this is a great deal more difficult than it sounds.
Make sure that the illustrations
really do show what they are supposed to show. Avoid slides that
are poorly exposed, out of focus, or in which the item of interest
is a tiny speck off to the back behind a tree. There may be exceptional
occasions in which only inadequate illustrations are available,
but in general, if a paper demands illustration, and the illustration
is lacking, the paper should not be given.
Diagrams and Maps
Charts, tables and graphs
are the most abused illustrations. Only very simple ones, designed
expressly for the purpose, show up well on the screen. There never
has been and never will be a justification for showing computer
print-outs in slides. When one needs to refer to tabular or diagrammatic
materials, have these duplicated as handouts. In most conference
rooms there is enough light to read printed material. If there
is not, one can always turn on the lights for the time in which
the handout is being used as an illustration. Mimeograph and similar
means of duplication have been in use for years. One can also
make multilith stencils from photocopies by using a Thermofax
machine, so that it isn't even always necessary to retype or redraw
the chart or table. Ditto may not be particularly elegant, but
it is much more visible than the same chart made into a slide
and projected in a large room with a fair amount of ambient light.
These processes are all very inexpensive. Electrostatic dry copying
(such as Xerox or similar systems) is especially cheap when one
is making multiple copies of a single original. Photo-offset printing,
available at most copy stores, seldom costs more than $2-$3 per
50 copies. Dry copies and photo-offset give the best image and
are preferable for complex or detailed graphics.
Handouts should carry the
author's name, the paper title and any other relevant information.
Handouts are the only reasonable way to deal with lists, flow
charts, complex diagrams and the like. They are also extremely
useful when a complex inscription or monument is being analyzed.
Here a slide might also be shown so that color(s), relative size
or other information can be demonstrated; handouts are most useful
for the details.
The above comments also apply
to maps. Slides made from the gas company map of Outer Somewhere
are fatal. Much better to trace that map with a felt pen or a
drawing pen (depending on your expertise), including only the
pertinent information, and then make this into a slide or a handout.
Remember that good slides begin with good graphics. There are
now a variety of systems, including press-on letters, lettering
machines, and special type elements for typewriters that make
it a simple matter to put good-looking, legible, legends on your
maps or charts, even if you are not much of an artist.
Something which many people
fail to take into account is that most line drawings can be made
in negative. White on black is usually more visible when projected
than is black on white. This kind of reversal can be done by any
camera or graphics shop from either a drawing or a positive slide.
You might be able to have a choice of background color as an alternative
Overhead projectors should
be avoided whenever possible. A great many places do not have
them and most materials needed for illustration can be reduced
to 35 mm slides or to handouts. Overhead projectors are not only
heavy, clumsy and hard to aim properly, but they produce an image
with poor visibility in any but the smallest, darkest room. They
are also noisy. Never attempt to illustrate a talk with both slides
and overhead projections. If an overhead projector is truly essential
to your paper, give advance warning to your chair. The equipment
must also be checked over before the session starts and one must
make sure that there is someone present who can place the transparencies,
focus and aim. One of the major problems with this type of projector
is user casualness; most people simply drop a transparency on
them, letting light escape in every direction. Preparations for
the overhead projector should be carefully mounted in a frame
of dark construction paper or cardboard which covers the projector
plate completely, except for the illustration. This mask ensures
that the illustration will have maximum visibility. The masked
preparations should, of course, all be labeled, have the top clearly
marked and be numbered sequentially. If an illustration is to
be repeated, a duplicate is necessary. It is impossible for a
projectionist to sort speedily through a pile of large, floppy
transparencies in search of one previously shown. Hand the preparations
to the projectionist in a large, flat box, in order.
Illustrations presumably illustrate
the paper. Hence they should be shown along with the talk, not
grouped at the beginning or the end. The only reasonable exception
is when a person wishes to give the audience some idea of an unfamiliar
area or scene before getting down to business.
Fortunately, most people who
show movies have been involved in their making and seem to be
more technically aware than the average paper giver. Usually problems
are only encountered with students who have done some sort of
visuals project and who want to present the results. Often they
need to be reminded (especially in these days of diminishing funds
and increased competition for everyone and everything) that it
is foolish to show the only print. If there is but a single print
it should remain in obscurity until it can be copied. Showing
unfinished work prints, even as copies, is rarely a good idea.
Titling, credits, narration, edited sound and the like really
need to be completed before a film is put on official, public
view. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but then
the credits must be given orally, taking from the time allotted
to the showing of the film. One should always remember to put
new, long leader on both ends of a film and to check all splices
before taking it away to be shown. A film needs to be labeled,
both on the reel and on the can, and a takeup reel of appropriate
size must be provided by the film owner. If the film has not been
rewound, the projectionist needs to be informed before the session
begins so that the film may be prepared for showing.
Microphones and Pointers
Microphones are commonly used
at meetings. It is the responsibility of the session's chair to
make sure that they are in order, or to summon help. Microphones
come in two general types: stationary and mobile. The former is
usually attached to a stalk adjustable vertically and laterally:
the latter loops around your neck on an adjustable cord or clips
to your clothing. If the microphone is properly adjusted, all
one has to do is speak into it in a normal voice, keeping the
mouth a few inches from the device. The most effective distance
between the mouth and the microphone varies with the microphone,
so check the voice amplification equipment yourself before the
session begins. If the microphone is a stationary one, floppy
necklaces, pendants and the western-style string ties with a large
metal slide should be removed or tucked into clothing. Ornaments
like these tend to swing against the microphone when one is speaking,
making a distressing and distracting noise. The same is true for
mobile microphones if one is a physically active speaker.
Pointers are extremely useful
devices for indicating to the audience just what is of special
interest on the projection screen. Since many conference halls
do not have pointers, you might consider investing in one of your
own, especially if you plan to give papers with any frequency.
There is a rather nice telescoping metal pointer that is mounted
in a pen-like case, and will clip to your shirt or jacket pocket.
These extend to about 1 m maximum -- usually long enough.
Light pointers are another
matter. These are flashlight-like devices which shoot an arrow
rather than a wide beam. There are various models of these; those
used in larger auditoriums usually are powered from a cord rather
than by batteries. If you have never used a light pointer it is
a good idea to practice with it before the session; they can be
tricky to aim. Also, learn how to turn the light off and on. Leaving
the arrow lit when it is not needed is extremely distracting to
the audience, especially if you have a tendency to gesture.
A final note on mechanics:
a great many conference rooms do not have properly-lit podiums.
This can lead to disaster if you plan to show slides, especially
if the room has no dimmer switch. It is a good idea to carry a
small flashlight to meetings. The small, inexpensive, disposable
kind are perfect, since they provide a small beam which is sufficient
for you to see your notes without lighting up the front row of
auditors. If you buy one for this purpose, look for a model which
is square or rectangular. These do not roll down a slanting podium
as the cylindrical ones may do.
Comportment and Voice
Many people are shy or embarrassed
when they find themselves in public view. Experience will usually
take care of the worst stage fright problems, but many people,
especially those who are just beginning a career of giving papers,
need to give some thought to voice and mannerisms before undertaking
a public presentation. Voice modulation can be a serious problem
and a voice which is too whispery, too loud, too shrill, or which
has an uneven pitch can seriously impede the effectiveness of
a presentation. Usually minor problems of voice modulation can
be improved by listening to oneself on tape, which is why one
should record a practice session, as recommended earlier. Most
voice problems can be corrected with a little time and care; minor
pitch irregularities, irregular pacing and phrasing are generally
eliminated with practice. If you suspect that you have more serious
voice problems, consider a remedial course. Most colleges and
universities have public speaking classes and speech therapy programs.
Such help may be even more important if one is to be delivering
papers in a language other than one's native tongue. Often people
are not aware of just how much their auditors depend on familiarity
with a speaker's gestures and expressions to understand a communication.
One cannot expect a group of strangers in a large, perhaps darkened,
room to have these advantages. Here one really needs to work both
with a tape recorder and with a native speaker of the language
in order to maximize the effectiveness of presentation.
Try not to slump or to fidget
at the podium, Your audience can see you, no matter how much you
try to contract your body, and will be distracted by your cringing.
Fussing with papers, clothing, jewelry, or whatever is likewise
distracting. Walking about when talking, and gesturing, are personal
habits that can either enhance or detract from your presentation.
In general it is best to try to limit gestures to those which
emphasize a point or indicate something on an illustration so
that they call attention to something rather than distracting
the audience from what your are saying.
Obvious as all this information
is, it seems to be often ignored. Effective presentation of research
is important to all of us, and it is becoming ever more essential
that we, as professionals, consider the quality of our oral presentations
as carefully as we do that of our written publications. We should
also pass on this concern to our students.
This paper is the result of years of discussion and grumbling
with friends, colleagues and students. Especially helpful in the
final formulations were Patricia J. Lyon, Margaret Hoyt, Sylvia
Forman, Catherine Julien, Charles Cecil, Helen Hamilton, the two
anonymous reviewers of the first version, Dena Dincauze, and the
50 or so students who have discussed with me the problem of giving
papers in seminars, gone off to meetings and come back both with
gripes and with good suggestions to add to the list. I am very
grateful to all for their comments and advice.
Landes, Kenneth K
Books in Print (1982 edition) lists some 168 different titles under the heading "Public Speaking." Many of these are hard-bound texts or special purpose manuals. A survey of eight book stores, including nation-wide chains, department store book sections and privately owned neighborhood shops, revealed that only five titles were regularly available without special ordering. These are listed below since the author has been able to check them. Most public libraries, as well as those of educational institutions, have extensive sections devoted to all aspects of public presentations
The Art of Plain Speaking.
RUDOLF FLESCH. Collier Books. New York, 1951. 224 pp. including
indexes. $3.99 (paper).
The Art of Speaking Made
K. GONDIN and EDWARD W. MAMMEN. Made Simple Books: A Home Library
of Practical Information, Doubleday & Co., New York. 1959.
191 pp. including indexes. $3.50 (paper).
A Short Book on the Subject
of Speaking: The Definitive Guide to the Art of Public Speaking.
JOHN QUICK. Washington Square Press. Pocket Book Publishers, New
York, 1973. 160 pp. including index. $2.25 (paper).
Speak Up With Confidence:
How to Prepare, Learn and Deliver Effective Speeches.
JACK VALENTI. Morrow-Chardback, New York. 152 pp. No index. $10.50
JANET STONE and JANE BACHNER. McGraw Hill, New York. 1977. $8.95.
Copyright © 1984 by Karen Olsen Bruhns.