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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 here.


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.

The Audience

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 audience.


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 words.


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' work.

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

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 to black.

Overhead Projectors

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.

Acknowledgements. 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
1951 A Scrutiny of the Abstract. Geological Notes: Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists 35:7:1660.


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).
This is a classic work on clarity of presentation and should be required reading for everyone who contemplates giving a paper.

The Art of Speaking Made Simple. WILLIAM 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 successful book from a famous series, this volume concisely covers a broad range of essential topics including interviews, general public speaking, grammar, pronunciation, voice, etc. It is another classic in its field.

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).
A short guide which covers all major points, including audience reaction and comportment. Also includes a short section on effective phrasing.

Speak Up With Confidence: How to Prepare, Learn and Deliver Effective Speeches. JACK VALENTI. Morrow-Chardback, New York. 152 pp. No index. $10.50 (hard cover).
Very short, very standard coverage: also includes a chapter on appearing on television.

Speaking Up. JANET STONE and JANE BACHNER. McGraw Hill, New York. 1977. $8.95.
Another standard coverage text, this one from a feminist point of view. Contains useful comments on problems which may be specific to women.

Copyright © 1984 by Karen Olsen Bruhns.