October 2010

This weekend is the SHOT conference, which this year happens in Tacoma, and which I am sad not to be able to attend, especially since last year’s conference was so interesting and energizing. (Do please keep us up to date if you’re there.)

However, this is an excellent opportunity to respond to a request for presentation tips and resources from a blog reader who is giving her first conference presentation later this month.

First, the web is full of advice on conference-paper giving.  A few posts and pieces that I like and which should be fine foundations:

Is there anything different about giving a presentation at a public history conference than at any other type of academic or professional conference?  I think there are two things–an emphasis on good presentation and a presumption of good will.

Speaking well

Public historians are supposed to be good at public-facing work.  That doesn’t mean that we are all great speakers by birth, but that clear and engaging presentations are expected.  They are both good practice for your usual projects/institutions and also a nice way to show that your work is part of the field.

So don’t read your paper!  The best way to get off the paper is to practice.  To practice requires, then, that you write the paper (or the detailed outline/notes, which is what I usually work from) and prepare the slides in advance.

And yes, you should probably have some slides, preferably with pretty pictures that illustrate and/or provide evidence for your points.  If you have none, you at least need a slide with your contact information on it, and one with an outline of the talk.  Use as few words as possible on your slides–just enough to cue your audience as to where you are in the talk and why they should care.

Once you have a rough paper and presentation, practice.  Perform your talk to the air, to the mirror, to your friends.  That will help you get off the paper, pare down and polish your word choices, and discover places that need work.  If you’re a student, arrange a session of practice talks for you and your friends; it helps to get feedback from colleagues.  Practice and the confidence it builds will also help you to field questions during your talk (if you’re into that) and have a more dialogic presentation.  Assume that your audience is interested in your topic. Be enthusiastic. Don’t apologize.

Anyway, these are all suggestions for the 20-minute conference paper.  We know that there are lots of learning and presentation styles, and that lectures are not at all the most engaging way to learn, convey information, or start a dialogue.   Do push for panel discussions, working groups, roundtables, unconference sessions, small group discussions, poster sessions and other kinds of presentations at your conferences and professional associations.

Public historians have your back

Certainly many disciplines would like clear and engaging presentations at their conferences, and would like folks to stop reading their papers, which is, incredibly, often the default.  No matter what the presentation style, however, at many academic conferences there are folks in the audience who are combative, contrarian and hostile to emerging scholars.  The classic question after a conference paper is a long one that “is really a comment” and is meant to prove the commenter’s chops rather than talk about the paper just given.

At public history conferences, however, I have found that people tend to be kind and comments tend to be constructive and interesting.  We are engaged in an enterprise that is not about us.  The goal is to help people make meaning from the past, and we want to hear about what practitioners have been doing to that end, to bring insights back to our own practice and to help our colleagues do better.  So whatever your presentation looks like and however much you misspoke, your colleagues are going to be generous.

I hope this is helpful.  If anyone has suggestions, do share them in the comments!


As many of you know, I recently returned from two weeks in Mongolia.  I’m still thinking over what I saw, but in the meantime, here are some photographs to tide you over.  (No dinosaurs, though–sorry!  No dinosaur photography was allowed in the natural history museum.)