Thursday, November 29, 2007

How to Give an Academic Talk

The question of how to present papers is a regular one here and it has recently resurfaced (More SBL Reflections, especially on Presenting Papers and SBL Assorted Reflections). Matthew Collins mentioned to me that Heather McKay and he presented a workshop on the topic at the annual meeting last year, headed "Giving a Better Presentation at the Meeting (a.k.a. Speed Readers Anonymous)". Apparently it runs each year at the International Meeting too. Matthew also sent me a copy of an excellent article on the subject, which is available for distribution provided one retains the copyright information at the top of the article:

How to Give an Academic Talk:
Changing the Culture of Public Speaking in the Humanities
Paul N. Edwards
School of Information
University of Michigan
. . . . Why do otherwise brilliant people give such soporific talks?

First, they’re scared. The pattern is a perfectly understandable reaction to stage fright. It’s easier to hide behind the armor of a written paper, which you’ve had plenty of time to work through, than simply to talk.

But second, and much more important, it’s part of academic culture — especially in the humanities. It's embedded in our language: we say we're going to "give a paper." As a euphemism for a talk, this is an oxymoron. Presentations are not articles. They are a completely different medium of communication, and they require a different set of skills. Professors often fail to recognize this, or to teach it to their graduate students.

Stage fright is something everybody has to handle in their own way. But academic culture is something we can deliberately change. This short essay is an attempt to begin that process with some pointers for effective public speaking . . . .
I have provided that quotation by way of taster. I must admit to finding it very refreshing to see someone independently making the case I have been trying to make for the last three years; he does it with clarity and style. I see that the article appears in a variety of places on the net where other sympathisers have uploaded it, so I'd also like to thank Paul Edwards for making it available in this way, which demonstrates the power of the net to disseminate one's writing on topics of interest to a broad range of people.


Chris Weimer said...

Independent of each other? Color me skeptical, but I think someone used the other! There's too many coincidences for them to be independent, or even for a common shared material, (let's call that material...Q).

All the best, jocular, of course,

Chris Weimer

April DeConick said...

Look we are all teachers. Just take your academic paper and rewrite it into a speech, something you might deliver to a big public audience. The problem isn't "reading" papers. The problem is that the papers that are read are long detailed academic journal articles that can be difficult to follow even in when reading them. These are not speeches. If a scholar only feels comfortable reading a paper, there is nothing wrong with this. But let it be a lecture or speech that he or she is reading, not a journal article.

Mark Goodacre said...

Chris: thanks for that. Nice when you find someone saying the same things independently. There's not enough verbatim agreement for there to be any direct dependence of one on the other, though. :)

April: thanks for your comments. I think you make a good point, that if someone is really uncomfortable with presenting rather than reading, they should at least make sure that they work their paper into a speech, i.e. written-to-be-read-aloud rather than written-to-be-read. But I would argue that while this is preferable to much of the kind of reading that is all too common, it is not the ideal. With a script, one is only able to make occasional eye contact with one's audience, and there is less scope for the kind of communication that becomes available when one presents.

Matt Page said...

The best public speaker I know actually writes down all her talks word for word (although allows for the occasional alteration / improv.), but works on her delivery over and over.

By being so familiar with what she's saying she is able to concentrate more on the actual delivery, move around, and respond to those in the room, particularly because she doesn't have to try and work out how to link to her next point and so on. Interestingly, on hearing her most people don't actually realise she's using notes.

For what it's worth, her point about recording yourself and listening back to it is that if you can't be bothered to listen to yourself, why should anyone else have to?


Stephen C. Carlson said...

As of Nov. 13, 2009, Edwards's paper is no longer found at the URL.