Keeping in Time, and other Conference Basics

Back from yet another conference, the PoP Utrecht 2013 tour. On the SMHBLOG I already posted a plea for keeping to time limits . So here I’ll add a few more random thoughts on the art of presentation (admitting that I am far from a master):

  • Include some visual aids. Maps really should be mandatory for any presentation or publication in military history. A photocopy of an existing map with hand-drawn annotation is far superior to nothing at all – it gives us something to look at if we are bored. Certainly if you’re going to describe operations or military movements, GIVE US A MAP! But even something as simple as a portrait of the person you’re talking about and a quote will make a big difference. I tend to do a bit more (in my amateurish way), for example:
The Popular Wars – Vigorous Horses, Ho!
  • Practice your presentation. Plan out your intonation for meaning and emphasis (I often italicize or underline certain words to indicate stress), and pay attention to where you breathe (e.g. don’t interrupt a sentence at the bottom of a page so you have to pause until you can flip to the next one). Also important is to simplify your sentences and vocabulary: what reads well and easily on the page may be too convoluted and complicated for people to hear and follow, plus you’re more likely to trip up your tongue on big words under pressure. Practice will tell you which words you tend to stumble over, so you can replace them with shorter words. I tend to print my presentation copy in a larger font (14 point or so) double-spaced, which makes it less likely that I’ll lose my place (fewer words and lines on the page) when I look up at the audience throughout the talk. I turn more pages, but that forces me to breathe more regularly, and listeners like periodic breaks. (Every so often I declare that this time I’m going to just make an outline and present it extemporaneously rather than read it, but I never do: I’m sure the commentators are thankful for that, plus it keeps me to the time limit.) You probably don’t need to practice your talk more than a few times, but it can make a big difference when it comes to the actual presentation.
  • Practice also helps you keep to the time limits – time yourself when you practice to make sure. I have actually seen presenters who are shocked, shocked when they discover two-thirds of the way through their paper that they are out of time. Know your limits: for me, 8-10 pages is about the max I can present in 20 minutes, so I know to cut down to that length (actually, I usually go by the more accurate number of words since I change my composition font into a larger presentation font). If you want to ad-lib, take that into account when estimating how long your presentation will be: add 30-60 seconds per expository ad lib. Time yourself when you are presenting as well. Bring a watch for pete’s sake: I’m astounded that speakers will interrupt their talk to ask the chair how much time they have left.
  • Content is its own category, so I’ll only offer a few general suggestions. Most important is to realize that you can’t present a sophisticated argument in 20 minutes, so you need to narrow your paper proposal accordingly in the first place. What you’ve left out can be discussed in the Q&A, assuming you’ve left time for that. (BTW, questioners should pose their questions with the assumption that the speaker has already considered the issue, but just didn’t have time to talk about it.) Hopefully speakers will also include some colorful quotes, and perhaps a humorous, snide aside.

There are a billion books on presentations and public speaking, with all sorts of advice, sometimes conflicting. Personally, I’ve tried to stay away from the injunction to imagine your audience naked. In general though, try to be animated and dramatic (but not too dramatic), and always remember that most of what you say will be quickly forgotten.

Other recommendations and warnings?



4 responses to “Keeping in Time, and other Conference Basics”

  1. Wayne says :

    Tell us what niche you’re intervening in! and tell us something about your sources! (esp. if you’re a graduate student). Don’t just tell us a story.

    • jostwald says :

      Yeah, I liked your advice overview as commentator at the SMH. While historiography and sources are crucial in the paper sent to the commentator (e.g. footnotes), speakers should also try to indicate these elements in the talk itself: are you relying on a particular type of source? a particular genre of document? one particular side? Even if it isn’t the focus of your talk, it could just be a matter of adding a phrase or clause somewhere, or even in the title of the talk.

  2. dpcereza says :

    Dance and drill for military hsitorians?
    keeping together in time:

    • jostwald says :

      Hey, you got my reference!
      I hate it when people attempt puns or double-entendres but they only end up as single-entendres. I try to do the full double (gotta stick the landing), even if the allusion is a bit more obscure.

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