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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

No No No No Never READ Your Presentation, SPEAK It!

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/12/06 at 02:44 PM

I just spent the weekend at an academic conference, one where I gave a presentation. I was bored to tears listening to people read papers.

Folks, this rarely works out well. The written word and the spoken word are different media. Exposition and argument that’s well adapted to reading does not work very well when you read it aloud to a conference audience.

So don’t do it!

Present your ideas from notes. If you have to—and I’ve done this on many occasions—practice your delivery before the conference session. This helps get the timinig down. Nothing is more deadly that someone devoting 15 of their 20 minutes to intellectual throat-clearing and scene-setting and then cramming the 15-page core of their argument into the last five minutes. It doesn’t work. I repeat: I doesn’t work.

A couple weeks ago there was some discussion of an “advice to the aspiring academic” book. Did that book say anything about learning how to give effective oral presentations? If not, it should have. And if it by any chance gave the impression that it would be a good thing to follow venerable tradition and read your paper from a written text, then it is giving bad advice. Effective and even entertaining oral presentations would make conferences much more bearable, even useful.

End of rant.


You pose a false dichotomy between a fully written text and a presentation well-suited to oral delivery.

Plenty of great preachers deliver their sermons from manuscripts, and many academics are able to give effective lectures and conference presentations from manuscripts.  There is one professor in particular at my institution who (to my knowledge) always has a fully written-out lecture, but still manages to keep students’ unflagging attention.

In short, the problem you diagnose (boring presentations) does exist, but you misidentify the cause.

By Adam Kotsko on 11/12/06 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not quite. There is a difference between a written style—which, for example, allows for rereading passages, checking footnotes, etc.—and an oral style. It is certainly possible to compose an oral style presentation and write it down. OTOH, if you haven’t got a clue of what you’re doing, then it makes little difference whether or not you’re reading a fully realized text or speaking from notes.

The presentations that bored the @&%(*!! out of me suffered from one or all of three problem: 1. Arguments that were too complex for 20 minutes. 2.  Asides of one sort or another that are fine as footnotes or endnotes, but cause you to loose the thread of an argument in oral presentation. 3. Lack of illustrative diagrams (this is indifferent to presentation mode). It’s been my experience that learning to discipline yourself to make a coherent statement in 20 minutes of oral presentation is a very useful skill, one best learned by actually doing it. You don’t acquire the skill by writing a paper as a paper quite possibly intended for publication and then trying to edit it on the fly as the clock ticks away your 20 minutes.

Ah, yes, there ARE preachers. But they are trained to oral delivery, no? and function within traditions of oral delivery, no? Not so for most academics. In my experience few academics are good on their feet. That would be one thing if they’ve practiced and practiced and simply couldn’t get it. But most simply don’t have a clue about oral delivery and don’t seem to care.

By Bill Benzon on 11/12/06 at 07:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suppose that it’s probably relevant to note that the school I attend is a seminary and that the professor in question has an MDiv (i.e., was trained for the ministry, at least to some extent).  Professors in theology or Bible probably also have more occasions to do speaking engagements for the general public as well, in the form of church events.

Aside from church-related events, the only place where I can see people having much practice with public speaking would be in law or politics.  I wonder if there is in some cases a principled objection to skillful public speaking among humanities academics, due to associations with religious or political hucksterism—not among the majority, who are just lazy, but among enough that it becomes hegemonic.

(But maybe I’d better just bow out of this discussion, since it seems to have triggered a troll infestation at my blog today.)

By Adam Kotsko on 11/12/06 at 11:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Can I just say that I’ve been frequently complimented on the *delivery* of my papers and I read from a fully articulated text, not notes.  I think Adam’s point is a good one—it is possible to write a text with oral delivery in mind and to deliver it in an engaging way.  I re-write (or even “un-write") sentences that are too readerly (I especially avoid parentheticals and complex sentences—unlike in this blog comment!), avoid digressions unless they are very carefully announced and the main thread signposted, and save footnote-type stuff for Q&A.  I also practice, practice, practice, and mark my text up with pauses, places of emphasis, places to make eye-contact, etc.  And I fear that if I read from notes there would be way too many “ums.”

By Dr. Virago on 11/13/06 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Semenza does devote a chapter to “Attending Conferences,” btw. He offers some of the advice already mentioned here, about understanding the difference between written style and spoken style, about not trying to do too much in 20 minutes, and about practicing ahead of time. But he fairly studiously avoids the “talk v read” discussion of what a presentation should be…

By Collin Brooke on 11/13/06 at 01:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Like Dr. V., I revise and practice.  Hell, I often revise while I practice.  One trick is to record yourself and listen for those moments when you’re obviously reading—when the sentence structure becomes ungainly, when the diction is clearly pitched to an audience of one, &c.  So, while we’re not all preachers, I’m all for the idea that lectures should be written differently than articles or chapters.  It’s—what’s the phrase?—common sense

However, this denies the performative nature of certain forms of erudition, i.e. the bane of every graduate seminar involving first-years.  Not that they aren’t smart, only that they have to prove it, constantly, and by all possible means…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/13/06 at 02:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It all amounts to this:  reading from a printed text is simply not manly.

By on 11/18/06 at 06:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

~I have to say that I agree a little with both sides of the argument. I have read speeches and seen great speeches done using a full manuscript. I think that the problem doesn’t lie within the reading of the paper the problem is with the presentor. Either the person who is reading reading the paper knows what he/she is doing and it turns out great or he/she have no idea how to present something from a paper and their presentation doesn’t work out.

By on 11/21/06 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I completely agree. A conversation makes almost no sense if it is transcribed directly - why should anyone assume that a speech which is given directly from a written paper (sometimes without even looking at the audience!) will make any more sense?!

By Martin Ng on 02/04/09 at 10:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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