I just found myself writing an email to a US grad student who will be attending their first International Conferences on the History of Cartography [ICHC], offering some advice that should perhaps be more broadly disseminated. So, I have decided to turn that email into a (much longer) general post directed at you, the presenter.
Many (but by no means all) younger Anglophone scholars turn up at ICHC and give unhappy performances. Whether from inexperience, a knee-jerk desire to compete with others for the attention of the big wigs (although ICHC has no stakes ~ no jobs; no fellowships; no awards), a desire to get one more entry in the c.v., intellectual chauvanism, or poor disciplinary models, younger scholars read unnecessarily complex papers, too fast, using difficult language. They are inwardly focused on their work rather than trying to communicate their work to ICHC's international community. It is an international community withmixed linguistic capabilities that covers multiple intellectual disciplines and traditions. Therefore:
- you cannot presume that your audience will be au fait with the latest trends in your particular field, with the latest debates and key thinkers.
- you must also convey your ideas and concepts in English that is both simple and direct (see Belina 2005).
- you must speak slowly and clearly.
- you must be prepared.
The worst presentations in conferences come when scholars try and squeeze in more stuff than they should. They end up talking too fast and they become unintelligible. Three of the lessons I learnt from my own advisor are relevant here:
- a 20-minute paper can make one point. That's it: one point. By the time you have introduced the topic, presented and discussed your evidence, and talked properly about the study's intellectual significance, you're at 20 minutes. Disaster awaits anyone who thinks that they can fit in more than one main point. So, the very first step in preparing the presentation is to decide, just what precisely is your one big point. (Write a thesis sentence!)
- it takes 2 to 2.5 minutes to read one page of double-spaced type on letter-size paper. That is, your script can be no more than 8-10 pages. If it is more, you will have to hurry to get through (again, disaster awaits). Time yourself (talking slowly!) and abide by the results.
- there should be no more than one screen image per minute. If the image is important enough to show your audience, then you should give your audience the time to look at and study it! So, for a 20-minute presentation, that's 20 images, maximum, including the title slide.
I strongly recommend:
- prepare a script, no more than 10 pages, preferrably a bit less.
- prepare the script so you can read it aloud in standard English and in an unaffected tone ~ do not simply hack a chunk from the dissertation (true disaster awaits!).
- include in the script all the verbal cues that you would give in normal speech ("on the screen now is ...", etc.).
- pace the script to the images; if you need to keep an image on the screen then you need to be saying something at the same time.
- insert into the script cues to remind you to advance the images, so you do so at the appropriate time.
- edit down the script so that, when you speak slowly, it takes no more than 20 minutes to read it.
- try out the script before friends ~ you should not even think of making the presentation until you have been able to read through the script in a slow and clear manner within 20 minutes.
- make sure that the copy of the script that you will read from, whether on paper or screen, is easily read.
Images are crucially important for ICHC, after all we're interested in maps. I strongly recommend:
- surrender some of your 20 slide allotment to show sub-titles, to help the audience understand the presentation's progression. For the last five years I have included the presentation outline on the sub-title slides; by progressively coloring the text, from each sub-title to the next, you can easily tell the audience where they are in your argument.
- every image should of course bear a bibliographic description and source statement
- you should also add to every image a brief and simple explanatory text about the image's significance ~ that is, a simple statement that summarizes what you're saying over the image
- try and maximize the size of images on each slide (within the limits of the resolution of your media).
- use details to make the images legible to the audience, just as in a book or journal.
- use your software's functions to highlight specific features, as necessary.
- always reduce the size of the image files you load into your software; the quickest way to slow down (if not break) the slide transitions is by inserting images bigger than 400-500kB into PowerPoint.
- remember that text that looks bright on your computer screen are not necessarily bright when projected; ensure that there is a strong contrast between your type colors and (simple) backgrounds.
Again, the key to ICHC is to communicate your ideas. Always come back to this basic concern: what is your key idea, and how can you communicate it effectively in 20 minutes?
I have not always been the best presenter, nor would I claim to be now. But I do know that by consciously working to make my ideas understood by an international audience, my writing and presentation style have both improved significantly.
So, take the time to prepare an excellent presentation ~ both you and your audience will appreciate the effort, and you will have better discussions as a result ~ and enjoy the conference!
Belina, Bernd. 2005. “Anglophones: If you Want us to Understand You, You Will Have to Speak Understandably! A Humble Proposition Concerning Paper Presentations by Native English Speakers at International Conferences.” Antipode 37.5:853-55.