ECH – Preparing and presenting a seminar paper

7 October 2014

There is a lot of advice available on the internet; some of it is extremely detailed and not all of it is good. UK and US university websites are a reliable source of sensible advice but this can be prescriptive, and not all of it will work for you.  A perennial controversy is whether to speak from notes or a written paper. Don’t expect to find a definitive answer to this. Opinions differ and the advice is contradictory: ‘never speak from notes’; ‘reading from a script is mind-numbing’. The choice depends partly on you and partly on the kind of paper you plan to deliver.

Generally speaking, few early career historians are comfortable speaking from notes, particularly the first time they give a paper. You will almost certainly want to write it out in full though you may aspire to speaking from notes with more experience. Think of the seminars that you have attended. Which ones have really worked and why? How might you emulate some of the techniques the speaker employed? Play to your strengths; avoid devices you are not comfortable with—telling jokes doesn’t work for everyone—and focus on what you are confident you can do well.  If you have teaching experience, you may have used a similar exercise to prepare students for presentations. The principles are the same.

Many people prefer to give their first paper in familiar surroundings, with an audience of peers. Your university should provide such opportunities but you could also organise such a session informally. Always ask for feedback; there are real benefits to working collectively with people in the same position as you.

When you give a paper in unfamiliar surroundings, arrive in time to look around the room and check that everything you need is there and working. Be very clear as to timings. A forty-five minute seminar paper is a substantial undertaking, given that a double-spaced 12-point printed page will take around two minutes to deliver. This is a rule of thumb, not an absolute as you will want to engage with the audience, looking round the room or moving ‘off-script’ for emphasis or add a point of detail.This helps you look confident and pleased to be there, no matter how nervous you are.

When writing and practising the paper—which you should do even if you plan not to read it—it’s worth thinking carefully about prose and style. An oral paper is different from a written chapter: the argument needs more signposting and too much detail will be hard to follow. A discursive style works better than a literary one. Try to break the paper down into smaller sections and practise it several times. You might want to record it so you can listen back to it.  Put yourself in the listener’s place.  Can you identify the main points?  How much background knowledge do you need to follow it?

Other points you need to consider include visual aids and how to respond to questions. These are covered under Preparing and presenting a conference paper and Intervening in academic discussion.

Return to main ECH Presenting Work page