Public Speaking is Not Public Reading
Though I have several opportunities to go to professional conferences every year, I don’t actually often attend them. One reason is that I have to pay for them. When you factor in travel, hotel, expenses, etc., it gets quite expensive. Another reason is that I sometimes wonder whether they are really worth the time and expense.
Granted, there are several good arguments for attending professional conferences like the SBL: networking, meeting people, the book stalls, … the tote bag. One paramount reason should be to attend or present papers. The problem is, unless you are a star in the theological world or/and pushing the fashionable hot buttons, most papers are very poorly attended. In the case of the SBL this probably also has to do with the overabundance of study groups, sessions, papers, and what not. All this put together, I don’t really try to present papers in conferences anymore (not counting the largely irrelevant fact that my proposal might be rejected of course). I’d rather put the time in writing.
Another possible explanation for the poor attendance and which makes me wonder whether conferences are worth the expense is the widely varying quality of papers and presentations. It really is a lottery. I have attended very good presentations by totally unknown people and terrible presentations by the big wigs, and vice versa and anything in between. The rationale for the quality or lack thereof varies. What seems to be a recurring factor is the confusion between public speaking and public reading. Some people simply confuse public speaking and public reading. Their intention is really not to speak in public but to read aloud a text they hope to publish or is to be published. Oftentimes it seems to matter little whether there actually is a public. I have attended papers where the speaker barely acknowledged the presence of the audience before plunging into his or her text.
Another reason for the poor quality of papers is simply the lack of preparation of some presentations. This is linked to the previous point. Since the assumption is that public speaking is reading a paper aloud, why should there be a separate stage for the oral presentation? Some speakers actually will tell you that, well, really, they just finished putting their paper together on the airplane or on a Starbucks napkin before coming and they hope you will bear with them. Well, a few attendees may chuckle, I don’t. Unless there are really good reasons for the lack of preparation (sickness, epiphany of a new topic at the checkout line at the food court, etc.) it simply betrays a lack of professionalism and respect for the public (whether conscious or not) or a total unawareness of the technicalities of public speaking. After all, I am paying for attending the conference (literally and figuratively). By the way, I am considering advocating a policy of refund for poor presentations or creating some Facebook group about this.
Some Basics about Public Speaking
So here are some basic advice about public speaking that I wish public speakers would remember. Nothing earth shattering, but they are often ignored.
- Don’t accept or volunteer a paper or a conference you won’t have time to prepare well. I know, you’d think it would be so obvious…
- Write out your text. This has been such a basic principle of public speaking for centuries that it is simply amazing that so many speakers do not abide by it and think they can get away with it. Most of the time, they don’t. It does make a difference in a many respects, from preparation to delivery!
- Write for public speaking, not public reading. Fancy footnotes, zillions of technical names, geographical locations that are on the slide you did not make, twenty-five letter German and latin names (French is ok), etc. should not be part of a paper to be orally delivered. Even the style and the grammar should be tailored for public speaking. Write short sentences. Try replacing “and” by periods and starting new sentences (a trick form Atkinson, p. 85). Repeat yourself by using different words. It is ok to do so in public speaking.
- Practice your paper aloud. Yes, that does not just apply for preaching. This again is a textbook principle with centuries of backing up. I practice technical papers and conferences numerous times before delivering, just like the textbooks say you should. Any public speaking must be practiced several times, no matter how long and how technical. If you cannot deliver your conference without being stuck to your paper, you are not ready. Period.
- Assume ignorance. Assume most people in your audience have not spent the last six months on the earth-shattering half word found in some hitherto understudied manuscript in a forgotten language or on the last part of the verse that you are dealing with (assuming you have prepared your topic).
- Time your delivery. Writing out a text and practicing it gives you a chance to evaluate its length. The trick is to always use the same page and font size for your public speaking. After a couple of times, you will know how long your delivery will take by the number of pages you have. In the format I use, a twenty-five minute presentation takes about seven pages. You know there is a problem when twenty minutes into a thirty minute speech the speaker Oh my gosh realizes he or she is not even half there and voices it but please bear with me. Either the person has a problem practicing or simply, more likely, did not do it.
- Interact with your audience. That does not mean start with a five minute joke (the all fashionable motto of contemporary public speaking that we hope will go away fast). It means acknowledging their presence, getting cues from them, asking questions here and there, looking at their reactions, etc. This, of course, will be influenced by the size of the audience.
I should say something about slide presentations, handouts, etc., but that will be for another post. Enough for now.
When asked about the biggest single problem I have come across since starting to study speeches and presentations, I always give the same answer. Without any doubt at all, it is that far too many speakers spend far too much time trying to get far more detailed information across that it’s possible to convey within the limitations of the spoken word. All too often, audiences are subjected to massive and painful information overload that serves little or no useful purpose. Effectiveness depends on being willing to simplify your subject matter beyond the point at which you feel comfortable. (Atkinson, 95–96)
Though I have spoken in public for a long time, I still try to read about and improve my public speaking. The last book I read is the one by Aktinson mentioned in this post. It is not specific to public speaking in religion, and that’s good. I found it to be a good all-around one-time stop. Even though some parts are basic, they are good reminders. Here is the reference: Max Atkinson, Lend me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations, Oxford University Press, 2005.