Prof. Straw                                                                                           Department of History

 

 

HISTORY AND PUBLIC SPEAKING

 

 

     History is the analysis of sources and the presentation of your point of view whether in written or oral form.  As our society moves further away from the written page, the visual and the aural assume more importance.  Indeed, much of what the average American knows about history comes from the movies or television documentaries featuring historians discussing issues.  Cable television even has "The History Channel."  The ability to communicate verbally can only increase in importance in the twenty-first century.

 

 

SOME TIPS ON SPEAKING BEFORE AN AUDIENCE

 

CONFIDENCE

 

     Being confident or feeling at ease speaking publicly can depend on many (often obscure) factors.  Short of twenty years of psychoanalysis, the greatest way to build security and confidence is to be certain one has SOMETHING TO SAY.  To this end, YOU MUST KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT.  Take notes on the sources, review the texts, reflect on their meaning, and return to the text to re-read key passages.  Historical insights are cumulative.  Unless you continue the process of thought, delving further and further into the text to discern successive layers of meaning, you will be doomed to skim the surface of things, presenting merely "sound bytes" of information.  You will lack a deep, coherent understanding of the text and the problems presented.  History aims to discover the significance of data; and articulate the meaningfulness of things.  This is your role as the historian--excellent analysis and communication.

        

SELF-PRESENTATION

 

Sure, it helps to be tall, gorgeous, and have an impressive voice.  But most of us are simply human and must learn to use the gifts of Mother Nature most effectively. 

 

To this end, it is helpful to know what NOT to do.

 

1.  Don't do anything weird.  Many of us have individual mannerisms which can be endearing to loved ones, but maddening to strangers.  Do not pull on your earrings, twist your feet, pick at your sweater, etc.  Most of these nervous reactions are unconscious.  If you practice before a mirror or (better, an honest friend) you are likely to discover you have habits heretofore unbeknownst to you.  If you have to sneeze, do not be histrionic.  If you need water, try not to shake getting the glass to your mouth.  Laugh gently, do not snort and guffaw like a horse.

 

2.  Look at your audience.  Eye contact IS important.  Even if you are in a large audience and are hopelessly near-sighted, look in the direction of the faces.  Do not look above the audience, or out of the window.  To avoid looking at the clock have a small flat clock, or your watch next to your notes.

 

3.  Facial Expressions.  Don't scowl in an attempt to appear knowledgeable and serious.  Nor, should you appear like an automaton or corpse in cryonic suspension.  At the other extreme, exaggerated, histrionic expressions should be avoided.  No one wants to re-visit Shirley Temple on the Good Ship Lollipop.

 

4.  Don't alienate your audience.  Some people feel more comfortable having their paper written out word-for-word, others prefer outlines, still others prefer note cards.  Whichever you choose, you should be familiar enough with the material that you can engage the audience directly on your subject.  Your eyes should not be glued to your notes:  this is the quickest way to anesthetize an audience on even the most lively subject.

 

5.  In a manner of speaking. . .   Avoid speech habits that subvert your message.  Statements should be delivered as statements not questions.  Ending sentences with a rising intonation makes you sound uncertain and tentative.  It casts doubt on your competence.  Similarly, sentences should not be laced with "ums," "likes," "you knows," "I guess," and other space-fillers.  If you REALLY KNOW what you aim to say, you should fire if off.  Don't torment your audience by shooting blanks.

       

6.  Don't use no non-standard English, four-letter words, or cussin.’  Yes, it does make the audience sit up and take notice if you use what my mother calls "that word."  But it is possible to make your point effectively without resorting to bad language.  Some may be offended, while others would accuse you of using cheap tricks to gain attention not otherwise deserved.

 

7.  Do not hyperventilate.  Breathing while delivering a paper is a skill that takes time to learn.  Ideally, one should breathe from the diaphragm.  This gives the voice more force, lowers the pitch of your voice, and also prevents hyperventilation.  Do not go to the podium, take a huge, deep breath, and hold your breath to speak as long as possible (before taking another huge gasp of air).  When your ears ring and you feel dizzy, you're in trouble.  Breathe like a sleeping dog.  Relax (but don't fall asleep).

 

8.  Don't dress like a tart in church.  Appearance does make a statement; discretion is the key.  Know your audience.  If you are trying to get $1,000,000 in donations for MHC from an audience of Wall Street investors, you will not impress them with a blue mohawk and tummy rings.  Think of the statement your appearance communicates to others and what is appropriate for the occasion.  What flies in Noho may flop on Main Street, and it DOES matter, if you need those folks on Main Street to believe you.

             

8.  Don't waste words.  You should have a sense of urgency and purpose.  Your argument must be crystal clear and concise.  Nothing loses your audience more quickly than when you are confusing or repetitive.  Here it is helpful to imagine yourself in extremis.  You have only a few minutes to communicate your argument precisely to your audience, and only a few more to substantiate your argument with evidence.  Will you persuade your audience and live to tell the tale?  "Nothing so concentrates the mind as the imminence of hanging."

 

                        *             *             *

 

Knowing what to avoid, you can now focus positively on what to develop.  DO:

 

1.  Engage your audience.  This means you should look at them and have a natural, pleasant expression.  It's a paradox, but one must ®MDUL¯learn®MDNM¯ to act naturally.                     

 

2.  Get your audience on your side.  Your aim is to persuade the audience and this is much easier if the audience finds you simpatica.  A pleasant smile and relaxed demeanor can work wonders.  Use humor only if you feel comfortable doing so.  Your own embarrassment is difficult for the audience to bear.

 

3.  Gestures.  Gestures can help emphasize points.  The general rule here is to remember that you must be expansive--the audience is OUT THERE.  Cramped, meager gestures are ineffective.  This does not mean you have to become a mime.  Practice before friends to gain the proper balance.

              

4.  Time and practice.  Practice so that you can deliver your presentation fluidly and confidently.  Enunciate words carefully:  this means no Larchmont Lockjaw, or lazy mush-mouths.  Move your lips, tongue, and mouth.  Remember Demosthenes mastered his language by speaking with a mouthful of pebbles, and Liza Doolittle had a professional coach.  Practice difficult constructions so that you do not stumble through them.  Regional accents are generally an asset; but if people have difficulty understanding you, they may become impatient.  In all things, strive for professionalism.  Make certain you stay within your alloted time.  This means you should time yourself and allow for some leeway:  people generally take more time than they anticipate.

 

4.  Organization.  Review the guide I have given you for writing an interpretive paper in history.  The same principles of argumentation apply to speaking as well as writing.

1.  You must be able to take a position and state an argument (i.e., a judgment, an evaluation of data, an analysis of a situation, an observation illuminating the historical importance of a datum). 

2.   You must answer questions of historical significance ("So what?" and "Who cares?").  What does your topic tell us about the character of a culture?

3.  You must be able to support your statement with internal information from the text, and external material from other sources.  Don't argue with mere assertions.  Substantiate your claims with credible evidence.

4.  The structure of your essay must be clear and coherent.  Your evidence must advance your argument, step-by-step.  Your transitions must be clear and logical.

5.  You have a goal:  you must persuade your audience that you are correct with cogent logic and decisive control of the information.

6.  You must be prepared to defend your views against others; therefore, you must anticipate possible criticism and neutralize it.

7.  A conclusion should restate your thesis, and quickly recapitulate why you are right.