Uh. . . No, And This Is. . . Uh. . . Why

The organizers of the Duke Conference on Archaeology, Politics, and the Media alerted us that the audio portions of the conference have been posted at both the ASOR website and the Duke channel at iTunes University (as I type, only four of the presentations have been posted there). While you might think that an audio feed of my talk must have preserved the best part of my remarks (omitting the unprepossessing appearance of the speaker), I was dismayed by what I heard when I checked on the recording of my response.
You see, Mark Goodacre — to whose presentation I was responding — has long been an advocate of semi-extemporaneous presentation. He argues that papers read aloud at conferences drone and bore, and his favored presentation style (with skeletal notes, or note cards) preserves a desirable degree of spontaneity (by the way, Mark, the changeover from your NT Gateway blog to your current blog has borked a great many links; it’s a shame that Logos couldn’t have preserved your old pages, or devised a forwarding script). I thought that, in keeping with Mark’s suggestion, I would follow his example in this case. (I may also note that my decision was not unaffected by the fact that Mark didn’t finish his talk until a couple of days before the conference.) Hey, why not aim at spontaneity?
Well, the audio explains why: when I try to speak extemporaneously, I ummm and uhhhh with distracting, disappointing frequency. I know that about myself, and that’s one of the reasons I ordinarily rely on a manuscript for scholarly communication or preaching. So this recording of my digital presence will reveal my proclivity extemporaneously, spontaneously, to hem and haw — but it will help ensure that in the future, I stick with my well-composed, deliberate rhetoric, and minimize the ummms.

8 thoughts on “Uh. . . No, And This Is. . . Uh. . . Why

  1. You see, I think that the good Dr. Goodacre is right in spirit and wrong in letter on this one. He’s totally correct that a standard paper written in strict academic jargon and read verbatim is boring as hell. But, it doesn’t follow that a well-written presentation, with the style changed slightly to incorporate the looser and more flexible language generally heard in good oral presentations can’t be captured in a written manuscript. All that’s required is some decent writing skills, an ability to quasi-memorize your manuscript, and some flexibility while you’re on stage to follow rabbit trails if they appear. I’m just like you, when I try to preach or present from skeletal notes I sound like I’m trying to preach or present from skeletal notes…that is to say, I sound like a baboon. No shame in manuscript preaching in my opinion. Plus it allows you to craft your words more carefully, so you can get that perfect turn of phrase at the right moment.

  2. Well, I think the good Dr. Goodacre is right in spirit and letter! Actually, I have no problem in principle with people presenting from manuscripts; in fact, I have sometimes done so myself. My concerns relate to people reading from manuscripts as if they are unfamiliar with the material. I am always amazed at conferences to hear people reading out their own words as if they are seeing them for the first time. What happens, I think, is that people spend so long writing the paper, that they do not put any effort into thinking about how to present. I think that one way of tackling this problem is to avoid reading at all, which forces one instead to put effort into thinking how to present. Clearly in AKMA’s case, this kind of issue does not obtain since he puts lots of thought into the rhetoric of the piece. In a way, the format of the script is not the important thing; it is the presentation of that script, whatever form the script itself takes.

    I don’t think I am interested in spontaneity or faux spontaneity so much as I am in attempting to find the means of the best kind of presentation one can find. I don’t now think of my developing style as “extemporaneous” or “semi-extemporaneous” because I think those terms can be taken to imply that the approach involves little investment of effort in the presentation. As it happens, I did not use skeletal notes or note cards on this occasion but attempted to memorize the structure and content, but with the manuscript handy in case I crashed and burned. Since I was not too pleased with the way that the talk went at the time, I am going to do some more work on this. I might return to the issue again on my blog since it always seems to generate interest, and a lot of disagreement. Perhaps in the end I’ll say “Hang it; I’m just going to read like everyone else and save myself the stress!”

    As it happens, I thought your presentation was great, AKMA. I wasn’t really able to concentrate properly on the day because I was too busy worrying about mine, so I really appreciated the chance to listen in today.

  3. Ah, well then I agree with the good Dr. Goodacre whole-heartedly. Really any attempt to make academic presentations interesting is welcome in my mind. I think that the key point is that presentations require crafting and care, just like the paper itself does.

  4. Why do you call him “good”? There is one good….
    There’s a larger cultural problem at work here, Mark and Colin — I submit that a diminishing proportion of our colleagues and students (and, presumably, civilians) can read well at all. That is, by “read” I mean not just “puzzle out the words,” but “recognize the relation of words as they might reasonably relate to the other words around them, and to their larger literary and cultural context.” Mark’s dissatisfaction coheres with my oft-felt disappointment at how people read the Bible aloud (in class or in church) — as though it were a random sequence of words jumbled together, rather than as a presumably coherent expression. Moreover (and it would have been good for me to have a chance to participate more fully in some work with PhD students ths past year, to learn more) I’ve observed people in the academy, learners and scholars, reading both ancient literature and contemporary critical texts in ways that seem crudely insensitive to what I can imagine the texts’ authors might plausibly have hoped us to have inferred. Either a method justifies a leaden interpretation, or a dispute among scholarly schools justifies a grimly partisan (mis-)reading, or an unfamiliar point of view stymies a reader’s limited capacity to extend the bounds of her or his imagination. Whatever the particulars of the case in point, if we were to sit together at a conference, I could point to a number of presentations in which “poor reading” constitutes a defining quality of the work.

  5. Thanks, AKMA (and Colin). I am inclined to agree with you. I was always amazed back in college chapel days to see how often it was clearly the case that people had not rehearsed reading the Bible passage. They stood in front of the text like it was their master, and not in a good way, trying to decipher the code that was in front of them without any sense of the coherence of the passage, let alone the poetry (it was always KJV).

    BTW, you make a great point about forwarding scripts from the old blog archive to the new. Logos have done a good job with most of the static style pages in forwards, but we haven’t even tried to come up with something on the blog front.

  6. My school, Columbia College Chicago, does not let anyone graduate without first successfully completing a Speech-Communications course. There are specific courses for different types of public speaking – marketing, broadcasting, narration, academic/business, etc. We are given the guidelines on how to make out topics more attractive through different delivery styles. Some folks are very shy or get stage fright, and those problems are addressed as well with coaching from our professors. Enunciation, pronunciation, pitch, etc. are all addressed to make us better communicators, though many of us will not have to do what academics do every day – speak to a class or the public.

    Here is a mini-crash course to possibly help some people, may my teacher forgive me!

    You are very “right on!” with the observation that many people do not rehearse their talk first. This is crucial to good delivery and developing a style that works for your topic and mode of expression.

    Printing one’s talk in larger type is important, too! one should be able to glance at the page and keep the flow going. Font size recommended by my professor in communications is size 16 in Arial font, and adjust it accordingly to the font you prefer. A well paced talk at size 16 in Arial or similar font will give you approximately 1 minute per page. It is large enough to see easily and one simply slides the pages off the top of the stack to the side.

    For last minute engagements or impromptu presentations:
    Rehearsing the first five minutes and the last five minutes might be ‘cheating’ for some, but at least it helps provide the critical good opening and closing of one’s presentation.
    It can take as few as two or three readings or as many as a dozen, but the results are worth it. A good delivery can make the difference in people remembering your talk or not. It helps to rehearse for interviews, too, no matter which side of the microphone you are on. The more one rehearses, the less likely that one will “umm” “errrr” “Uh, duh,” or (the bane of intelligent conversation) “Y’know”. In radio we edit those out of taped interviews – live on-air can’t be edited! Rehearse and have a smooth delivery worthy of any star speaker. it can be done.

    I hope that this can help somebody. Confidence in your speaking builds with practice.
    Happy listening, everybody!

  7. I would certainly agree that reading a paper effectively is an important skill. There is nothing worse than a presenter butchering their own work as they stumble through reading it, ignoring punctuation and emphasizing the wrong parts of sentences.

    I like to work from a manuscript which I have edited specifically for oral presentation. For instance, it is much more critical that the appropriate words are emphasized in oral communication and that sections of the paper are properly distinguished. I will even bold critical words in my manuscript so that I emphasize them properly. Additionally, it is my opinion that every oral presentation should be accompanied by a handout (or projection) containing the critical points of the presentation.

    My professor Dr. S. Scott Bartchy’s advice is to read the paper so many times that you have nearly memorized it.

    That being said I actually prefer to work with notes rather than a manuscript and do so in less formal settings. For instance, when I lecture I use notes. However, when I present at a conference I read from a manuscript.

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