Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » How to Speak at a Public Conference

How to Speak at a Public Conference

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 12, 2011

I attended and presented at a public conference this weekend, to a relatively small group of listeners. This is traditionally a conference attended by history buffs rather than professionals, and although speakers usually include professionals, it’s a conference that is friendly to newcomers and to budding historians, even amateur ones.

Public speaking doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and speakers would do well, I not-so-modestly suggest, to master a few points outlined below. Even professionals who are used to speaking at scholarly conferences could benefit from understanding the difference between an academic and public conference.  So with ego at full bloom, I offer the following.

1. Know your stuff. Even if an audience is made up of the public, it isn’t a random public. People come to these conferences because they’re interested in the subject matter, which usually means they have some background and may very well know as much about the topic as you do. Never underestimate the knowledge and passion of buffs! This means that you should have basic information at the tip of your tongue. If, for example, you are going to tell your audience about presidents, you would know the difference between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt, you wouldn’t refer to Fred Washington as the first president, and you’d know that it wasn’t Jacob Wilkes Booth who shot Abraham Lincoln.  Likewise, when the topic is  Mountain Meadows, don’t refer to “Joseph D. Lee” or “the FRancher party” or “Governor CummingS.”

2. Develop some sensitivity for local concerns. Even if you wholeheartedly endorse the point of view of your favorite author, you should have some awareness that there may be differences of opinion on matters of religion or politics. Presenting from an extremist position (any extreme) isn’t going to sit well with your audience. Especially if you get names and other undisputed facts wrong so that your audience realizes you aren’t really in any position to judge the accuracy of that one  book that seems to be all you’ve read on the topic.

3. Don’t be a prima donna — especially when nobody has ever heard of you before and likely will never hear of you again. If you’re scheduled to speak second in a session, be there ready to go when it’s your turn. Don’t make the session chair go hunt you down in the hallway while your audience waits restlessly. Don’t then take 6 or 8 minutes to unpack your briefcase and set up your props and find your notes, with your back to the audience, while your audience waits restlessly. Don’t give us the long version of your vita, especially when it has nothing to do with the topic at hand, while your audience waits restlessly.

4. Know that the audience has come to hear you give a talk about your topic. We want to hear history. We don’t want to hear how many trips to the National Archives you made, or how many times it was snowing while you were there, or who you saw in the reading room, or why you didn’t happen to have change to make photocopies. We don’t want you to break out of your paper to give a shoutout to Suzy, who is also working on the same topic, and we don’t want to hear you carry on a personal conversation with Suzy in the audience about whether or not she has also been to the National Archives, and whether or not so-and-so is going to fund another trip for research. Just tell us the story.  There are exceptions, of course: If the session is a how-to, or if you’ve arranged your story as a detective saga, then these background details may be relevant. Generally they are not. More of your history, less of you, please.

5. It would be well to understand the difference between reading an article and listening to one being read. Listeners can’t always quickly grasp academic sentences so complex that we’ve forgotten the subject by the time you reach your verb, nor do we need to know precisely which page a quotation comes from, and in most cases we can follow the story just fine if you tell us only that something happened in 1870, or in March 1870. That is, don’t get into a debate with yourself while you’re standing there in front of us, about whether something happened on March 23 or March 24, and why you always get the two dates confused. If it isn’t critical to the story you’re telling, do us a favor: give us a version that is no more complex than it needs to be, and move along.

Bill MacKinnon gave his usual fine performance, with all his i’s dotted and t’s crossed, timed to perfection, with the emphasis wholly on the history and historical personages in his tale. He helped all of us understand the Civil War better than most of the country ever will, because most of the country won’t have the benefit of Bill’s knowledge of the Utah War as preliminary to the Civil War.

Joseph Soderborg gave an enthusiastic and wholly comprehensible history of the game of cricket in Utah history. And by “enthusiastic,” I mean he physically demonstrated a batting stance, and jogged back and forth across the front of the room as if he were scoring runs, and otherwise brought an unfamiliar game to life for us – you didn’t want to take your eyes off him for fear you’d miss something.

Curt Allen spoke about four or five of his favorite Utah War soldiers and the roles they played in the Civil War and other post-Utah War events. Nobody knows the individual soldiers of the Utah War better than Curt does, and he spoke of them with all the affection and understanding you’d expect of someone speaking of his own brothers or comrades-in-arms. His was a very satisfying and informative presentation.

I spoke about the Grand Army of the Republic, claiming the men who spent decades of their post-Civil War lives in Utah as part of Utah’s Civil War heritage. I think it went well, but you’d have to find one of the very few people in attendance for an independent opinion.

Oh, and this is Keepa’s 2,000th post.



  1. Congratulations!

    Comment by queuno — September 12, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

  2. I gave a paper at this conference on A. J. Russell’s Union Pacific stereoviews on behalf of a friend and former colleague, Dan Davis (USU Special Collections and Archives). Funny thing happened to me that has never happened before. Lightening struck about halfway through the paper (and PowerPoint) and it killed the power for a few seconds. Unfortunately, it killed the projector. The tech assistant couldn’t get it to come back up.

    Perhaps someone (upstairs) was telling me what an awful job I was doing and that I should shut up and sit down. LOL


    Comment by Noel — September 12, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

  3. 2000? That is amazing. Well done.

    Comment by middle-aged Mormon Man — September 12, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

  4. And may there be 2000 more!

    Do we, non-Utah living ninnies, get to read your speech on the Grand Army of the Republic someday, somewhere, somehow?

    Comment by Cliff — September 12, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

  5. Don’t let Noel fool you — he always gives a good presentation, and it takes an act of God to set him back at all!

    He was scheduled opposite one of our regular Keepa’ninnies and so I didn’t get to his session.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 12, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

  6. Cliff, I’m going to submit a longer version of my paper (the one with the technical detail that I omitted in the interest of people listening to me — it’s the kind of stuff that only works when you read it on paper) to the Utah Historical Quarterly.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 12, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

  7. Ardis,

    Please message me the back story on this.

    Oh, and stop referring to me as a prima donna.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 12, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

  8. Congratulations Ardis!

    And, I’m really glad I wasn’t in that presentation you seem to have been describing! Aren’t you going to tell us who it was??

    Comment by Mark B. — September 12, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

  9. These pointers didn’t all come from the same paper or even the same session! And I don’t think anybody but their mamas have ever heard of the people I’m so unkindly treating here. Really.

    Chris, give it up. We all know you’re the primest of donnas.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 12, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

  10. Guilty as charged. 🙂

    Comment by Chris H. — September 12, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

  11. Yay! Congratulations!

    I think a lot of your tips apply to academics in a classroom situation or giving a talk to a group of students. I hate it when someone feels the need to tell me in the midst of a lecture how many times they’ve been somewhere, who they are friends with, and how many languages they speak.

    Comment by mmiles — September 12, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

  12. I am a big believer of the importance of Lit Review in a paper, but they should not be the focus of the presentation.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 12, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

  13. Great advice, and very important reminders.

    Comment by Ben Park — September 12, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

  14. 🙂 for 2000!

    Comment by Paul — September 12, 2011 @ 6:32 pm

  15. Excellent! May it propagate far and wide.

    Comment by WVS — September 12, 2011 @ 6:44 pm

  16. L’chaim!!

    Comment by Steve Evans — September 12, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

  17. Congratulations on your 2000th post!

    And…’Cricket in Utah History’??? Oh wow. Just wow. Tell me our national game was exported to Utah by pioneers who lugged their cricket bats across the Plains…please.

    I hope now that pioneer children didn’t just sing as they walked and walked and walked. I have hope they sang whilst practicing their drives and their sweep shots:-)

    Comment by Anne (UK) — September 13, 2011 @ 3:26 am

  18. Anne, one of Joseph’s illustrations was the picture of a cricket bat that someone had lugged across the Plains in 1854. It had been well used by the time its photo was taken! And one of the earliest cricket games on record was played on … July 4! by emigrant Englishmen. I hope Joseph publishes his paper very soon, or will at least write a Keepa post telling some of the story. You’ll love it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 13, 2011 @ 3:52 am

  19. oh, a Keepa post would be excellent! For the edification of all. Where can I start the petition? How proud I am that cricket reached Utah 🙂

    Comment by Anne (UK) — September 13, 2011 @ 6:06 am

  20. And all this time I thought that the seagulls had eaten the damned cricket!

    Comment by Mark B. — September 13, 2011 @ 7:38 am

  21. Know your stuff? Develop some sensitivity? Don’t be a prima donna? These all sound like pretty good rules for life, not just for public speaking.

    And congratulations on 2000 posts, Ardis!

    Comment by Researcher — September 13, 2011 @ 8:56 am

  22. Thanks for the guidelines. They couldn’t be more timely … and timeless. They should be sent to everyone who’s ever thought about speaking in public.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — September 13, 2011 @ 9:20 am

  23. Ardis, thaks for the kind words and good advice. I will print and keep handy. I also noted that Gov Cumming had gained an “S” again. Somehow people can’t believe these are two different surnames.

    My constant problem is how to shrink my favorites to the time allotted when I want to tell about them all.

    Comment by CurtA — September 13, 2011 @ 10:18 am

  24. 2000 posts, that’s a huge milestone. You should be proud in all the righteous ways there are to be proud.

    I’ve not been in a lot of conferences, only once as a presenter (Sunstone NW two years ago). I’m afraid that I probably committed one or two of the errors you warn against, but quickly recovered. The big one is that I started my presentation sitting down. J Stapley kindly invited me to stand up, and it got better from there.

    I would have loved to hear all of these presentations about the Civil War, but I’ll have to wait for their publication.

    Comment by kevinf — September 13, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  25. Anne, Thanks for your enthusiasm. Cricket was played in Utah for over half a century. Although it had its ups and downs, some years (and decades) it was more popular than baseball.
    Also, thanks and congrats Ardis on 2000

    Comment by Joe — September 13, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

  26. Joe: I can’t help it, it’s an English thing. Been watching cricket since I was 10, and one of the highlights of my church life was being ‘allowed’ to act as scorer for my then Stake’s cricket team one year. Think I was the only sister in attendance and to prove I was there for the cricket, not the ‘eligible’ players, they made me prove I could act as scorer.

    Ho hum!

    Am I anywhere near correct in assuming cricket in Utah died out as the native pioneers died out? It’s probably a difficult game to see the point of, if one isn’t born into and remains surrounded by it.

    Comment by Anne (UK) — September 13, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

  27. Darn it! I wish I would have gone to hear you! I claim my wife’s great-grandfather, Christopher Wilburn (1847-1914), who was a Utah GAR member. He marched with Sherman in the 33rd Ohio Regiment (lied about his age to enlist). He came to Utah with his member family but never was baptized himself (well, at least not ’til after he died. You know, vicariously). He’s buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery where we visited one Memorial Day to play “Marching through Georgia” for him. (My idea. My sister-in-law thought I was nuts. My wife tolerates me.)

    Comment by Grant — September 13, 2011 @ 10:01 pm

  28. Give us a version that is no more complex than it needs to be, and move along.

    Good advice for presentations; bad advice for written church history?

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 14, 2011 @ 11:40 am

  29. Bad advice for most kinds of written history, Clark, I agree. If a high level of complexity is essential even in an oral presentation, then that’s what “it needs to be” in that case. But speakers need to remember that listeners can’t grasp a flood of details on the fly. They can better convey their message if: they omit unnecessary background complexity; their talks are highly organized so that listeners have some kind of structure to help them make sense of what they’re hearing; they use suitable visuals; or they employ some other method to help listeners grasp the essential points without getting lost in a mass of rapid-fire detail.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 14, 2011 @ 11:59 am

  30. Mazel Tov on 2,000!

    I’d like to think that my influence somehow contributed to #5. Maybe I’ll do a write-up on that sometime.

    Comment by Chad Too — September 14, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

  31. RE: #23

    I believe the origin of this error of the surname with added ‘s’ may come from the fact that there is a candy store specializing in fine hand dipped chocolates on Seventh East in Salt Lake City which goes by that name. (Cummings Chocolates) Perhaps some believe that the territorial governor retired after his term and stayed on here to open this noble institution rather than returning to Washington, D.C., where, in reality, he was obliged to sit out the “War of Northern Aggression” before returning to his native Georgia.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — September 15, 2011 @ 1:38 am

  32. How did I miss this? Thank you, and congratulations!

    Comment by David Y. — September 15, 2011 @ 1:33 pm