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.