The pressing need for decent presentations

Today at the IFPH conference I was once again struck by the apparent incapability of historians to make something else then an article or a book. I was looking forward to the talks, hoping to get inspired by passionate stories about projects and research programs. However, the presentations consisted of historians reading their paper out loud. I don’t see what could possibly be the advantage of this concept. The topics were very interesting and I would love to read the articles with a marker in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. But listening to an academic article is really hard. You lose track, as these articles are written to read not to be heard. A presentation is a completely different medium that requires a different approach to the information you want to transmit. It is captivating to hear someone tell about his research, however, like I said, it is less inspiring to hear him read his research. Historians are trained in academic writing to the point that it has shaped our way of thinking to such a degree that we do not even seem to realize that another medium requires other techniques of storytelling. Even public historians like us, who are supposed to be the ‘experts in communication,’ adjust themselves to these strange academic convention that a reading literally should be a reading.

Communication is a vital point. If we want our research to be relevant and understood, we need to learn how to tell others about it. This will make all historians a little more ‘public’. Academic history studies in the Netherlands pay a lot of attention to acquiring academic writing skills, but practically no attention is paid to the conventions of a presentation. Presentations are integrated in the curriculum more and more often, this is a positive development. However, students are never taught what a decent presentation should look like. How images can be used in a PowerPoint to tell the story.  How you can remember the content of your presentation without learning it by heart, resulting in a ‘reading out loud’ experience. How you can use a PowerPoint to trigger the curiosity of your spectators instead of merely showing them the information they have to hear from you. How to start a presentation in a way that gets your audience to listen, without getting of topic. How important it is not to look at the screen behind you, but at the people that you address. How important it is to use a Prezi structure that actually corresponds to the structure of your presentation. Presentation skills are useful in any career. As an academic, but also in a company or cultural institution. We as historians need to broaden our scope on communication. History departments should start this process by integrating presentation training in their curriculum.