How I learned to stop worrying and give a paper without a script

My alma mater has a work-in-progress series: each year, every post-graduate researcher presents a paper on their current work for feedback on content and delivery. The idea is to hone your presentation style and ty out new methods and ideas before hitting a big conference. My technique throughout my PhD years remained the same. A carefully crafted script, and a whizzy powerpoint to go with it (my use of animations knows no bounds). Whenever it was my turn for a work-in-progress, I was advised to have a go at using these internal and informal sessions to present from notes rather than a script. But since I also received feedback to say that my presentation style was very good, and that although I was presenting from a script, it didn’t seem like it, thanks to making lots of eye contact with the audience, building in a little bit of ad libbing, and modulating my intonation. So I thought that there was no real need to go script-free, since I was doing just fine with one, thank you very much.

I’m doing an increasing number of talks for public audiences these days, and last July I did a short (10-minute) presentation at Leeds Central Library, on the medieval resonances of Game of Thrones (part of a very fun public engagement day which included colleagues from the University, local craftspeople, and the city librarians). For the first time, I felt that my script got in the way a bit and planted the seed that maybe it was time to try and present without a script. But my next public talk was a long one (45 minutes) and I scripted it because it was easier. After that one I got some feedback from, ahem, my mother and mother-in-law, who said that they were a bit surprised I had spoken from a script, and that I had perhaps tried to cover too much material. Once I got over the initial grump (didn’t they realise I was fishing for compliments when I asked them what they thought?!), I took this feedback on board and determined that my next talk would be script-free.

January rolled around and the time for my next talk approached. This time it was in a school, and the audience would be sixth-form students studying medieval history, some of their teachers, and other professionals from the local area who had a connection with the school. I had a few false starts putting the talk together. When not scripting, how does one prepare for a paper? I turned to twitter of course, and got some very, very useful tips from generous and wise twitterstorians:

My husband, who also gives public talks on his own specialism, had a great piece of advice too: he pointed out that I have no problem spending 5 minutes answering a question, so why not think of the talk as a series of questions, and plan to spend about 5 minutes answering them? This really helped me to structure the talk, and made me less apprehensive about spending 45 minutes speaking from brief notes. The talk I presented had much less content (examples, historiography, analysis) than I would usually present; instead I focused on a few really key case studies, instead of battering down my listeners by sheer weight of evidence! I think this was more appropriate for the audience and allowed me to really get to the heart of the methodology.

There’s no doubting that the scripts have been, for me, a comfort blanket. I knew how much I needed to write for a 20- or 45-minute paper, and when scripting I thought I could be much more eloquent than if I was speaking from notes. I also had a horror of forgetting my material, and not being able to precisely quote examples. But then I have never needed any form of scripting for teaching seminars or delivering interactive engagement activities, and yet I’ve managed to keep going with them. And that was exactly the case for this talk: I was able to speak for the right amount of time, I didn’t lose my place or go blank, and I did feel more connected to the audience. I’ve broken my duck now; it’s still going to take a bit of practice to really feel proficient at presenting from notes, but I predict a script-free future!

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