How to do a Seminar Presentation

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Preparing for a Seminar Presentation

In many ways, preparing to make an oral presentation in a seminar is similar to preparing any other type of history assignment. First, you will need to read the instructions with great care. How long do you have to present? What do you need to cover? Do you need to provide the class with handouts or create a PowerPoint to accompany your presentation?

Next, you must read your sources critically and analytically. If you are making a presentation on your own research paper, you should re-read it. What are your main arguments? What evidence is most interesting? Remember that you only have a short time to speak: you need to focus on your most important ideas and most significant research discoveries. If you are presenting and leading a discussion on a set of assigned readings, identify their thesis statements and how they are organized. Are you convinced by each work? How do they compare to one another or to other works that you have read in the course?

Finally, you need to plan out your presentation in detail and write out your speaking notes. While some outstanding public speakers can stand and speak without planning what they are going to say, most people cannot. Indeed, most students who simply stand at the front of the room with their research paper or readings in hand and flip through them as they try to formulate their thoughts end up making a disorganized, rambling presentation that fails to do justice to the sources. You need to plan ahead so that you can highlight your best insights.

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What Kinds of Notes and Images Should You Take to the Presentation?

Speaking Notes

One of the keys to preparing a successful presentation is finding a system of making speaking notes that works for you.  The goal is to find a note system that is detailed enough to allow you to speak confidently while loose enough to allow you to actually talk to your audience rather than simply read something to them.

Some students prefer to write out an entire “script” for their presentation that includes everything they want to say. This strategy works well for many people and gives them a sense of security and confidence. But beware: for some speakers, having a full script leads to a less engaging talk. If you don’t practice your talk a great deal, you will end up with your head buried in your script stumbling each time that you miss a word.

Other students prefer to write their notes in short bullet points. They then elaborate on these ideas while making their presentation. This style has the benefit of making your talk sound more natural and extemporaneous. But, again, beware. Without preparation, you may end up simply reading off the bullet points and end up with a presentation that is not detailed enough or going into too much detail and ending up with a talk that is too long.

Clearly there is no right or wrong way to take notes for your presentation. Either style can work so long as you prepare. So, take some time to consider which approach would make you feel more comfortable and leave yourself time to practice your talk.

Images and PowerPoint

Audiences often appreciate having some sort of visuals as they listen to a presentation.  As you prepare your talk, you may want to identify paintings, photographs, or drawings that could help demonstrate the ideas that you are talking about and keep your audience engaged. However, make sure to choose and discuss your images with care. Images need to be relevant to your topic and, generally, from the time period that you are discussing. Also, you should spend some time analyzing the images, explaining how they illustrate the points that you are trying to make. This will allow the images to become a significant part of the talk rather than just a window dressing.

You may wish to use PowerPoint to present images and other pieces of information during your talk. PowerPoint can be an excellent way to provide your audience with key terms and dates as well as to follow the main points that you are presenting. Make sure, however, that you use the slides to present key points in a concise manner; avoid writing out your whole talk onto PowerPoint slides as this lessens the impact of your speaking.

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Presenting Your Own Research

One of the most common presentation assignments, especially in a fourth-year course, is to present your research paper. This can be a daunting task. You have been working on your topic all year and have read so much about it. How do you explain your work to others in such a short period of time? What do you focus on?

Many professors will provide you with a model for your presentation, and if they do, follow it with care. If not, you will need to find your own way to organize your presentation. Below, we offer one way to think of organizing a research presentation. Keep in mind that it is only one way; there are many other models that can lead to success.

I. Introduction

As in a paper, your audience needs an introduction to draw them into the presentation and give them a sense of what is to come. Here are some elements to include in the introduction:

  • A. Hook
    A hook is an interesting idea, example, or question that draws the listener into a topic. Starting your talk with a hook is a great way to get your audience’s attention and make them excited about what is to come. You could begin with an intriguing example or anecdote from your research or an interesting image. After discussing your hook, explain how it typifies or exemplifies the issue that you will discuss in your talk.
  • B. Background and Research Question
    At some point in the introduction, you need to layout the time period, region, and topic that you have explored. You should also identify the question or issue that your paper investigates. What is it that your paper is trying to accomplish?
  • C. Thesis and Organization
    You should clearly state the thesis of your research paper and give the listeners some sense of how it is organized. What topics do you examine as you develop your argument?


II. Historical Context and Historiography

This section may or may not be necessary depending on the course. If your audience knows nothing of the time period or topic you are discussing, you may wish to provide some brief historical context. You may also wish to survey what other historians have said about your topic, highlighting areas of consensus or contention within the field. But, make sure to keep this section brief. Your focus should be on explaining your research and supporting your thesis.

III. Examples 

You will not be able to present your entire paper in a short presentation. Instead, you will need to choose several of your best supporting examples, examples that clearly illustrate your thesis. In your presentation, you can provide a detailed description of each example and explain how it supports your argument.

IV. Conclusion 

You conclusion should tie your ideas together, providing your audience with a concise review of your argument and how you have supported it. You should also comment on the significance of your argument. How does your research help us better understand a time period or issue? How does it compare to what other historians have said? Why is it significant?

V. Questions 

Often the class will be given time to ask you questions about your research. Listen carefully as people ask questions and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you don’t understand a question. Try to answer questions directly and fully.

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Leading a Seminar Discussion

Another common assignment is to lead the discussion on a particular week’s readings. Again, there is no one “right” way to lead a discussion.  As you prepare, however, keep the following points in mind: 

  • Write questions that deal with the most significant themes and ideas within the readings. Your goal is to help your classmates come to understand a set of readings better. A question on a small detail from one reading will likely not help reach this goal. Instead ask questions that allow your peers to grapple with the major issues. From what perspective does the author write? How persuasive is his or her argument? How is evidence used? How does the work compare to others that you have read in the course?

  • Pay attention to how you order your questions. Start with more basic questions that can help the class to get into the discussion. What questions are the readings trying to answer? What arguments do they put forth? Starting with more concrete questions can help to invite participation. You can then move toward broader and more comparative questions.

  • Write open-ended questions. Questions that have easy, “yes” or “no” answers do not invite discussion. Try to write questions that allow for many different ideas and opinions.

  • Make sure that your questions are clear. Nothing kills a discussion like a question that your classmates don’t understand. Make sure that what you are asking is clearly and concisely worded. Break down multi-part questions (first, second, and third) into separate questions. If possible, ask your questions to a friend before you attend class.

  • Don’t immediately answer your own questions. It can be scary to put forth a question and then wait for a response. Some discussion leaders respond to this fear by immediately answering their own questions. While their ideas can be good, by so quickly putting them out there, these leaders often fail to start an actual discussion. Be patient; allow people time to formulate answers and participate. If responses still don’t follow, you may need to clarify your question or give a prompt to the section of the reading that you are referring to, but try not to provide an actual answer yourself.

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Tips for Effective Public Speaking

Practice, Practice, Practice

Nothing is more important to making a good presentation than practice. The first couple of times that you read through your presentation you will likely trip over your words and identify places that are awkward or unclear. This is quite normal. Practicing allows you to gain confidence and to fix rough spots before speaking before an audience. It also enables you to know your points well enough to actually talk to your audience rather than to simply read to them. 

Make sure to time yourself as you practice and adjust your talk to fit the course requirements.

Slow Down

After practice, the second most important tip for making an effective presentation is to slow down. In casual conversation, we speak far faster than we should during a formal presentation. And, when we get nervous, we often speed up even more. Make a conscious effort to slow down so that your audience has time to understand and absorb what you are trying to say.


Don’t be a Walking Essay

While presentations are formal, your speaker’s voice should be different from your writer’s voice. Long sentences may work well in an essay, but they can be hard for listeners to follow. You won’t have time to read everything in your essay; focus on the most important points.


Use Clear Verbal Cues

Because your audience only gets to hear your presentation once, it is essential that you provide clear verbal cues to help them understand what you are discussing. Using a cue such as: “Now I will move away from a discussion of ___ and move toward an analysis of ____” signals to your audience that you are making a transition and helps them to focus on what is important.  When you provide a list, you may wish to use cues such as “first,” “next,” and “finally.”

Smile and Enjoy Yourself!

The best way to succeed at public speaking is to try to enjoy it. Think of the presentation less as a test and more as an opportunity to share what you have learned. Be enthusiastic about your work, and your own excitement will be contagious.

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