Letters to the Editor

Speak the Speech Well, I Pray You. . .

David Kahn, October 2008

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To the Editor:

May I respectfully but totally disagree with the basic premise of Linda Kerber’s article about presenting a conference paper (Perspectives on History, May 2008)? She believes that the paper should be written out and read from. No. It should be talked out from cards.

No paper delivered before an audience should be read. A read paper bores listeners and so precludes what the presenter wants to achieve: interest, impact. Audiences much prefer live performances. I have never heard one person say that he or she prefers a written paper to a spoken one. Listeners don’t care if the speaker stumbles. The liveliness of the performance far outweighs any mistakes. Moreover, a speaker uses simpler words, shorter sentences, plainer thoughts than a writer.

The time to write out the piece is when it is to be published. Then it can be longer; then the secondary points may be addressed; then the expected objections may be dealt with; then the big words may be used. At a conference, it should be spoken as if extempore. Recently I attended a conference of computer security specialists. Not one read his or her paper. Every one spoke extemporaneously. People paid attention. The speakers happened to have been kept on track by PowerPoint presentations that flashed major points on the screen. This helped, but historians don’t have to use PowerPoint; we can emphasize our important ideas by careful construction of our speech and by judicious repetition. Can’t we think and speak as well as computer nerds?

Many of Kerber’s points are valid—observe time limits, rehearse your talk, check your room. But speakers shouldn’t bore their audiences with a canned talk. They should make it live.

—David Kahn
New York