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Published Date

August 1, 2016

Resource Type

AHA Resource, For Departments, For Professional Development

AHA Topics

Academic Departmental Affairs, Graduate Education, Professional Life, Teaching & Learning

This resource was developed as part of the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative.

By Lindsey Martin
University of Chicago


Using This Guide

This how-to provides an overview of how to launch a public speaking workshop for graduate students in your department, including the basic logistics of organizing the workshop and suggested topics and resources for each session.

Purpose of This Workshop

Whether presenting research at a conference or delivering a lecture in front of a class, public speaking is a central component of what it means to be a historian. It is not a skill, however, that is traditionally emphasized by graduate programs in the discipline. Helping students become more knowledgeable, confident, and skilled speakers will not only allow them to flourish within the academy, but will also prepare them for the many careers beyond the professoriate that highly value effective oral communication.

Skills This Workshop Addresses

Communication, Intellectual Self-Confidence


Preparing for the Workshop

  1. Select one or two faculty members, or a team comprised of faculty and someone on campus with public speaking expertise, to lead the workshop. Campus career services, centers for teaching and learning, or communication offices are staffed by individuals knowledgeable about oral communication. Inviting someone from these offices to participate in the workshop can provide a fresh perspective for students and help minimize the amount of time faculty will have to devote to preparing for each session. Career and teaching centers may even have experience running speaking workshops for undergraduate and graduate students, which can be useful in tailoring sessions to your department’s specific needs.
  2. The workshop consists of six 60-90 minute sessions over the course of a single academic quarter or semester. You can hold the sessions in any department conference room, although many of the suggested resources below are videos that require an A/V setup, so be sure to check with your department or university technical support if you are unsure how your room is set up.
  3. At the beginning of the semester, announce the dates, times, and topics of each session to your students via e-mail. Include an explanation of how and why this workshop would benefit students at any stage of the program, as the links between public speaking, conference presentations, teaching, interviewing, and job talks may not be immediately evident. Be sure to send an additional announcement to faculty, who should encourage their own students to attend. In crafting your pitch, consider consulting the AHA’s Career Diversity Five Skills resources on why public speaking is a crucial skill for graduate students.
  4. Have fun! Public speaking is stressful for everyone, so creating a relaxed and inviting atmosphere to practice is essential. In your announcements or advertisements, stress that attendance is not mandatory at every session, but encourage students to stop by and participate whenever they are available. Beverages and snacks can also help encourage attendance and put participants at ease.

Running the Workshop

Six possible sessions for a public speaking workshop, including relevant resources and exercises, are outlined below. There are many more useful resources online relating to oral communication, so feel free to use whatever materials you prefer. Keep in mind that a public speaking workshop should leave plenty of time for students to actually practice their speaking skills, so don’t devote too much time in each session to discussion.

Session I: Introduction to Public Speaking

The first session of the workshop should provide a foundation for all subsequent sessions by introducing the basic components of effective public speaking.

Exercise 1: Ask participants to take a few minutes to reflect on an example of public speaking they consider to have been particularly compelling. Why did the talk resonate with them? What insights into effective oral presentations did they take from that occasion?

Exercise 2: Select an example of effective public speaking and play a portion of the talk for the group. After viewing, have the group discuss how the speaker addressed the various elements of effective public speaking. For example, how did the speaker tailor the talk for the audience? How did the speaker use body language, pauses, and tone of voice to strengthen the message?

Exercise 3: After introducing students to the basic concepts of effective public speaking, have the group brainstorm what effective speaking shares with effective teaching—a type of communication with which they are likely more familiar. What rhetorical and structural strategies have they used to engage students in the classroom, and how might those insights translate to public speaking? Viewing a talk that demonstrates this link particularly well, such as Lawrence Lessig’s lectures on corruption, can be helpful for jumpstarting discussion and suggesting connections.

Suggested Resources:
Session II: Managing Anxiety and the Psychology of Public Speaking

Public speaking can be an anxiety-inducing experience for even the most seasoned of presenters, and those nerves can undercut confidence and derail presentations. This session focuses on managing that anxiety and channeling it into productive energy.

Exercise 1: Introduce the group to fear-management techniques presenters can deploy before and during talks, such as power posing and techniques to answer difficult questions.

Exercise 2: Ask participants to prepare one-minute talks summarizing their research, to be followed by two to three minutes of questions from the audience. In responding, presenters should draw upon the tips provided for answering questions (see below). The group will then provide one to two minutes of feedback to each presenter assessing how effectively they responded to the questions.

Suggested Resources:
Session III: Body Language and Delivery

Building upon the insights from the previous session, how can your voice and body be used to enhance your presentations and make your messages as effective as possible?

Exercise 1: How can your body language and voice betray your nerves? Watch a video of director Michael Bay struggling through a press conference without a teleprompter and note the physical and verbal tics that convey how uncomfortable he felt in the moment.

Exercise 2: Take the group through a series of vocal warm-up exercises to demonstrate how they can improve the tone and projection of their voice before a presentation.

Exercise 3: Watch this short animated film on how non-verbal cues, including eye contact, posture, and gestures convey confidence and enhance presentations.

Exercise 4: To isolate delivery and body language (as opposed to content), present all workshop participants the same excerpt from a well known speech, such as the Gettysburg Address. Give the group 10 minutes to practice how they will deliver the speech, with an emphasis on marking the text to note where they should pause, gesture, make eye contact, modulate tone, etc. The participants will then deliver their individual versions of the talk, each leaving two to three minutes for feedback from the group.

Suggested Resources
Session IV: Structure

Structure and organization are key components of compelling presentations; due to the particular challenges of oral communication and the need to account for the attention span of an audience, you cannot write an effective talk the same way you would write an academic paper.

Exercise 1: Introduce the group to the concepts of “signposts,” “internal summaries,” transitions, and speech structure.

Exercise 2: Watch Neil MacGregor’s TEDTalk in which he discusses 2600 years of Middle Eastern history through a single object. Ask students to consider how he structures his talk. How does he use transitions, introductions, conclusions, and overall argument to cover such a large, unwieldy time span in a way that engages the audience?

Suggested Resources
Session V: Impromptu Speaking

Putting the lessons of the previous weeks into practice, this session is devoted entirely to impromptu speeches: short, 60- to 90-second presentations on a topic chosen at random only minutes earlier.

  1. Designate a timekeeper who will ensure that presentations do not go over the 90-second time limit. The timekeeper can also use signs to indicate when a speaker reaches the 45-second and one-minute mark.
  2. Fill a box with 20-30 assorted words depending upon the size of your group. Words should be written on index cards or strips of paper and folded so participants cannot see what words they are selecting.
  3. Using concrete nouns like “baseball,” “Chicago,” “helmet,” “The Beatles,” or “pizza” is a relatively easy way to ease the group into the exercise. For a challenge, instead select abstract nouns like “freedom,” “confidence,” or “integrity.” Increase the time allotted for participants to prepare as necessary.
  4. Once each participant draws a word from the box, give the group three minutes to prepare their talks. One way to advise participants on crafting a talk in such a short amount of time is to suggest they focus on preparing an introduction that hooks the audience and a conclusion that powerfully conveys their message. Much of the content of the talk can be improvised, but this improvisation comes much easier if the speaker has an introduction and an end goal in mind.
  5. After each presentation, the audience should give the speaker constructive feedback relating to all aspects of public speaking: tone, body language, content, structure, etc. Running several rounds of the exercise will allow participants to improve any issues the group notes.
Session VI: Elevator Pitches

An elevator pitch is a concise summary of research that lays forth its argument, methods, and significance in a few sentences. These pitches are intended to be accessible and are usually shared informally in a professional context. As such, an effective elevator pitch can be an invaluable tool for graduate students as they attend conferences and hope to make a positive impression on other scholars.

Exercise 1: Give participants an elevator-pitch “cheat sheet” that asks them to answer the following four prompts in one sentence each. When combined, the sentences will provide participants with the draft of a pitch. The Chicago Center for Teaching at the University of Chicago recommends the following set of questions:

  1. What is the big picture of your research? What is the overarching question, the intellectual or historical context, or the major conflict?
    Example: “I’m studying the relationships between societal violence and women’s work.”
  2. What are the specifics of your work? What are the places, times, sources, individuals, communities, or methods it involves?
    Example: “I’m analyzing labor data and police records from five cities…”
  3. What are you finding? What is the most interesting part of your work or its most significant insight?
    Example: “I’m finding that as more women enter the workforce…”
  4. What are the implications, significance, and consequences of your work?
    Example: “This has implications for how we understand labor policy and community policing…”

Exercise 2: Have participants walk around the room and introduce themselves as though they were at a conference or networking event. Taking turns, participants should ask each other about their current research and pose a few relevant follow-up questions. After 20 minutes, the group should reconvene and summarize what they learned about one another’s research, providing an opportunity for each participant to gauge the effectiveness of their elevator pitches.

Suggested Resources:
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