(DH) Public Speaking

This is a post that I had partially drafted on my laptop for a while, and I want to be better about getting things out in the world rather than sitting on them.

Part of my job involves helping students professionalize, as digital humanists and otherwise, which often means being there when students get accepted to their first digital humanities conference. Since most of my students come from the humanities, those conversations often go something like this:

Student: “I got accepted to the big digital humanities conference!”
Me: “That’s exciting! You should be proud of yourself.”
two months pass
Student: “Wait what should I be expecting at this conference? People read their talks right?”
Me: “Well…it’s complicated…”

The answer, of course, is that it depends. In my experience, DH presentations seem to cover the full spectrum of approaches to public speaking and vary pretty widely depending on the conference. A DH talk at a discipline-specific conference is likely to be different than a DH talk at a mostly DH event. Some people dutifully read a talk they have written ahead of time. I would say most speakers get by with talking from notes, giving a presentation that is more or less extemporaneous. Some seem to speak fully off the cuff with little preparation and pull it off with style (not something I could do). Personal styles vary a lot, and giving a keynote is somewhat different than giving a roundtable response or a short paper presentation. Arguments about which approach is the best can be fierce.

The topic reminds me of a conversation I had with an undergraduate mentor back when I was just coming into graduate school and was accepted to my first conference. I had no real experience with academia at all - no friends or family who had worked on graduate degrees that were not pre-professional, and no humanities grads in my network. So I did not know what an abstract was, what a talk was, or how the two related with each other. After all, these behaviors and institutions all have to be learned sometime and somehow.

So on the off chance that this information is useful to someone out there I thought I would make a few notes about the way I go about preparing for talks, particularly because the way I do so is probably not immediately legible based on the end product. The way I do things feels somewhat idiosyncratic, which hopefully makes it all the more worth sharing. I finally decided it was worth doing so after walking around the Chicago airport prepping for my DH 2018 talk.

Reading a Talk / Giving a Talk from Notes

To begin, it might be helpful to compare the two main approaches to giving DH talks that I outlined above. I think they probably hold true for most forms of public speaking, though one genre of talk might be less socially accepted depending on your context and your audience.

When reading a written paper…

  • You are more likely to stick to the time limit. It is easier to plan when you know each page is roughly two minutes.
  • You already have something written up that can easily be repurposed or shared online. It is harder to get back in the conference headspace and write a thing up with every passing moment after a conference.
  • You will probably find the experience easier on the nerves, as all you have to do is keep reading and talking. Before you know it, the bulk of the talk will be done.
  • You can seem quite dull unless you take steps to perform your reading very well. This point is probably the main objection to reading a talk. After all, it is hard to stay engaged when someone is just reading aloud for 15 to 20 minutes (let alone an hour). This is not universally true - some people are quite adept at performing their reading of a presentation. And some (non-DH contexts in particular) virtually expect you to be reading your talk.
  • But, then again, you will actually say everything you mean to say in the order you mean to say it. That is worth a lot!

When speaking from notes…

  • You are more likely to be engaging. It is easier for you to inject a sense of personality in your talk. Again, this is usually the big advantage of the approach to people.
  • It is more difficult to predict how long you will talk for. If you take out the rough rule of two minutes to a 12-point Times New Roman page it is more difficult to know exactly what you are in for. Will you get through everything? Will you run out of time?
  • Beyond pace, you might leave something out, or you might not say something in exactly the best way to express your ideas.
  • You will not necessarily have a written product ready to go at the end, so that makes more work for you if you want to share the talk.

I think it is far more common in digital humanities to speak from notes. People have quite strong opinions about the delivery of talks, but I have always felt that there is no one correct answer. In one context you might see someone looked down upon for reading, but in that same venue a speaker might try and go from notes, go way over time, and never get through more than the introduction. Both can be done well, and both can be done poorly.

Write and then Listen

I do not write this to convince anyone that one form is better - I always feel like the conversation depends on a lot of personal factors. How anxious does public speaking make you? What makes you most comfortable? What social, personal, or medical circumstances might wholly rule out one approach for you? I more wanted to share my approach, which tries to split the differences. I should say at the outset that I am not necessarily advocating this for everyone. It feels a bit strange, but it is a workflow that I have come to like quite a lot. Hopefully it’s useful for someone out there as well.

The workflow I use to prepare has its roots in my own learning habits that go back to grade school - I have always found it easier to learn things by listening rather than by reading. When learning things for tests growing up I always needed to say them aloud - get them in my mouth and in my ear. And now I do it as a professional. If it was good enough for me in sixth grade it is good enough for me as an adult. The process I use to prepare for long-form public speaking (usually anything longer than 5-6 minutes) draws upon a similar process of making the work audible:

  1. I write the talk.
  2. I record myself giving the talk and make an MP3 of it using audacity.
  3. I use The Amazing Slow Downer, a great tool used by musicians, to divide up the talk into sections.
  4. I listen to the segments of that MP3 a bunch of times while walking around the airport, doing chores, driving, etc.
  5. Practicing a talk usually entails trying to learn pieces of the talk.
  6. When giving the talk I have the written version for reference if needed, but I usually don’t need to look at it much.

The Amazing Slow Downer allows you to do all sorts of useful things with audio to facilitate learning things by ear. You are probably not going to use most of its features if learning a talk, but it does have a pretty handy slicing and looping tool that can make it easier to divide a talk into segments and learn one piece at a time. If you are trying to learn music you can also slow things down without changing the pitch so as to pick things apart one note at a time.

Writing a talk is one thing. Learning and delivering it are another. The process for me is pretty similar to learning a song by listening to it on repeat. By the time I give the talk the thing has been rattling around in my head for days or weeks. I am usually just as excited to get the content out of my head and move on with my life as I am to actually discuss the material. I do not ever quite memorize the talks, but I do come close in a lot of cases. The good thing, though, is that I do not really need to memorize them. I can always bring the written talk with me anyway, and I usually do. Because I have already listened to the piece a lot and tried to learn it I only need to look down every five or six sentences to jog my memory. Each listen to the talk ahead of time is one fewer times I will have to look down at the sheet in the moment.

The result is a good middle road for me where I feel like I get the best of both worlds. I walk away with a blog post ready to go, and the timing is easier to plan for. I think I am much more engaging this way than when I read straight up, and it calms my nerves to know that I have prepared enough that the talk has earwormed its way into my head. If I get really panicked I can always just look down and grab the next set of sentences.

As with all things, your mileage may vary. But if this post does nothing other than spread the word about The Amazing Slow Downer I will consider it a success. It is a really nifty tool, especially when paired with Audacity.