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Annual Meeting: Presentation Tips and Tricks

Do You Want Your Audience at SHEAR to Give Its Full Attention to Your Paper?

By Louise W. Knight (

Some advice from the Early American Era:

Quaker women ministers of the 1830s were experienced public speakers. Here is the advice one of them gave to Sarah Grimke:

“There is something of a hurried appearance in thy manner. I do believe that if thou couldst speak more slowly and divide thy sentences and passages by suitable pauses, it will add greatly to the weight and dignity of communication.” –Abigail Barker to Sarah Grimke, December 8, 1835, Weld-Grimke Papersments Library, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Frederick Douglass, one of the most successful public speakers of his age, received his first lessons in delivery by reading the highly popular book, The Columbian Orator, by Caleb Bingham. In his introduction, Bingham suggests:

“That some sentences ought to be pronounced faster than others is very manifest. … But to hurry on in a precipitate manner without pausing, till stopped for want of breath, is certainly a very great fault. This destroys not only the necessary distinction between sentence and sentence, but likewise between the several words of the same sentence; by which means all the grace of speaking is lost, and in a great measure, the advantage of hearing.”

At the same time, going too slow is also not good:

“It is a fault to speak too slow. This seems to argue a heaviness in the speaker. And as he appears to cool himself, he can never expect to warm his hearers, and excite their affections. When not only every word but every syllable is drawn out to too great a length, the ideas do not come fast enough to keep up the attention without much uneasiness.”

Caleb Bingham, “Introduction,” The Columbian Orator (Boston, 1797, reprint 1832), 17. For a more recent, edited edition, see David W. Blight (ed. and new intro.), Caleb Bingham, The Columbian Orator: Containing a Variety of Original and Selected Pieces together with Rules, Which are Calculated to Improve Youth and Others, in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence (Bicentennial Edition, New York: New York University Press, 1998).


Why Do We Rush?

Caleb Bingham had some theories about why we rush.  He argues that because we are anxious about public speaking, we feel “pain till it is over.” This “puts the speaker into a hurry of mind, which incapacitates him from governing his voice, and keeping it under that due regulation which perhaps he proposed to himself before he began to speak.”

Other reasons, not anticipated by Bingham, are that either:

  1. We never practiced reading our paper at a deliberate pace to find out if its length fit within the panel’s time restrictions, possibly because we did not want to know, since it would mean we would have to shorten it, an idea too painful to contemplate;


  1. We practiced reading our paper at a deliberate pace, discovered the length did not fit within the panel’s time restrictions, and rather than shorten it, an idea too painful to contemplate, decided we would just read it faster.


Special Challenges, with Solutions Suggested by Irene Brown

Does your paper involve foreign languages? Does your paper involve unfamiliar vocabulary or names? Does your presentation necessitate images not enough to warrant a PowerPoint presentation?  Consider distributing photocopied pages to aid the audience in tracking the new content.