The study of history is a communal project. That is, while research and writing history is usually a solitary venture, sharing the results of that scholarship in a way that includes all sorts of audiences is essential. A diversity of perspectives among those who tell about the past helps to assure a shared history that offers meaning and builds on common understanding.
In other words, because history belongs to all of us, learning to share what you’ve uncovered as an historian is part of the process. Thus, while many students dread oral presentations, instructors keep requiring them, because it is so important to begin sharing historical knowledge as well as learn how to speak publicly. In addition, as the internet grows in importance as an informational medium, discerning the best ways to present historical information digitally seems as essential—or perhaps more essential—that public speaking.
Whether oral or digital, good presentations share a few qualities. They are:
- Clear about what listeners and viewers will gain. All good presentations start by telling us what improvement the audience can expect for their time, such as a better understanding, a corrected impression, the ability to see something new.
- Well-planned. Oral presentations in particular should follow a structure with a beginning, middle, and end, but digital presentations can also benefit from a “before you saw this” and “after you learned this” built into the design.
- Tightly edited. Instructors usually offer time limits for oral presentations, but even when a judge is not counting minutes, presentations should offer only essential information without distracting details.
- Dramatic or story oriented. History presentations should always contain quotations from primary sources, or otherwise offer audiences some personal echo of those living beings who were a part of the historic event or topic under study.
A few years back, some students brainstormed on how to do the worst presentation possible, bringing together all the mistakes they’d witnessed watching class presentations over the years. Despite the perversity of it, this list makes a good way of thinking about “what to do.”
|Design your presentation to inform your audience about what your argument was, and how you proved it
|Give a play-by-play of your research process
|Practice your presentation
|Like, umm, stammering
|Organize your thoughts ahead of time
|Wander off topic
|Time your presentation in a practice session
|Drone for 20 minutes longer than the time limit assigned
|Speak with confidence and passion and project your voice
|Stare off camera, speak in monotone
|Treat your audience with consideration
|Shout and gesticulate in odd ways
|Use slides for key words and compelling images, not your script; the general rule: no more than ~11 words per slide
|Have slides that are packed with info and read them to your audience
|Plan images, a timeline, etc. to keep audience engaged
|Have one or two vaguely connected images that the audience stares at and wonders what it has to do with your presentation
|Check your technology twice—at least
|Spend your entire presentation time trying to make your PowerPoint work
|Visuals should augment, not distract your audience
|Use freaky, bouncy or unreadable texts with bizarre visuals
Recommendations for making effective websites and other digital products:
- Use images, charts, widgets to reflect your argument about the past
- Words are important, but keep them limited and on point
- The content should make it clear what viewers can gain from your digitized presentation
- In website design: menu tabs need to take you somewhere new and the names on tabs need to be logical
- Avoid fonts, designs, or backgrounds that obscure your message
- Images should have explanations and citations
- ALWAYS list your sources – a dedicated page or a link to a bibliography available in the cloud
Ideas for Digital presentations:
- Sway (Microsoft 365 app for digital magazines)
- TimelineJS (free software app from Northwestern developers)
- Classic Story Maps from Esri Story Maps (or new ArcGIS StoryMaps)
- Create a gallery exhibit on Google Cultural Institute (may require you to create a website).
- Annotated video or image on Thinglink.com (tutorial here)
- Create a padlet (first three are free!)
- PowerPoint or Prezi slideshow recorded using Canvas Studio
- A podcast or videocast on YouTube
- Create a website (several free options, including Wix.com, Weebly, GoDaddy and others)
- Some combination of above or something you know about on your own (please share!)