How to Present in a College Seminar

Presenting in a seminar is a good way to sharpen your understanding of an academic course of study. When doing so, it’s always useful to engage the audience, which makes it clear that you’re talking to them rather than at them.

How much you can involve the audience depends to a certain degree on the type of seminar you’re giving and how long you’ve got – 10 minutes or 50 minutes, for example. The following list suggests a few ways of engaging your audience; the first manages things for you if your time is limited.

  • Ask a question at the very beginning of the presentation: Write the question down so that it can be seen by everyone and ask the audience to note their response. The presentation title itself can be in the form of a question that you can use, but a more focused question or set of questions is better.

    If it is a yes/no-type question, you can do a head count to see how opinion is divided. It helps if the question is provocative. Tell the audience you’ll ask the same question at the end of the presentation to check opinions again, as in a debate.

  • Show the audience a photograph or picture: Ask them to think about where it was taken or where it came from or who was involved, what was happening, and why.

  • Show the audience a substance or something they can touch: Pass the object around and suggest what it is. For instance, fossil dinosaur poo is not immediately identifiable. You can ask them to guess the weight of a random object, not because that is the topic of your presentation but to illustrate the range of guesses the audience may suggest, or about different people’s perception of the same thing.

  • Play pre-recorded sounds: Ask the audience to identify them or particular characteristics of them.

  • Present certain symbols: You can try, for example a swastika, an Ankh, a Celtic cross, a lion rampant or the saltire (Scottish flag) and ask the audience to note down their immediate reactions and what these symbols suggest to them.

  • Use smells to conjure up impressions: Driftwood, for example, usually retains some sea-salty smell – an appeal to the audience’s imagination.

  • Ask the audience to guess the answers to questions as you go through the seminar: For example: ‘Which country held the most executions in 2008?’

  • Pose the bodies of members of the audience or ask them to adopt certain positions to demonstrate body language: What is visible to them in some positions and not others. You can ask them to role-play certain characters or situations as a demonstration to other members of the audience. Make sure that you respect boundaries if you do this and reassure your audience, but it can be very effective, as the demonstrators can ‘feel’ the situation.

This list is by no means exhaustive but is a reminder that you can appeal to the senses as well as abstract reasoning. The objective is to gain the audience’s attention – promise to reveal all at some later point – and involve them in the proceedings.

Avoid being gimmicky – just use one or two techniques, not all of them in one seminar. However, don’t be afraid to experiment, because that’s how you learn techniques.

At worst your audience may be bemused, but if you’ve given them a sensory memory cue it may help them remember your presentation. You can ask them a few weeks later for the answer to a question where you used a sensory prompt and they’ll be surprised how well they remember.

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