Historians, TED Thyselves

The air is crisp. The leaves are falling. In New England there are cider donuts.

All of this is delightful. And it means that it is – praise be! – the beginning of my Academic Conference Season.

And you know I love to write about conferences. Should I go to themWhat should I wear – or not to wear – to them? How can we make them better? And now I want to get granular, and talk about conference papers themselves.


I started thinking more about different ways to present historical content to audiences a few weeks ago, when I auditioned for a new show on the History Channel. In a series of interviews, I had to talk about history in 30-second “energetic” spurts without pausing, elaborating, or interrupting myself to go off on a tangent. And all without notes. It was much harder than I expected, and exhausting.

Around the same time, an ad started popping up on my Facebook feed: Take an online class in public speaking with Chris Anderson, the “curator” of TED Talks! By watching a series of short lectures, learn how to give a fantastic public talk!

I’ve always been fascinated by the TED Talk format, and the demographics of its practitioners. The vast majority of TED Talkers are social and hard scientists. Could a historian successfully convert the typical academic conference paper into a TED Talk?


I ponied up the cash and signed up. The course consisted of 22 lectures, most of them about how to structure a talk, and then several on learning how to overcome your fear of public speaking. The first segment took about forty minutes to watch.

Anderson has a lovely British accent and gave the “lectures” from a comfortable-looking red armchair. The videos were interspersed with worksheets and clips from popular TED Talks as examples.

After taking the course, I was convinced that converting history conference papers into TED Talks would take some doing, but that it would be a useful exercise. The most natural fit would probably be a paper about the research process, as that subject really lends itself to the structure I’ve outlined below. But as Chris Anderson points out, there’s no one way to give a TED talk. But there are a number of tools he recommends – and you can choose the tools to use given the kind of talk you want to give.

So here’s one way to take your conference paper – usually 10 pages of typed, double-spaced text taken from a larger article or chapter, and read word-for-word to an audience of colleagues who cared enough to get up by 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday to attend your panel – and turn it into a TED Talk.

First, open a new document.

This is not about just cutting your paper in half. This is about thinking of your paper NOT as a paper, but as a talk. Which first involves three steps:

  • Take the central claim of your paper, which in its current form is probably a complex argument with multiple parts. Convert that claim into an  idea that you can express in 1 sentence.
  • Ask yourself: why does this idea matter to my colleagues in the historical profession? How does it change the way we think about 19th-century Europe? Or racial conflict in American communities? Explain why it matters in 1 sentence.
  • Now think of your talk as “telling a story” – each component should illuminate or prove your central idea. In the online course, Chris Anderson describes great talks as “taking your audience on a journey of discovery.” Every step of that trip should make sense, and the audience should feel like they are moving through the narrative with you.
Once you’ve written these 2 sentences, create the following outline:
  • Anecdote about your topic that makes a connection with the audience. If the anecdote is funny, that is ideal.
  • Idea What I came to realize was … [your idea].
  • Why the idea is new, surprising, challenging.
    • Examples of previous/other conclusions – and why they are wrong
  • The Idea again: So despite the fact that historians have thought [x], actually …
  • Explanations: How did I come to this conclusion?
    • Example [otherwise known in the historical profession as “evidence”] that proves your idea.
    • Example.
    • Example.
      • [This is where you think of the talk as a “journey” – link your examples together in a way that makes sense for the narrative]
  • Revelation:
    1. The Best Example, which you have saved for last.
    2. The Takeaway – the “why it matters” sentence, which suggests the broader implications of your idea, and how it changes the way we think about this moment in time, or the event in question.
Once you’ve written all of this up, practice giving the talk with notes. Then shove the notes in a drawer and give the talk without them.


  • THIS WILL BE THE HARDEST PART. We cling to those pages like our lives depend on them. But if we cannot let them go, we cannot give a true “talk” that will captivate our colleagues rather than put them to sleep.
  • When you give the talk itself, move out from behind the lectern. This will force you to abandon your notes. It will also surprise the hell out of your audience.
  • Ask yourself: do I really need this power point? If the answer is yes:
    • Limit yourself to five slides.
    • Those slides should be mostly images, but if you use text, use it sparingly.
    • Never, ever, turn your back on the audience to look at the screen.


Now, as I noted at the beginning, not all history talks will fit into this exact structure. But it’s a start at a new way of conveying ideas, and I’m willing to try it. I don’t have any conference papers coming up, but I am giving some talks to Civil War Roundtables in November. I’ll give them as TED Talks (HISTED Talks? Hmmm) and let you know how they go.

And if any of you brave souls are willing to try this at the Southern or the Western, contact me and tell me when your session is – I will definitely be there.



9 thoughts on “Historians, TED Thyselves”

  1. I sat on this for a bit, digesting it slowly. I will be paying my money for the lessons, because that is a great idea and, I think, a good deal. I have also been thinking about the emotional impact possible in public speaking. Admittedly this is a 19th century idea, but we have certainly seen evidence of it lately. I am finding myself thinking of doing more than reading from a paper. I present about the American Civil War, and I need to do that more effectively. My “conferences” are less academic–more Civil War Round Table, etc. I have been watching things like the Met’s presentation of DJSpooky’s New Civil War Symphony, war poetry readings/slams, artfully done PowerPoints, etc. I like the idea of multiple presenters collaborating to bring something unique and memorable to an “audience” of folks–maybe even getting that audience involved.

    I have nothing to lose–I will retire from the classroom in June and the rest is ALL just a labor of love from then on. Anyone else thinking along the lines of anything like this?

  2. One of the best compliments I have ever received on a student evaluation, (and I bet many of my colleagues would disagree) was in all caps: TAKE THIS WOMAN’S CLASSES. EVERY LECTURE IS LIKE A FRIGGIN’ TED TALK.

    A 50 minute TED talk with no images (bc you know me and understand that I dress for my students and want them to admire my couture). But ultimately, I am proud because most of my students are not historians, most of them do not plan on becoming historians, but most of them are now interested in some way in engaging with historical moments.

    I believe firmly in the roles of both the traditional academic and the public intellectual. I insist that they both play vital and important parts, and that they can both inspire critical, thoughtful, even earth-shattering dialogue. Don’t let elitism get in the way of communication. And don’t let anti-intellectualism make you revise your rigor. Surely if we make space for TED-like history, we will have more viewers who clamor for knowledge than we do those who thirst for Kardashians.

      1. I’m not sure all my colleagues would agree. Too many equate popular with easy and public with dumbed down. I believe you can understand your audience and still speak with great historical depth and profundity. I also firmly feel that there is space in the field for many types of voices.

        Including ones that speak with multiple narrators and threads and stories. Can’t wait for your new book.

        1. The attitude of some of your colleagues seems to track with attitudes about trade publishing (or “writing for the public” more generally) in academia – that such approaches speak to the lowest common denominator, and are not “rigorous” enough. I agree with you that this is not at all true, that there are many ways to tell stories about the past, and we should use all of the strategies at our disposal to convey all of history’s complexities.

  3. I’ve long thought we should dispense with this format. Years ago, the Oral History Association actually sent out an email to conference participants not to read their papers. I wish other organizations would follow suit. I also think we should consider getting rid of commenters–especially for senior scholars who are more interested in audience feedback than having a peer blather on about his or her work. Usually, his.

    1. Yessssss. Let’s definitely get rid of commentators – most do not add anything useful and just take up valuable discussion time. What I’m hoping is that we can rethink the conference “paper” as a talk that conveys complexity and has substance, AND is engaging in terms of delivery.

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