How to Give an A+ Presentation in Seminar

In almost every seminar I’ve taken at Princeton, one of the main assignments has been a weekly student presentation. The professor typically passes a syllabus around the room and asks each student to choose a week or two to present. The structure of these presentations will vary, but I’ve collected some tips for how to prepare an A+ class presentation:

Make sure you understand your professor’s expectations. How long is the presentation supposed to be? Are you expected to lead the whole class discussion or just introduce the readings? What types of information do they want you to provide: Background for the readings? Summary of the arguments? Your own analysis? It can help to schedule a meeting with your professor the week before you present to review these expectations and receive some personalized guidance. If you’re brave enough, consider asking these questions in class on the first day so your classmates can also benefit!

Last week, I gave a presentation on the nineteenth-century warrior Black Hawk for my Native American History class. Meeting with my professor a few days before made the whole process so much easier.

Know that week’s readings inside and out. Most weeks, you can get by with a strategic skim of the readings. But when you’re presenting, you want to be extra comfortable with the scholarship. Consider doing the readings twice—or at least 1.5 times. Try summarizing the central argument of each work for yourself. Make a list of important quotes or passages and where to find them. In my experience, the more time I’ve invested in preparing the readings, the easier the presentation has become. It can also help to find some information online about the week’s author/s—noting especially their discipline, their research focus, and their other publications. Remember that the assigned readings should always occupy the center of your presentation—your job is to help elucidate what’s been assigned, not to design your own syllabus.

Connect the readings to the class as a whole. Ask yourself why the professor assigned these readings. What do these works contribute to the central questions or arguments of the class? What kind of intervention are these scholars making in their field? Why did they write this piece in the first place? You might want to think about what you gained from the readings as a student in the class. I’ve found this step super helpful for internalizing material long-term. It’s easy to forget disconnected works of scholarship—thinking about a syllabus as a cohesive argument or evolution can help define the central takeaways from the course (and from your presentation).

Think critically. No piece of writing is perfect. A good presentation will always present some of the problems or lingering questions posed by the texts. What are the limitations of these readings? Did you disagree with any of their arguments? Were there pieces you had a hard time understanding? Problem areas always make fruitful discussion topics. If your class requires weekly blog posts, consider reading your classmates’ posts for ideas. If you end up using a classmate’s idea, be sure to cite them in class—everyone loves to get a shout-out for their work.

Come to class with notes. In general, I’m not a planner, but I’ve learned that every presentation goes better when you have notes in front of you—not an annotated copy of the readings, but actual notes. Outline each of the points you want to cover—in whatever detail you think you need in order to articulate yourself clearly. Consider preparing a PowerPoint as a guide for yourself and as a helpful visual tool for the class. Also, consider categorizing your list of passages or quotes by theme, so when a specific topic comes up in the discussion, you immediately know where to look for evidence.

Practice at least once. It can feel silly to prepare for such an informal presentation, but it will be so much easier and smoother if you’ve already run through it at least once. Consider practicing in front of a friend and soliciting their feedback!

Presentations are a great opportunity to spend some extra time with the readings and practice your communication skills. Always remember that everyone in the class is invested in your presentation and wants you to do well. Your teacher and classmates are there to support you as you introduce the day’s discussion.

–Rafi Lehmann, Social Sciences Correspondent