Professional Lecturing (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Giving a talk to a genealogy audience is another natural outgrowth of wide research experience. It’s a mini-form of teaching. Some of us may have the gift of spontaneous gab whereby we can launch confidently into a topic, keep it flowing in an organized and cohesive manner, and keep the audience mesmerized. However, not everyone feels immediately comfortable standing as the focus of attention in front of a seated audience. Most of us have the need to prepare, minimally, an outline of the topic with key points and notes.

It may still be common that new speakers will labour over a full manuscript presentation, as if for an academic program. It’s not professional, in the world of genealogy, to read word for word an essay you wrote, with your eyes mainly glued to your papers. Eye contact with your audience gives them the feeling of connection with you, and gives you body-language feedback on the effect you’re giving. We need to become comfortable with a personal style of presentation and delivery, through practice and experience.

Attending some large regional or national genealogy conferences is an excellent way to pick up tips from truly professional speakers. Listen, watch and emulate!

First Engagements

Try getting your feet wet at your local level. Smaller genealogy clubs and societies are always on the lookout for new speakers and topics, just as their newsletter editors seek written articles. The smaller the group, probably the less formal the atmosphere is. If you are already involved at some level of research or volunteering, you should find no resistance to your offer to be a program speaker! This is like a necessary apprenticeship. A few initial suggestions:

  • Be familiar with the way meetings are conducted and how other speakers present. Get a feel for what would interest them of the subjects you could present; check their past programs for previous speakers’ topics.
  • Choose your topic, or a variety of them, for the attention and approval of their program arranger.
  • Make your notes about the subject and continue to refine them—notes are what you will actually want to speak from.
  • Think of interesting ways to present it. Will you use a case study the audience can follow or participate in? Will you use slides or overheads or other projected illustrations? Will you wear a period costume to enhance the atmosphere?
  • Practice your talk out loud in advance; don’t rush your words. Better to be a little slow than too fast. The audience can absorb a few well-chosen points better than a lot of information hurled at them too quickly.
  • Dress professionally, be early, be friendly, be confident!
  • If you are serious about gaining wider recognition as a speaker, you could consider taping yourself at these times, and studying the tapes to make improvements. Another option is to have a friend or colleague in the audience to critique you, not necessarily for subject matter, but for delivery and general presentation.
  • Ask if they intend, or would like, to publish a synopsis of your talk in their newsletter. If so, you would probably like to be in charge of providing it, rather than an audience member summarizing it. From your outline and notes, you should be able to create a satisfactory description that will make allowances for whether illustrations can be included. Having it published will reach more members and help extend your reputation.
  • Will you get paid? That depends on the resources of the group to which you speak. It’s a good habit to ask about this in advance, even when you are starting out. Small groups may only be able to offer a gift in the way of a book, local souvenir or membership to their society. Others may have a standard speakers’ fee. Certainly you should expect reimbursement for expenses to travel to the venue, and other related costs. Large conferences normally have a set honorarium plus travel and accommodation expenses.

Gradually you will build up a portfolio of talks and lectures that you are comfortable with. If you keep a list of your titles with a succinct, brief outline of each, you will be able to forward it to any interested parties or venues.

More Engagements: Proposals and Submissions

Genealogy conferences that are held on an annual basis now often publish a Call for Speakers which means a call for lecture proposals. Even if they don’t, you may propose yourself as a speaker if you know about the event well in advance. A Call will have detailed instructions with a deadline for submissions. Usually the details include guidelines for a relatively condensed outline of your proposed topics, and perhaps a very brief one- or two-liner blurb for each that would serve as the preliminary description on their advertising brochures and registration forms. Along with your biographical information related to genealogical activities, another requirement for large conferences is a résumé of recent speaking activities. A sample audiotape might be required.

Programs at large conferences are arranged by committees which must deal with intricate logistics, such as their overall allotted program budget, the focus and locale of the event, and the concurrent tracks or thematic streams they might schedule simultaneously. Such committees may be formed two or more years in advance. Sometimes they are like sports scouts—their members may monitor various genealogy events for auditing new speakers not yet known on a regional or national scene.

Here are a few tips gained from experience. Depending on the size of the conference to which you are submitting, some or all of the following may apply:

  • Have you made a list of all the topics you speak on, or could potentially speak on? Do some of your topics have more than local interest? Have you received critical feedback from initial audiences or designated listeners on your subject matter and style? What do you hear from tapes of yourself? Such feedback goes a long way to building your confidence in personal strengths and eliminating weaknesses. Take some copies of your list with you to conferences to hand out to future conference organizers.
  • On mulling over your proposal ideas, consider the theme of a specific conference. Nowadays all conferences seem to have themes. In fact, they likely spell out some sub-themes or tracks that cover a lot of variety (something for everyone who registers). How can your best topics fit into the conference? By now you should know that however well you know a topic, it needs some customizing for each particular event.
  • Always submit more than one proposal. The most disappointed rejectees I have heard are those who submitted only one topic, the one they do best. Program committees look for some flexibility, for choices in one person’s range of proposals. The committee must balance their decisions among some essential basics and attractive new submissions, along with the comparative expenses incurred by nearby or distant speakers. Why would they have three people coming from a distance on three topics when one person can offer three or more different talks?
  • Creating a title for each proposal takes more thought to catch the interest of the potential registrant. Titles in themselves can reflect your flexibility to the program committee. Not that you may be aware, but several people may have submitted proposals on topics similar to yours. A title like “Newspaper Research” rarely works anymore. Look at previous conference programs or syllabi for ideas—not only to get inspired, but to avoid duplication! While some titles go a little overboard in length, something like “Find the Fine Print in the News Print” is a little catchier and “‘Read All About It!’ All The News That’s Fit to Print!” goes even further to attract attention.
  • The required outline of your proposal is usually one page maximum, often just one paragraph. The committee wants the absolute gist, a précis of what you will talk about. One suggestion is that you pick highlights with a view to whatever you may provide later in the published syllabus. This means that no matter how good a speaker you are, you must be able to “sell” your title/topic in that small written space. Well in advance of the deadline, compose or write your outlines, defining and refining them.
  • If a 2-3-line description is required for advance promotion, this is a true challenge for distilling your proposed talks. Work from your outlines. Write down all variations of the concept as you play with them. If you read them out loud, you will hear the right one.

And finally, rejection should not be taken personally. It happens to all of us. Creating proposals is good experience in itself. Keep on submitting!

More Engagements: Professional Preparation

You’ve been accepted to give a lecture, or lectures, at a major conference. Now you will receive even more instructions about deadlines and requirements. There will be contracts to sign and forms to fill out. You will be asked for your audio-visual needs and to provide syllabus material. You may be asked for permission to audiotape or videotape your presentation. Further information might include tip sheets for visual illustrations and general presentation; whether your session will have a greeter and introducer; eventually (hopefully) the size of your audience and the type of microphone, if necessary.

Syllabus Material
Even though you may not yet have developed the full talk, your first deadline will likely be for syllabus material. A syllabus carries information about each lecture that every speaker gives. Some conferences are now penalizing speakers who do not submit on time for the syllabus. The conference attendees receive the syllabus when they register and it helps them make decisions about which sessions they will attend. It is also a souvenir they take home to remind them of the talks they heard, or as a guide to the ones they missed. Some syllabi are now published as CD handouts for conference registrants; they may even be sent as email attachments to registrants prior to the conference or posted to the conference website.

Generally, you are allowed up to four pages of material. You may be instructed about margin settings, paper weight or quality, font size and so on. Here again, it’s a fine compromise about what you want seen in print. If you give away the entire content of your upcoming talk, will Jane Doe skip the actual lecture? If you don’t give enough, are you disappointing everyone? You don’t necessarily have to fill all four pages. Some suggestions for ingredients in syllabus material:

  • A brief narrative outline or bullet form of the key points you will discuss
  • Related bibliographical listings
  • Illustrations of sample documents
  • Graphics that are to the point (and not overdone!)
  • Complex summary charts

Audio-Visual Enhancement
For a long time, transparencies shown by an overhead projector were a staple method of illustrating key points of a lecture, and/or demonstrating documents, photographs and other sources. Using a slide carousel and projector had been another option. Today, most conferences require that you use a projector and PowerPoint slides or the equivalent in your presentation.If you don’t have a laptop computer or a projector you will need to ask in advance if your host group can provide the necessary equipment,?

When a syllabus is not part of the event, a handout for a talk to a group or society is a thoughtful and professional gesture that ensures the audience will remember you. It’s a reminder of your topic. Whether it’s one page or more, each should be dated, include the name and place of the event, and of course your name with a copyright symbol. How many copies of a handout will you make? The host group should be able to advise you how many people have registered—if you are responsible for bringing them with you. But find out in advance if they will do the photocopying for you at their expense. If this is the case, they will likely expect your handout “master” some days prior to the event, so that volunteers have sufficient time to take care of this chore.

If you have provided syllabus material, a handout at lecture time is not a necessity. On the other hand, syllabus information may be prepared and handed in months ahead of the actual event. The nature of your particular talk/topic may need some updating relative to what is printed in the syllabus. We all know that addresses or URLs tend to change! Or possibly you have acquired new information in the intervening time.

Speaker evaluations are often circulated at large conferences. Some are more detailed than others, asking for audience opinions on presentation, content and other details. This enables the organizers to determine who was effective, instructive, popular, and all the components that place you high on a list of being invited back. Unfortunately, the results of the evaluations are not always available to the speakers themselves. Certainly they could be useful feedback for any of us trying to improve our performance. It doesn’t hurt to ask the organizers about this, before or after the event. Above we mentioned being critiqued by a colleague when you are practicing a lecture. Even when you are more experienced and speaking to a larger conference, you might want to ask someone for the same kind of assistance, especially if the conference organizers don’t supply that feedback.

Keep a personal running log of lectures given: which lectures did you give to which groups, and when? Then you’re ready to offer something different when they ask you again! Sometimes you will be asked for a list of lectures you have given, say in the past year or so.

Check out this website of interest:

Genealogical Speakers Guild
P.O. Box 38314
Olmsted Falls, Ohio, USA 44138-0314


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.