(1) The speed-reading of densely argued material, because “time is short.” Solution: Cut your paper in half. Make sure the content is a KISS (Keep It Short and Sweet). Read as little as possible. Work from notes, maintain eye contact, and adjust your delivery speed based on audience response.
(2) No handouts provided. So people forget your name, what text you are talking about, your thesis. Solution: provide handouts that highlight your thesis, provide text, and include information you take for granted in the presentation itself. Essential background information that is old to you is bound to be new to someone else.
(3) A monotone delivery in which you stumble over the written word and never look up. It reinforces the communication process if hearing, reading, laughing, storytelling, a dramatic gesture or two, converge to make a point. At ISBL-Rome, James Kugel, formerly of Harvard, was an excellent role model in this sense. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, he told a number of excellent jokes on Jesuits and on Orthodox Jews to illustrate his points, but also, just to put everyone in a lucid state of mind. Like the story of a Jesuit who is looking for a particular church in Paris. He asks a passerby, “How can I find St. So-and-so?” The answer, “You’ll never find it, Father. It’s right in front of you.” After pointing out a commonality between Jesuits and Orthodox Jews, their love of Jesuitical/Talmudic reasoning, he got everyone’s attention when he said that in terms of reading the Bible with intellectual honesty, Orthodox Judaism is stuck where Catholicism was 100 years ago.
(4) Not making your point clearly. You have to be creative about getting your point across. The acoustics in many rooms is terrible. It is often helpful to gather everyone together in a virtual huddle. One excellent presider of a session I presented in, Tova Forti, did just that. We were all far more attentive than we would otherwise have been thanks to her forethought.
(5) Wall-flower presiders. Presiders need to be proactive. A very short but interesting presentation of a presenter can be helpful. If a presentation bombs, it’s still possible to briefly reboot the discussion on the basis of the subject matter. It’s also a huge plus to have time at the end for a panel discussion in which the same question can be put to more than one presenter. If presenters are taking the scholarship of someone in the audience as their point of departure, by all means ask the audience member to join in the discussion. In a Wisdom session, Michael Fox was in the audience and presenters were engaging his scholarship in almost every paper. Forti rightly invited him to comment. What fun to see your paper cut down to size immediately!
I feel vindicated for making sure I always have good handouts for my presentations. I agree that having a vague and unclear thesis is about the most annoying thing a presenter can do. I've also whittled a few pages off my presentation already just to make sure I can give the central points the time they deserve. Thanks, John, for the great advice!