How to cite this article: M. Jagadesh Kumar, “An academician’s reminiscences on giving interesting and effective public lectures“, IETE Technical Review, Vol.29 (6), pp.435-437, November-December 2012.
Whenever one gives a public lecture, in the audience, there will always be those who simply hear and those who carefully listen to what the speaker is telling. The key challenge for a successful communicator is to convert that part of the audience who merely hear into those who pay attention to your lecture. This is likely only if the speaker is able to persuade them into believing that there is some value in what he is saying. But how will the audience be convinced about the usefulness of the lecture? How can they be motivated to maintain an interest in your lecture until the end? How can we make the lecture engaging and gainful instead of turning it into a boring, dry and stressful exercise? The objective of this article is to reminisce from my experience all those little things we often tend to ignore but are indispensable to give an effective lecture.
Every time I give a public lecture, I make a serious effort to adhere to the following guidelines:
1. Know your audience: Generally, the audience could be of two categories: (i) Beginners who are not well conversant with the lecture topic and (ii) Experts well-informed on the topic. The lecture needs to be tailor-made to each of these audience groups. For beginners, I always make my lectures simple by avoiding too much of technical jargon and complicated figures. For experts, I pre-suppose certain technical background and provide only a brief introduction to my topic to put my lecture in the right context. When my audience consists of both beginners and experts, I tend to be more considerate towards the beginners.
2. Prepare well: There is truth in what Abraham Lincoln said: “If I have eight hours to chop down a tree, I would spend six hours sharpening my axe”. I often practice the lecture either mentally or by speaking out. But for this to happen, prepare the slides more than a few days before the schedule of the lecture. There is no replacement for practice. It gives you the chance to assess whether you will be able to complete your lecture within the given time slot. Running through the slides for want of time towards the end of lecture will make the audience sense that you are a bad planner. Since you have a limited time for your presentation, do not restate sentences. Each sentence you speak is important. Use as few words as possible to put across the message avoiding long winding sentences. Good preparation and practice help in accomplishing this.
3. Managing on the stage: When you are on the stage, you cannot afford to waste your time engaging yourself rectifying a stage related problem and apologizing to the audience for the interruption in the lecture. Before the lecture, go to the stage and get acquainted with it. For example, where do you plug-in your laptop? If your laptop fails for some reason, have you worked out an alternative? Is there sufficient space to walk around? And so on. In spite of your best efforts, if something still fails, while you are making things work, use a quick wit or joke to keep the audience engaged.
4. Slide preparation: Put only few key points of text on the slide. Each key point should have barely few words. As you speak, show the text step by step with a mouse click. This will prevent the audience from scanning the rest of the slide while you are still elaborating the first point on the slide. Do not read the text on the slides. The objective of text is only to trigger your thought process to speak naturally. Make your talk more illustrative than using too much of text in the slide. Pictures and figures are more eye-catching than text. In figures, use dark colours for the lines. Shun using too many colours either for the text or the figures. Be aware that the line colour that looks alright on the computer screen may not come out well on the projector or visual display screen. I have recurrently seen speakers using small font, wrong colour choices or unclear figures and apologizing for it. Not a desirable habit.
5. Connecting with the audience: Always, begin the lecture by describing something which relates you to the audience. Keep a smiling face. Be relaxed. Look at the audience. Speak in a clear and audible voice. Be enthusiastic. This sends a signal to the audience that you are excited about the topic you are going to share with them and creates a positive atmosphere. Modulate your voice once in a while to bring the wandering minds back to your talk. A monotonic voice is generally associated with dullness or sadness. When you are explaining something, do not stand still. Movement creates interest and makes people more observant. Use your body movements to make an appropriate link to what you are explaining. Gestures reinforce the understanding of the listener. Time and again, I noticed that some people in the audience nod their heads during the talk signalling that they are in agreement with the point I am making. My eyes keep coming back in search of them during the talk simply because of their encouraging body language which facilitates in sustaining a positive frame of mind.
6. Partition your lecture: Divide your talk into 4 or 5 key ideas. Stick to the key points of your talk. Present each key idea at a time and link up one key idea to the next taking the audience along with you. Build some anticipation and climax while relating one key idea to the other like in a story. Well narrated stories arouse curiosity. Use analogies and examples to explain a difficult technical point. Do not write complicated equations. Write a simpler form of the knotty equation to drive the focal point. In the end, recapitulate and show how all these key ideas complete the whole picture. Summarizing your talk will allow the audience to take away with them the central points of the lecture than getting bogged down in the complex technical details. If there are no key points for the audience to recall from your lecture, you have succeeded in overwhelming them with a one-sided transmission of information with no regard to their reception.
7. Think like the audience: The audience may be less knowledgeable about the topic but they are no less intelligent. Can your audience comprehend the topic as clearly as you do? If something is clear in your mind, the words will come out with ease. The idea of your lecture is not to let the audience know that you know better than them. As a speaker, you are leading the thought processes of the audience. “Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them” – John C Maxwell. You have been invited to give a lecture because you are ahead in knowledge on the topic. However, you cannot successfully motivate an audience faced with the challenge of understanding new information unless you think at their pace. Remember that you are not here to impress them but to give a clear talk. Acknowledging this is being considerate to the audience. When answering questions, first summarize the question to help the audience understand what the question is. Answer the questions to the point and avoid baffling the audience by conveying excessive information.
8. Humour: Lectures are not meant to be boring. Telling a joke or showing a cartoon relevant to the topic works like a wonder. Unlike what many speakers think, appropriate use of humour or wit during the lecture is not at all frivolous or undignified. People laugh and become involved because humour leads to a shared positive experience bringing even those on the fringes to pay attention to the lecture. If you are not overdoing, the use of humour during the lecture is contagious. You could even end the lecture with a humorous quote or a cartoon. Once, while speaking about the intricacies of understanding quantum mechanics, I ended my talk with the following quote by Richard Feynman “No, you’re not going to be able to understand it. . . . You see, my physics students don’t understand it either. That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does. … The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with an experiment. So I hope that you can accept Nature as She is — absurd”. The result was as expected – smiles on the faces.
Conclusion: Effective lectures are a result of hard work and not magic. I do not see why adhering to the simple rules of planning well and being considerate will not result in a friendly rapport between the speaker and the audience making the lecture a rewarding experience to everyone involved.
When you are done reading this, you are welcome to explore my other general articles on my blog: https://mamidala.wordpress.com/category/education-and-research/