Lectures, bloody lectures

Yesterday I attended Lectures: Dead and Alive, The 2010 Tucker Talk, delivered by Dr. Bruce Robertson, Professor of Classics, who asked, “In an age of instant online videos, why do people still travel thousands of miles to hear a public presentation? Why are lectures so improbably still ‘alive’?”

Bruce is an energetic speaker and he gave an excellent presentation, without slides, that kept the audience’s attention, in spite of the extreme heat and humidity in the auditorium. Bruce said that the lecture is a grand and living thing and noted how the rapt attention of others focused on a single presenter can induce a higher degree of focus. We’ve all heard of or perhaps witnessed people who can electrify a room. Bruce explained how lectures can help us to experience the sublime, enabling the contemplation of otherwise hidden natural order, and this is what teaching should offer. He admitted that the lecture as mere knowledge dissemination, in this age of wikipedia, is dead. Good lectures excite and inspire. His lecture reminded me of the article Love on Campus.

One of the comments after the talk was that the university continues to value the lecture.

This morning I attended six presentations on research activities. Presentation styles varied widely and included poor slide design with multiple bullet points, counterbalanced by unbounded enthusiasm for the research area. No presentation had the elegance of Bruce’s lecture and I would wager that there is one major reason why not – PRACTICE. Good lectures require practice, something few of us have, or make, time for unless it’s a prestigious speech. I know that my father-in-law, with 30 years of university teaching experience, still rehearsed each of his lectures, including those to first year students. I think he was an anomaly.

Today, several of the presentations went over the allotted time. I would again attribute this to the lack of practice. The question that I now ask is: if you are going to lecture, is it worth doing if it isn’t done well? Given that most lectures range from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, it might be better to create some good notes and have a Q&A session instead. If people run out of questions before the allotted time, just stop. A lecture poorly done offers few escape options; one must plod on to the end.

The TED Talks have shown how powerful a good lecture (presentation) can be. This is what I strive for but have yet to achieve. However, TED has some pretty strict rules, which should be considered before choosing the lecture as teaching mode.

The TED Commandments

These 10 tips are given to all TED Conference speakers as they prepare their TEDTalks.

1. Dream big. Strive to create the best talk you have ever given. Reveal something never seen before. Do something the audience will remember forever. Share an idea that could change the world.

2. Show us the real you. Share your passions, your dreams … and also your fears. Be vulnerable. Speak of failure as well as success.

3. Make the complex plain. Don’t try to dazzle intellectually. Don’t speak in abstractions. Explain! Give examples. Tell stories. Be specific.

4. Connect with people’s emotions. Make us laugh! Make us cry!

5. Don’t flaunt your ego. Don’t boast. It’s the surest way to switch everyone off.

6. No selling from the stage! Unless we have specifically asked you to, do not talk about your company or organization. And don’t even think about pitching your products or services or asking for funding from stage.

7. Feel free to comment on other speakers’ talks, to praise or to criticize. Controversy energizes! Enthusiastic endorsement is powerful!

8. Don’t read your talk. Notes are fine. But if the choice is between reading or rambling, then read!

9. End your talk on time. Doing otherwise is to steal time from the people that follow you. We won’t allow it.

10. Rehearse your talk in front of a trusted friend … for timing, for clarity, for impact.

If these guidelines cannot be met, then perhaps the lecture is not the best format.


BTW, the title comes from this video.

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7 Responses to “Lectures, bloody lectures”

  1. Brett

    Even after 10+ years in the civilian world (coming from the Army), I am still amazed at how little actual preparation – in the form of rehearsal or practice – is done prior to presentations and other major activities.

    Great article, and thanks for the TED Commandments. I’ve posted them on my wall so I don’t forget them.

  2. Harold Jarche

    I was Army trained myself (25 years in uniform) and rehearsal was encouraged for all instructors, though of course there wasn’t always time for it. My best presentations have been those I have rehearsed, and more than once.

    Fewer lectures, better prepared.

  3. David D. LaCroix

    Thanks for this very thoughtful piece. I wonder if the lecture could fill the space in our increasingly electronic culture once filled by the personal essay in the more print-driven 20th century. Robertson highlights the value of the way that an individual voice can not only hold our attention for a time, but also use that time to expand the horizon of our attention once the voice has ceased.

    I also appreciated your comments about preparation. Do you think, too, that there’s something to be said about giving the same lecture several times, and using those opportunities to improve? When I was still in academia, there were a few novels that I taught/lectured/presented repeatedly over a few semesters. Not only was the experience of presenting on them improved by multiple takes, but the response from my students would affect the next time in an evolutionary way.

  4. Andrew Hill

    This comment is totally unrehearsed, but I don’t think unprepared. Lectures suck when they are rote, and not good for transferring knowledge (many references). Passion is evident and infectious, just like your blog.

    Some of my best After Action Reflections came from my infantry commanders straight after an action when we still felt the pump of adrenal from action. Do we need to couple affective action with reflection?

  5. Harold Jarche

    I think the lecture is in some ways replacing print media, as witnessed by the popularity of TED Talks and the widespread use of YouTube videos. It’s getting very easy to record and distribute the spoken word, which is more personal than print. The high-speed Internet obsolesces print while simultaneously retrieving the oral tradition, confirmed by some of Michael Wesch’s observations: http://mediatedcultures.net/youtube.htm

  6. Rob Paterson

    TED also compresses your talk into a 15-18 minute frame – forcing deep preparation.

    I think that people going over time are the sinners of public speaking – they miss the point entirely and they do steal.

    There is nothing better than a great lecture – oh alright great sex and great food – but nothing worse than a bad one.

    PS people who read their slides should be tortured to death

  7. chris saeger

    Harold, your comment “might be better to create some good notes and have a Q&A session instead.” reminded me of a session in which Sivasailam Thiagarajan aka Thiagi, does exactly that. The effect is remarkable, people are stunned.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYqm8ao1i2c