A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

A Really Good Lecture

What makes a really good lecture or seminar leader?

Good lecturers are relatively rare in colleges and universities. The primary reason for this is that academics are not selected for their ability to teach, but on the basis of their research and writing skills.

Lecturing, in fact, is a minor branch of the performing arts which attracts natural extroverts. The researcher who spends long, lonely stretches of time in libraries and laboratories is usually an introvert, who is exhausted and drained by a long lecture. But both can be good lecturers when communicating their passions to students.

A truly good lecturer can entice, enthral and excite. The paradox can be clarified and the sophistry exposed, the big picture painted and the minutiae described. One criterion of a good lecture or seminar is that students are not only encouraged to read more, but that they actually do so.

Management seminars are now big business. It is not unusual to have to pay $300-800 for a 9:45 a.m. – 4:15 p.m. day! And they can be awful – vacuously evangelical, all style and no content, or tediously dry, given by a recently redundant middle manager who should stick to the gardening.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

For feedback, most business seminars require or request that one completes a "happy sheet" to evaluate the course. There are often ratings on venue, luncheon and so on, but not always that many on the content and delivery of the lectures. The question is, what criteria should one consider? What are the hallmarks of a really excellent business seminar?

Sometimes it is difficult to separate content from style of lecturing. Some trainers and seminar leaders have learned that thin content can be boosted by stories, jokes, parables and slides. The entertainer relies more on technique and technology than syllabus content. The profound lecturer has a good command of both content and style, attributes that have factors salient for any good lecture:

1. Breadth: There is nothing as interesting and impressive as a genuine "Renaissance Man." The lecturer with breadth of knowledge and vision, with no disciplinary boundaries, with competence in multiple fields, is a true teacher. The expert knows more about less. Experts are fascinating on their topic, but often lost when forced to leave the security of their narrow, often esoteric, research area.

2. Structure: Good speakers adhere to the adage: "Tell ‘em what you are going to tell ‘em; tell ‘em; tell ‘em what you told ‘em." To follow, remember and comprehend the lecture, the structure needs to be made clear. There is no reason why one should not tell the audience what they can expect to hear.

3. Pace: The successful lecturer takes his or her audience along at a comfortable pace, allowing time for questions and discussion, while ensuring that no one person takes up an inordinate amount of time. Seminars where a succession of facts and figures are rattled off at top speed leave the audience confused and afraid to ask for guidance. Similarly, those conducted at snail’s pace, with too much detail and repetition, have a soporific effect. A really good lecturer builds in time for questions and for lively and appropriate group discussion.

4. Variety: A long, uninterrupted and monotonous discourse on a subject should be avoided when lecturing. Audiences stay awake much longer when the tone and pitch of the lecturer’s voice is modulated rather than monotonous and when occasional anecdotes and jokes are sprinkled along the way.

5. Audience participation: A successful lecturer welcomes input from the audience, weaving it into the fabric of the talk. The lofty expert may discourage comments from his listeners, dismissing them as insignificant or uninformed. Others may like the sound of their own voice more than those of their audience. Audience comments are a valuable source of feedback and should be encouraged.

6. Time: The wittiest, most erudite lecturer in the world can send his or her audience to sleep if he or she disregards one of the most important tools in the lecture theatre: the clock. Good lecturers know roughly how long their talk will take and try not to overrun. It is better to send one’s audience away alert, and with at least some knowledge, than to bombard them with facts and send them to sleep.

What should one expect to leave the seminar with? Copies of the slides; a few memorable stories; business cards from other delegates? Perhaps the seminar criteria are that one knows what the big questions are in the area and where to find the answers. Also, that one has a genuine enthusiasm and interest in doing so!

It is sometimes difficult to combine a flair for lecturing with a passion for research. But the lecturer who successfully merges these two skills will be richly rewarded in the response to his or her talks.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

more...

Subscribe to A Sideways View

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.