The Lecture

The Lecture

According to Mortimer Adler, there are three types of speech: The Sales Talk (also called a Motivational Speech), The Impromptu Talk, and The Lecture. Here I will share some elements required to give an effective Instructional Talk:  A Lecture.  I will try to avoid lecturing.

Lectures and lecturing have earned a bad reputation. Speakers of all types have done their share to attach negative baggage to the noble lecture. Children instinctively abhor the parental lecture. Students cut classes taught by boring professors. Those professors attach a disproportionate percentage of their course grade to attendance—so much easier than being interesting.

Adults sneer at windy speeches by politicians and mind-numbing rationales by bureaucrats.

Boring speakers are not a modem phenomenon. Ancient Greeks considered the lecture, including written discourse, to be the noblest of the three ways we learn. (Apprenticeship and experience are the other two.) Oratory skill made lessons palatable and effective. Thus it was important to speak well to your fellow citizens. Those that did not were avoided and never heard.

Early in my career I assisted a VP with his presentation. It was an international marketing summary, and may even have been interesting. The VP had prepared overhead charts. Each was dense with paragraphs of small type. These he would read verbatim. My job was to sit at the projector and flip the charts. Rehearsal was excruciating: ponderously slow, irredeemably dull.

I was sure this man needed my guidance. Since I was fresh from my media course at the Boston University School of Communications, I knew just what to advise him.

“You know, Mr. VP,” I said. “When you read every word to the audience like that, they read it along with you and are done long before you are. This will make it very boring  for them. Maybe you should paraphrase each chart so you finish together. Or better, make new charts with less words.”

He looked at me a long time before speaking.

Finally he said, “Young man, I have been doing presentations this way for twenty-five years and have never had a complaint. I’ll thank you to turn the charts as I direct.”

His attitude was typical. Business people in particular are notorious for eye-glazing talks. Often this is because they are presenting financial data to superiors. A misstep is feared far more than being dull. Their punishment, when they become the superiors, is to sit through similar dreadful presentations. The cycle of boredom is unbroken.

In 1982 a Divisional President was scheduled to speak to Gillette’s Board of Directors about new product successes. It was a fluff bit where he could have loosened up a little. He called in a speech consultant to help him prepare. I ran the support equipment, thus was the fly on the wall. Some of what is in this book I learned from working with this consultant over several years.

He got the full treatment: Don’t grip the lectern with both hands as if holding yourself up. Smile occasionally. Take a step away from the lectern occasionally. Pause, look up and then say a line a two right to the audience before looking down again,

After a few hours of struggle he told the coach, “Look, I know your suggestions are good. And I wish I could do them, but I am not comfortable with them. I have never addressed the Board of Directors and may never again. I have to get through it the safest way.”

This division President was a likeable guy. Relaxed and charming in front of factory workers. He was safe in the factory, less so in the boardroom.

Safe meant a speech written and re-written, approved and re-approved up the line: in a multi-national company it is amazing how many people are above a division president. Safe meant reading the speech word for word with no divergence from the prepared text.

There is a skill to writing material meant to be read. Still another skill to reading it as if you were not really reading it. Actors, news anchors, and very few business people posses those skills. The division president had neither.  This became apparent during his competent but lifeless rendition of his speech to the Board of Directors. I was Mr. Fly there, too.  A lively moment erupted, however, when a grey-haired female board member voiced a complaint.  She objected to the marketing plan that targeted, “women 18-49.”

“Isn’t this a kind of discrimination?” She asked. ” I mean, don’t fifty-five year old women buy our products, too?” Her question was valid but somewhat naive in the board room of a Fortune 50 company. Mr. President was speechless. Silence ruled the room for a seconds just as he had been coached to do.  However accidental it might have been.

With nothing in his speech on this topic he looked up at the woman, making eye contact.  Another good thing. Then he smiled, as he was mildly amused and could not hide it. Smiling made him look relaxed and friendly. He stepped away from the lectern as he answered. He gestured naturally with both hands. No longer clutching the lectern with head down, he became himself. He spoke naturally:

“I understand what you mean,” he said. “This age group thing is primarily a marketing convention designed to help measure the performance of our TV advertising. We want to know if we are we getting the audience we paid for, the one our research says buy most of our products. Of course woman of all ages do indeed purchase our products and are an important contributor to sales and profits.”

Here was a man in command of his subject and the room.

The effect was compelling. No one becomes a president of major corporate division without packing some heavy gear, some internal resources. When he was called upon to summon those skills, he succeeded in notching up the interest level in the room several degrees.

The director persisted in her questioning. This drew in other corporate officers for a lively round-table discussion on the topic. The president ­moderated, a bit baffled, but handled it all with grace, humor, and expertise. For brief moment it was an entertaining and informative meeting. Dozing board members were startled from their slumber. They needn’t have worried. The speaker soon returned to hunch and clutch, to read in monotone as slides flashed prettily on the screen. Board members settled back in their comfy leather chairs as the gentle drone from the front of the room lulled them peacefully to sleep. A cloak of boredom and safety fell over all.

This speaker did not trust himself to be at his best under pressure. He subdued the better part of his personality to his detriment. He did this because believed what he had to say was more important than how he said it. They are equally important. Diminishment of either induces the audiences to tune you out.

I do not suggest that formality and structure be abandoned in speech making. But I often see business and political speakers ignore their audience as they prepare a speech. They think: How will I be perceived? What mistakes might I make? How can I control the situation? I… I… I… Me… Me… Me… They should be thinking, You… You… You.

Preparation and commitment = A memorable lecture.

In 1985 the Assistant Under Secretary for National Economic Affairs (or some such title) gave a speech to Boston business people. A tall, lanky, Kramer-like man, he was bounding  about, talking a mile a minute and scribbling furiously on a blackboard. It was all about arcane financial models, macro this, micro that. It was highly technical, but he had the crowd riveted, myself included, though I grasped only a little of his logic.

He was over most of our heads and we loved it. Afterwards, I spoke with him about how fascinating but hard to get it was. “Yeah,” he said, “Sort of like drinking from a fire hose, isn’t it.” He knew he was ahead of his audience, but his commitment and enthusiasm for his topic was what grabbed us and is what I remember most.

In 1967, Professor Emerson taught Introduction to Anthropology at the University of Maine in Orono. His classes were held in the largest lecture hall on campus. But it was not large enough for the SRO crowds that attended. The University registrar did not over-enroll Professor Emerson’s class. Non-anthropology students gave up down time at The Bear’s Den to slip into the back of the room and hear a great lecturer hold forth on the fascinating anthropological record of pre-human primates and the development of culture in early man. It was my first class so I always got there early for a front row seat.

Professor Emerson loved his subject and we knew it because he let us see his commitment. The cold lecture hall seemed transformed into a warm living room because he was so at ease there. (It may also have been the three hundred human bodies each generating ninety-eight watts of heat, which is two percent less than a light bulb because bodies don’t give off any light energy. Well, perhaps an inner light, but there is no evidence inner radiance has a photonic composition… but I digress.)

Emerson found the humor in his topic and injected it often. However, there was never a laugh that was not directly related to the topic of the day. He was serious about his subject. He didn’t tell jokes. He revealed the facts in an amusing way. He couldn’t always make it funny, but he always made it interesting.

He spoke from notes, but he spoke directly to us. He would take great pauses as he looked down at his notes. When he looked up, he would pause another second, look around and then speak right to us for a while, then back to the notes. (This is a technique called Command the Silence). There was a relaxed, assured rhythm to his presentation that I now know comes from a thorough knowledge of the subject paired with a disciplined preparation. Emerson often included interesting asides and commentary that seemed spontaneous, but were not. They came from years of experience teaching his subject. He had an act and it was well-honed

He knew considerably more about Peking Man than he was telling us, and he planned in advance what he would leave out. He knew a lecture on the contents of pre-historic fire pits could be dull. He made sure it wasn’t. Thirty-two years later I remember, verbatim, large swaths of what Professor Emerson taught me.

These two anecdotes demonstrate even the least sexy topics come alive when rules of good platform speech are applied. The Under Secretary and the Professor were fully prepared, obviously committed, totally relaxed, and above all, interesting.

In addition to considering the needs of your audience, here are some suggestions for a sparkling lecture:

Bad lecturers use long sentences.

Your sentences will be short. Your words will be simple. You will avoid the passive and conditional voice: verbs with an ing at the end and phrases like, there is, could be drawn, or it is to be hoped.

Bad lecturers are long on ideas and short on examples.

You will leap from example to story in a single bound. You will tell stories and give examples till the cows come home.

Bad lecturers drone on because there is so much to say and so little time.

You, the good lecturer, will look for every opportunity to let silence spread over the room. You will ask questions of the audience. You will wait a long time for an answer. You will command the silence.

Bad lecturers, on the rare occasion they attempt humor, advertise that a laugh is coming.

Their body language and facial expressions scream, “Here comes that funny line I have been working so hard to deliver riiii-ght… HERE!” Everybody sees it coming. Nobody is surprised; few are amused.

You will never do that. You will be a sneaky bastard. You will frown in advance of the laugh. You will lower your voice on the punch line. When the audience laughs you will stop speaking, surprised that something funny happened. If they do not laugh, your stoic demeanor will save you from being the only person in the room with a grin on his face.

Bad lecturers surprise in one way: The end, differing in no way from the rest of the speech, catches the audience blinking in surprise.

This is not you. They don’t call it the climax for nothing. You are going to let them know it is coming. You are going to increase your volume and emotional commitment. You are going to go out fast and strong. You will have something saved for the end that will make them glad they stayed to hear it.

Bad lecturers do not listen.

You listen so that you will be in tune your audience and simpatico with how they are feeling. You will check in on them with a question, the answer for which you will wait.

Bad lecturers run overtime.

You will be done before they expect it. If asked to give a thirty-minute speech, you will prepare a twenty-minute speech, or a fifteen-minute speech. Voltaire said, “Woe to the author determined to teach. The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” A good lecturer leaves material out, and saves something for later.

Your reward for being an uncommonly good lecturer is threefold.

First, your audience will be attentive throughout, and happily surprised at the end.

Second, there is time for Q&A. If you know your subject, and the audience has an interest, Q&A is always better than a lecture. Q&A is your encore.  And you still have some material you saved.

Third, because of your brevity and focus they may remember what you said and tell others. Word of mouth is the way important messages are always carried for all time.

There is the tale of a murder in London at midnight. Two witnesses happen on the scene. Fifteen minutes later, they each tell two others who similarly tell two others, and so on. If this continues, everyone on earth will know of it by morning.


Steve Rapson is the author of The Art of the Soloperformer: A Field Guide to Stage & Podium.  He is a songwriter and concert guitarist with several CD’s in release.

One thought on “The Lecture

  1. […] are three types of talks: Mortimer Adler identifies them as The Impromptu Talk, The Sales Talk, and The Lecture.  I analyzed Shakespeare’s We Happy Few as a great sales (motivational) talk.  Now, for your […]

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