Martha Leyton (@marthaleyton) and Martin Shovel (@martinshovel) run a company (http://www.creativityworks.net) which helps to create speeches, presentations, pitches, campaigns and brand stories that are engaging, persuasive and memorable. This year we invited them to work with small groups of staff as part of our ‘Large Group Learning’ symposium, to offer some tools and techniques for attendees to try out for themselves, and to share with their colleagues.
Below is Martins blog post:
Martha and I had a wonderful time at this year’s CELebrate symposium. Our session, which ran twice, was titled ‘how can I make my lectures more engaging and interesting for students?’. It might also have been subtitled: ‘what can speechwriters usefully teach university lecturers?’. The topics we explored were rich and varied, as were the excellent contributions from participants. Here are a few things we looked at that might be useful to you as you start preparing your next lecture.
Dare to say less
However interesting the subject of your lecture, and however brilliant your communication skills, the spoken word is a highly inefficient way of sharing detailed content. Put simply, when we listen, there’s a limit to just how much we can take in and retain. The written word is the place for detailed information, not the spoken one.
When we read, we can pause for reflection or to look up a word; we can turn back to a previous page to help us understand something better; we can take our time, perhaps reading a small amount of the text in a single setting, and so on. None of these things is possible when listening to a lecture.
So think carefully about the purpose of your lecture. Reframe the need to make it content-lite as an opportunity to do something different and better. A chance to help students understand the lie of the land. A platform that offers time and space to explore a key concept with them at length and in a variety of different ways. You can use it to inspire them, to warm up your relationship with them, or simply as a helpfully signposted path to a text you’d like them to read.
Write for the eye, not the ear
Even if you don’t plan to read from a text, write out your lecture in full. Good speaking, and writing, are a reflection of good thinking. You may have come across this famous quote, which has been ascribed to various well-known authors:
‘I’m sorry this is such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write you a shorter one’.
The act of writing, and editing, will not only help you clarify your thoughts, it will also help you come up with useful stories, metaphors and analogies that will make it easier for your students to understand what you’re saying.
However, as you write your lecture, do make sure you write for the ear, not the eye. In our experience, the reason there are so many poor speeches and lectures is simple: they tend to be pieces of writing read aloud and, as we have seen above, they tend to be indigestible because they’re too content heavy.
By making your lecture a genuinely oral experience, you’ll improve your students’ experience of it immeasurably. And, with this in mind, don’t be afraid to repeat yourself throughout the course of your lecture – it makes it much easier for your students to follow what you say. (If you’re interested in finding out more about this topic, I highly recommend ‘Orality and Literacy’, a classic study of the subject, by Walter J. Ong. Don’t be put off by the dry title – it’s a beautifully written, fascinating book, one of my favourites! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_J._Ong )
Climb the ladder of abstraction slowly
In our sessions, we reflected on a video recording of a lecture by Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel. The lecture can be found here and I would encourage you to watch it:
It’s a lecture designed to introduce undergraduates to two key – and potentially very dry and abstract – moral theories. As you watch the lecture, note the skill with which Sandel takes his students on an engaging and entertaining journey from the concrete to the abstract. As you watch, make sure you have a good look at the faces in the audience as they hang on to every word. The learning is clear: when introducing your students to abstract concepts, it’s always good practice to begin by grounding the concepts in familiar, everyday situations, as Sandel does.
Thanks again for inviting us to your wonderful symposium and good luck with your next lecture!