6.2 Preparing a lecture or talk

At the heart of a good lecture is a clear and appropriate structure. There is a lot of truth in the old saying:

Tell them what you're going to tell them,
Tell them, and
Tell them what you've told them

Think clearly about how you are going to begin, how you are going to grab attention and communicate the structure of your talk.

Most people new to lecturing massively over prepare in both the time they spend and the amount of material they want to include. Here are some suggestions for a practical preparation method to help you avoid this common pitfall:

  • Decide what you want to talk about - this may be given to you by the teacher responsible for the course - and make free associations around the topic. What are the key points you would want to convey? What are the examples you would like to use to illustrate these points?
  • Use your lecture to do more than present facts. Take the opportunity to demonstrate thinking in your discipline. Share complex intellectual analyses, bring together several ideas, compare and contrast known theories with new ones, refer to recent literature and studies.
  • Choose a structure for your talk. Most lectures are given using a 'classical structure' which has a clear introduction to give the context, set the question and state the purpose of the lecture. This is followed by a number (often three) of topic sections. The lecture concludes with a summary, conclusion and indication of how to find out more, further reading and suggestions on how to work towards the next class and next lecture. However, there are several alternatives that may better suit your message. For example, you may select a 'comparative structure' in which the central sections seek to compare the different features of two different systems or models, eg comparing the economies of North America and the UK, or Model x and Model y in explaining the evidence obtained, or an old and new process of management.

I recently gave a research talk and I chose the 'problem-centred' structure that we heard about at the course in September. So I presented the problem I was interested in at the beginning and then went on to explain the four possible explanations given in the literature. I finished the talk with a brief look at my interview data which does seem to support the 'simplest explanation' - although it is very early days and I did stress that too.

  • Read selectively. You are interested in this subject and enjoy reading about it so it is very easy to spend much more time than you need to in reading round the topic. You may also feel that you have to know everything there is to know about it in order to feel confident. Both factors encourage new lecturers to spend much too long at this stage of preparation. Instead give yourself a 'shopping list' of specific points you wish to find out or that you need to research further. This list should also be accompanied by a good estimate of how long you wish to spend talking about any given topic.
  • Spend some time thinking about how you are going to make it relevant to your audience. What are their interests, what will they know already, what are their motivations to listen to you? Try and find apt examples to illustrate your points, try and find the relevance of your argument for your listeners and try to make connections with their interests and experiences. In this context, features of the student group such as the mix of home departments, nationality, level, practical/professional experience are important considerations that might suggest particular examples, illustrations or evidence to support what you are saying.
  • Do consider how you are going to keep the attention of your audience. Very rarely do listeners concentrate for the full 50 minutes and many studies put concentration span closer to 15 or 20 minutes on average. One easy way to tackle this is to break your talk into 10 or 15 minute chunks and change what you and what the audience does. Vary the stimulus! You may wish to ask your audience questions (rhetorical or real - but both can give an opportunity for a brief pause) or invite them to consider a case study or work through an example themselves. You may wish to vary how you present your ideas and information, using PowerPoint, using handouts, using the whiteboard, etc.
  • Produce any notes, audio/visual aids and resource material that you need. Take care to proof-read and check them thoroughly.
  • Practise your talk and keep a note of timings and any helpful 'stage directions' such as 'Write up the names and dates on the whiteboard here', 'PAUSE!', 'BREATHE!', 'Move to next slide'.
  • Remember to consider yourself - how do you react under pressure? It is common to speak more quickly when nervous and, therefore, you may need to think of ways of slowing yourself down at the beginning of your talk.

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