How To Build A Better Lecture / Presentation vs A Bizarro One...

Yes, you read the title right.  I know, I know, how could I promote building a lecture when I write constantly about just how detrimental lectures can be? 

If you’ve heard me speak, you may already know the answer.  I’m not anti-lecture.  There may be one or two superstar presentations you give that are worthy of use every semester.  Or you may be going to a conference where the format is dictated for you – you really don’t have much choice.  I always explain the irony of bashing lectures as I deliver a keynote…lecture.  But nobody in 20 years has questioned my explanation to date.  And it harkens back to creating a stand-up comedy set, believe it or not.  So you’re about to get a two-fer.  Here is the recipe for creating a killer lecture AND a solid stand-up routine:

Step 1: Curate content – this sounds easy, right?  After all, you are the expert.  So, gather the important bits of information that MUST be shared and put them in some kind of order.  (Sequential, problem-solution, order of magnitude, etc)


Bizarro Step 1 – do you remember Bizarro Superman?  The anti-super human doppleganger to the man-of-steel?  Everything was just a bit off, if not backwards.  So, taking from the metaphor, be careful with step one.  It seems easy enough, but let me tell you where it easily gets out of control.  Scope.  You know what I mean; adding in WAY more than is necessary for your students to meet the objective or reach the outcome.  For newbie professors, you may wonder why anyone would do that.  The answer is easy – boredom.  There is a reason that the most seasoned subject matter experts try with all their might to get out of teaching first and second year classes.  They’re bored.  (Yes, we should all remember how important it is to have our best experts teach those early classes so as to generate so many positive experiences like learning, motivation / inspiration, real-world application, etc, but that’s another blog.)  So what do some professors do?  They add in a little extra here, and an interesting, albeit unnecessary tidbit of info there.  And soon, there is TOO much to get through, making the lecture a racetrack filled with speed bumps.  (Oh, and this also gets us to another blog post – how many topics and ideas are over-inflated with content, especially for Freshman / Sophomore level classes, making it really hard to learn the things actually necessary to be successful later…)

Low fidelity / possible student sketch example

Low fidelity / possible student sketch example

Step 2: Find images / imagery, video clips, contemporary analogies, and juxtaposition for EVERY idea.  Choose words and metaphors and vivid descriptions by which to state your points.  Remember, if we’re talking about the BEST lecture, then that means it is relevant, interesting, motivating, and helps people connect previously learned things to other things.  It provides a catalyst for learners by providing humor, conflict, or some other reward for a person’s attention. 

Bizarro Step 2 – The irony of finding images is that many seasoned presenters search for hours to find just the right high def, high fidelity image.  They search for an image that will have all of the necessary labels and make it crystal clear how their picture works.  Of course that’s the wrong strategy for learning.  Students will learn far better from a poorly drawn image of a heart than a perfect image of a heart.  Why?  Because they need to use their brains to fill in the weak or missing parts.  In fact, having the students draw the example themselves is even more superior to any image, so long as the expert can walk them through the image and they can change or revise it. 

High Definition / High Fidelity Example

High Definition / High Fidelity Example

Step 3: Get feedback.  Give the presentation to an audience of both experts and non-experts first and see what they say.  Ask them to be brutally honest with you.  Then, adjust your message.

Bizarro step 3 – Obviously most presenters never get feedback at all.  They assume they know or at least hope that the first time the message is presented will be fabulous.  (It almost never is…)  Unfortunately this is different than practice, by the way.  Giving your message to a mirror, your daughter’s stuff animal collection, or cut-outs of audience faces, while a good idea too, is not going to get you any feedback.  (Why do you have cut-outs of audience faces, by the way?  Weird.)


Step 4: Find and Replace.  It took me 7 months to get 6 minutes of stand-up worthy material.  When I was told I would then double my time to 12 minutes, it took another 7 months.  I was constantly writing down little notes of things I thought were funny.  I had to try them out in my next set.  So, I found the least successful stuff, clipped it, and replaced it.  I did this HUNDREDS of times, until I had a set that got laughs 90% of the time.  (Every audience is different…) 

Bizarro step 4 – How many lecturers / speakers / presenters do you know who deliver the exact same message twice in a row?  I’ll bet you know a lot, especially if you are a student.  You know, the reference to a 1980 event or a 1990 court ruling, etc?  This is actually the reasoning I give during my keynotes.  Am I lecturing?  Yes.  (Albeit a very interactive lecture with audience polls, interactive exercises like facial tick demonstrations, and beyond…)  But it’s keenly important to remember that I have been delivering the same topic message for 20 years.  I treat it like my stand-up.  True, my message in 2018 would be almost completely different (different analogies, examples, stories, and even main points) than in 1998, but that’s because I perform “find and replace” EVERY single time I speak.  I change main points as we learn more about the brain or as new education psychology findings come out.  I change the games, the exercises, or the examples as new things become available.  But I never change too much.  I change 3-7% at most, knowing that over 90% already resonates with audiences.  Compare / contrast that with the lecture performed a single time every semester, only to be put away until next semester when it will be dusted off and performed again. 

TED Talk.jpg

So what does this tell us about lectures?  Well, hopefully it tells you that I’m not suggesting you lecture a lot.  This kind of rigorous approach to lecturing takes a lot of time for a single experience.  I once heard it by a TED talk presenter that the best TED speakers often give lectures about stuff they aren’t even working on anymore.  But they are so practiced at talking through those points, they fall back on the good stuff, as they create new. 

Look, you can create as many Bizarro lectures as you’d like, but the results will always be the same.  Students won’t learn, they’ll be bored, and you will ultimately hate teaching.  Yes, you should put as much effort as possible into every learning session to create active learning experiences.  But for those rare occasions when a lecture is really ideal…now you know how. 

Good luck and good learning.