Saturday, May 19, 2007


So, job application was sent, and invitation to give a 20-minute demonstration lecture was received. A lecture, you say...

A lecture. Can there be a more traditional, more "universitary" form of teaching? Back in the dark ages before publishing on demand, Google Books, university presses and the millions of academic journals, the only way for a student to get access to the wisdom in the few books around was to go to a lecture to hear someone read the book aloud. In addition to those thirsty for knowledge, the lecture halls have always also attracted those having trouble sleeping.

As well as being a traditional and very common form of information transfer, lectures can also be the most ineffective one. To really squeeze all the value out of your lecture, you should of course read it word for word out of a paper. Or, a wad of papers. Those who stay awake due to the uncomfortable seats will at least have the possibility to track the progress by counting the number of pages you've turned, and estimating how many are still left. Just like you do in a concert where the looong and too boring symphony on the other half just keeps going and you desperately track the violinists' notes and hope to reach the end of the book. Only to be disappointed by the last repeat where the junior member of each pair breaks your courage by turning back a few pages. Yes, your sigh was audible.

Of course, lectures are not just for conveying information. You also need to demonstrate how smart you are, and that's not just for the demonstration lectures. And what better way of measuring smartness than by the density of the information content in your lecture. There are three ways of increasing the information content of your lecture.

First, and most obviously, just keep talking longer. Unfortunately there's a limit to this, as people will start leaving the room, or there might even be a chairperson trying to stop you. How rude... Therefore, delaying the end of your lecture must be planned properly. Leave the best until last, and promise to be quick. When your time is up, just say "if I could just quickly say a couple of words about [insert the title of your talk here]". If you do this two minutes before the end, any audience or chairperson will nod approvingly, which you can then take as an open invitation to keep talking until you're properly done. The best example of this was in a conference, where a speaker, in a 15 minute slot, having spoken for 20 minutes said "and now to the second half of my presentation". That was pure genious....

A very important, related skill is to be able to ignore the chairperson, who might be waving the "5 minutes left" signs or pointing to a clock, or even making those cut-throat gestures at you, often right next to you or in front of you. It is important to engage your audience by looking at them, taking eye-contact. Two birds with one stone: engage the back rows/extreme left/right of the hall to avoid looking at the chairperson. Or simply, never lift your eyes from your text.

As the length of the lecture will be limited no matter what precautions you take (you can lock the lecture hall doors, but someone will find the fire exit or the light switch), and so you need to work on the density of your talk. You can of course use more words/minute. With a little practice you can get a full hour's lecture to 20 minutes. Looking at the waveform of a speech you can see how much time is wasted on pausing, between words, sentences and paragraphs. Also, just articulating faster will help boost your efficiency.

As this has it's physical limits (doing tongue-twisters regularly helps), you also need to do something about the N words you can utter in the given time (or rather, taken time, if you follow trick #1 properly). Make them bigger, more meaningful. Verb all the nouns, drop useless words like articles and prepositions, create concepts that mean a lot but take a very short time to say. Freud was very good at it, think of "id" or "ego". Both very complicated ideas, that would take a whole book to explain properly but only take a fraction of a second to say.

(Pic: Immanuel Kant lecturing. Note the lack of PowerPoint)

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