August 30, 2016 / Mark Milroy

Not to Lecture You…

I was talking recently with an AIHA member about the sessions he’d attended at various conferences. He lamented that even when valuable information is presented, the speaker’s delivery can leave much to be desired. “But,” he said, “I get it. We’re scientists; we’re boring.” His comment surprised me because while “boring” might be the stereotype, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

Psychologists tell us that boredom occurs when we have difficulty focusing our attention, especially in a situation where we’re not in control. If you’re listening to a presentation that isn’t capturing your attention but you can’t leave the room, you’re likely to become bored. You might start daydreaming, yawning, or checking your phone for messages because you’re trying to find something to capture your interest. If the presenter isn’t engaging you in learning, you’re likely to tune out.

How many lectures have you listened to in your lifetime? Probably more than you can count, and no doubt there have been some outstanding ones and others that you don’t care to or simply don’t remember. As a presentation style, it’s been around for centuries, as this picture from the University of Bologna in the 1400s attests. Notice in the picture that the students in the back rows are falling asleep, so even in the Middle Ages the lecture format wasn’t exactly the most stimulating approach. It suggests that the presenter might have needed to improve his delivery (or perhaps that the students should have gone to bed earlier).

When someone decides to do a lecture, they often prepare by saying, "I'll begin by talking about this, then I'll talk about that, and then I'll finish by talking about this." The problem with this approach is that everything begins with "I'll talk." It assumes that simply by listening, the audience will be interested enough in what’s being said to actually learn something. This kind of delivery only gets worse when that same presenter reads the information on slides, the same information the audience can read for themselves.

A better approach to creating a presentation starts with the question: "What do I want my audience to learn?" It forces you to redefine your audience as learners, not listeners, and suddenly the focus is on their experience and not yours. If your goal is now to make sure theylearn, you have to think about what you can do to ensure they grasp the concept, see how to solve the problem, or can perform the task you want them to master.

The way to make a scientific or technical presentation interesting is conveying the story behindthe data. It’s not just pointing out the numbers; it’s sharing what makes the numbers significant or surprising. If there’s something in the findings that really excites you or disappoints you, that’s what the audience wants to hear so that they feel that same emotion. If they feel what you feel, they’re engaged rather than bored, and there’s a much better chance that they’re going to remember what you say.

Some people do an absolutely fantastic job of delivering lectures and they can hold an audience in the palm of their hand from beginning to end. The rest of us need to remember that the secret to delivering a great lecture is to start with your audience in mind. It’s not about you.

Mark Milroy

Mark Milroy is AIHA’s managing director of Global Learning. ​


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