When you craft a lecture you are trying to convey a series of facts and relationships in a compelling, memorable way. This goal is shared by a variety of creative enterprises, not least of which is graphic design. Since one basic theme of creativity is to steal liberally from other disciplines, let’s spend a moment thinking about the craft of graphic design.
Start with Alex White’s The elements of graphic design. I’m enough of a bibliophile to rationalize that one good idea make’s a book worthwhile. The image above is a recreation of one of White’s first of many good ideas. It captures the essence of what we try to do when we lecture: avoid the twin evils of
slide after slide of bullet points, monotonous delivery, and simple recapitulation of the readings,
distracting goo-gah graphics, frenetic buzzing around on stage, frequent attempts at bad humor.
In short, we are trying to achieve balance. Here are Alex White’s five steps toward good design, and my adaptations toward the craft of giving a good talk:
1) Define the problem you have been given. Don’t start writing the lecture until you have established the takehome messages and skills you want your audience to carry away. Like a paragraph without logic, a lecturer without a clear set of goals is doomed from the start. “Teaching about homology” is not a clear goal. “Revealing the criteria and tools with which a student can recognize homologies” is a clear goal.
2) Know the material. Though this seems simple enough, when you are are “just ten pages ahead of the students” in the textbook, it shows in your whole demeanor. Furthermore, mastery of the material better allows you to…
3) Distill the essential from the mass of confusing muchness. A bare bones listing of facts or abstractions has no meat for your audience to sink their teeth into. But constant digressions, exceptions, and provisos muddle your message. Teaching is about simplifying, not being simplistic.
4) Abstract the main point so its importance to the reader is clear and it is visually arresting. More of number three, but once you have found the right balance, make it appealing with text, sound, and image. Appeal to as many senses and intelligences of your audience as you can. If it’s a key point, the very measure of your success is how memorable you make it.
5) Unify all elements so they don’t outshout each other. One of the hardest, and most gratifying, things you can do in a talk is present a story that wraps up nicely, with the main points feeding each other. Stephen J Gould excelled at this. He began with an anecdote somewhat related to the topic, then laid out and argument that came full circle back to that story. It was his modus operandi and it made him one of the most popular science writers of the past 30 years. When you unify your talk at the end, then, and only then, does the series of facts and skills you’ve been yacking about suddenly emerge in a longer view. You impart, not just knowledge, but a bit of wisdom.
That, my friends, is a well designed talk.