Why a lecture is not a manuscript read aloud

Have you ever listened to a lecture that was read from a manuscript? Even a beautifully written text can somehow fall flat when read from a podium. Why is that? Ira Glass, of This American Life, gives us a clue in the first segment of this remarkable podcast. We’ll be spending some time this week with Glass, as his tips for beginning podcasters resonate far wider.

The upshot: public lectures are structured differently from writing. In a public lecture, your audience can’t zoom forward or back through the text. They are living, with you, in the moment. Public lectures are intimate conversations writ large. So even scientific lectures have a large component of storytelling. And a story is made up of two parts.

1) The anecdote. This is a series of events, one following another, that tell the story. When we lecture about science we are often eager to get to the results, what we found out, or what we know as a scientific community. But by doing so, by ignoring the narrative–which things came first, second and third–we rob our audience of two important things. First, for any big result, our audience needs time to prepare their mind. The narrative builds expectation. Second, one of the most compelling parts of science is the process of discovery. Ignoring this is a particular sin when we teach science to undergraduates, as it perpetuates the stereotype that science is a bunch of facts. When you add the anecdote you can’t help but make what you are saying more compelling. Try it.

2) Moment of reflection. OK, you’ve told the story, step by step, of how Marshall Nirenberg discovered the codon, or how Wilson and Simberloff fumigated islands to field test Island Biogeography. Now you take a breath, pause, and in a slightly softer voice tell your audience how the world was never the same.

This is a technique developed to perfection by Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth lecture. The folks at the Duarte group who work with Gore see their job as putting together anecdotes so compelling that the audience achieves their own moment of reflection with a minimum of prodding. In other words, the perfect anecdote brings the audience to the precipice. The moment of reflection is the tipping point.

Note this view on lectures is different from one of the standard rules of scientific writing

tell’em what you’re going to say

say it,

and tell’em what you said.

In reality, a science lecture is probably a hybrid of both approaches. But to be memorable, it never hurts to tell a compelling story. And isn’t being memorable one of the points of a lecture?


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