IST663 Module 7: If You Lecture, Make it Great

Wow, time has flown by and this is my last blog entry for Motivating 21st Century Learners. It’s been a lot more manageable than I thought!

So this is my final blog post on lectures and I thought that to wrap up, we might consider what makes a lecture great. Now, I found several good resources about how to make lectures more interactive, which is fabulous. Among them, this handout from Columbia University and this document from Harvard University outline some great tips for creating engaging lectures and presentations. (I would not, however, look to them for tips on how to put together an engaging “how to” handout. Yikes. Poor page design.) These handouts go over tips for incorporating questioning and discussion into lectures, which I think is something everyone should learn how to do confidently. It’s wonderful to engage students actively with material, in real time.

However, I don’t want to talk about interactive lectures here, because I think that is moving into composite teaching strategies. Sometimes I also feel like making lectures interactive can be a way to compensate for poor lecturing content and skills.  I want to keep our focus on speeches, in which there is no interactivity, because sometimes that’s what you have to work with, and those lectures can still be great. Allow me to share some example with you, starting with possibly the greatest speech of all time (you know, in my opinion):

In case the embedding function didn’t work, the link above is to Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, delivered in August, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is the speech in its entirety and the video is about 17 minutes long. However, I hope you take the time to watch it because the way it stays engaging from beginning to end is very powerful. This speech is great and engaging partly because of its historical significance, but I would like to pick apart some of the speaking strategies that I think Dr. King used:

  • Vocal Cadence – as a pastor, Rev. King was no stranger to speaking to his congregation. The way he modulates his voice, creating hills and valleys with his volume, without ever becoming inaudible, helps keep the listener hanging on for the ride. A monotone lecturer would not have pulled off the same result.
  • Repetition – probably the most notable element of this speech is the verbal repetition that King uses to create familiarity and rhythm to his thoughts. The words “We shall not be satisfied,” “I have a dream,” and “Let freedom ring,” are repeated that make the content items that King is essentially listing, way more powerful and, especially when combined with his vocal cadence, helps to build intensity behind his ideas. Repetition also lends a familiarity to his words, so the audience could practically join in toward the end of the list.
  • Visual Aid – oh, yes. There is a striking visual aid here in the days before PowerPoint. Apart from the visual of how many people gathered together for the march on Washington, the speech took place at the Lincoln Memorial. This important place represents the Emancipation Proclamation and the abolition of slavery, which are foundational elements of King’s thesis statement. We should not forget that visual presentations can include environment. Imagine taking a class to a museum exhibit, or even an actual historical landmark and delivering a lecture on the subject rather than putting pictures on a slide. It might not always be possible, and it might be more work, but sometimes the effort is worth it.
  • Verbal References – King uses the words, “five score years ago,” which is a clear verbal reference to another great speech, given by Abraham Lincoln himself, reinforcing the important visual imagery behind him. He also uses familiar song lyrics and current events recognizable to his audience. This creates an emotional connection and familiarity with his words that help deliver his point.

It’s probably silly to follow such an important and amazing speech with anything else, but I’m still going to do it because I want to show a couple more examples that include some extra elements.

I have probably posted this one before, but I’m going to give everyone another chance to watch it:

This is an excerpt from a much longer speech given by Sir Ken Robinson about changing paradigms in education. The whole speech is as engaging as the animated video above, but I wanted to give this example because of the creativity is exudes. Sir Ken is an engaging speaker anyway — he doesn’t read and his tone is conversational without actually facilitating a conversation — but I love the video above because it shows how you can add visual aids to the words of a lecture without jamming words on a PowerPoint page. There are even animation services that can help make videos like this one. It makes the lecture more engaging without actually making it interactive and it shows how a lecture can also be a performance. In this case, a cartoon.

The final example of a lecture I want to show is a JK Rowling’s Harvard University Commencement speech:

This is a video I come back to again and again. I love watching and listening to Rowling’s message. As a writer and storyteller, Rowling invites the audience to step into her own shoes as she describes her educational journey toward her eventually successful writing career. The best lectures ask people to step out of themselves to consider and reflect on something unfamiliar. Rowling also posits a surprising thesis statement as her hook, entitling her speech, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.” There is also plenty of goodnatured humor in her speech, which all speeches should have to help put everyone at ease and reveal the humanity of the speaker.

I hope this was enjoyable (thanks for sticking with me through this whole thing). There are so many other speeches that I enjoy. Please feel free to post your own below in the comments section.

Front Imaged via Flickr user SparkCBC under Creative Commons License.


4 responses to “IST663 Module 7: If You Lecture, Make it Great

  1. Ruth,

    Viewing these famous speeches as exemplars for lectures was very helpful. The “hooks,” the metaphors, the cadence, the repetition – you’ve distilled these speeches down to essential elements that can be transferred to the classroom.

    One of my favorite things about the availability of TED talks is being able to return again to particularly memorable talks to figure out exactly what made them so.

    Those handouts were really helpful too- I especially appreciated two pieces of advice. 1. Remember that a good lecture is a performance. If I learned anything from theatre, it’s this: no performance goes well without rehearsal. 2. Don’t mimic your mentor with thirty years experience. To me, this advice is two-fold. Be yourself with your lecture – don’t try to put on an act. Secondly, remember that this is a skill that develops with time and practice. You will not be the same quality lecturer your first year of teaching that you will be after 10 (or 20 or 30…).

    This has been a great series of posts Ruth. Thank you!


    • Thanks, Kyra! I’m glad you enjoyed this and go so much out of it. I really enjoyed delving into lectures. I’ve got to go read yours now!

  2. Ruth,
    I just wrote a whole response to your post and then I pressed something and it all went away so I’m sorry if you get two similar responses from me (you can just pick your favorite if that happens)!
    Thanks for this great post. I wish that I had seen this before I had to give a presentation at work last week! You had so many great reminders and tips in here (vocal modulation, humor, conversational tone, etc.) It’s so important to remember that no matter how interesting the topic, the lecturer’s job is not just to present the information but also to engage the listener.
    I wanted to answer your call for more links to more great speeches. You may already be familiar with it…I recently watched a video of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s (author of “Americanah”) TED talk. She takes on a difficult and often uncomfortable topic in her talk (namely stereotyping and prejudice) yet somehow she manages to present the topic without putting the listener on the defensive. She uses humor, personal stories, evocative language, and almost a parable style of story-telling in some places to create a talk which is engaging, thought-provoking, open, and one which is bound to inspire discussion. I think this is one of the best things that a great lecture can do. I hope you enjoy it. I’d love to hear what you think. Here’s the link:

    • Frances! Thank you so much for the link! I can’t wait to watch it (after I finish my lesson plan of course…). Thanks for reading.

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