Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How to Deliver an Outstanding Public Lecture

The public presentation of your ideas is an integral part of academia.

It also is a part of academic where we receive minimal training. For many of us, our training in public speaking consists in the opportunity to present research in graduate seminars, and, if we are lucky, the chance to have our “job talk” critiqued by esteemed members of our department.

In a previous post, I provided guidelines on how to deliver an effective presentation. In this post, I will focus on how to deliver an outstanding public lecture.

Imagine Cup 2012 - Day 4 Finalist Presentations

Why, you might ask, would an academic want to learn to give a memorable public lecture? I can only speak for myself. From my perspective, I work hard at coming up with ideas that I hope will change the way people think about social issues. If these ideas are only shared with other academics, then my work will have limited value. In contrast, if I can learn to translate my ideas into more widely-read pieces, then, perhaps I will have a chance to actually change the way we talk about social issues I think are important. That is the reason I decided to learn how to write OpEds. (By the way, I have had some success this year publishing OpEds!!)

My desire to be relevant is also the reason I decided to work on becoming a better public speaker.

For me, becoming an outstanding public speaker is still a work in progress. I continue to hone my skills and to look for examples of ways to become exceptional. Along the way, I have learned a few things that I will share with you.

Becoming an Outstanding Public Speaker: Style and Content

First of all, I have learned that there are two separate areas you have to work on: 1) Learning to be an engaging speaker; and 2) Having something memorable to say.

I will deal with each of these separately.


Your presentation style is important. An excellent public lecture will have many of the following qualities.

  • Evocative images. One of the best presentations I ever saw was about social isolation in Chicago. I saw this presentation over ten years ago and can still remember the photos of children playing in empty lots.
  • Don’t read your paper. Or if you do read your paper, make sure no one can tell you are reading. It can be very difficult for audience members to listen to you read a paper.
  • Add in some humor. This can be difficult when you are talking about depressing topics, but a joke or two can do a lot to keep your audience listening.
  • Tell a story. This can be a story about yourself, about the data, or from anywhere else. The point is that stories are engaging and you should tell one or more. You can organize your whole talk as a story. You can begin with a story. You can use stories to demonstrate points.
  • Practice your presentation until you are completely comfortable with it.
  • When you go to public lectures yourself, take note of what works and what doesn’t work. And, emulate those talks you find most provocative.


Presentation style is important, but you will not impress an audience if you do not also have substance. This is a bit trickier to describe, but you should aim to make your presentation memorable. Here are a few ideas.

  • Your presentation must include information that no one in the audience already knows. If you are presenting based on a book you have already written and some people may have read, then include something extra that did not make it into the book. Or include a backstory. No one should leave the room and think they learned nothing.
  • Your presentation should make people think. The audience wants to be engaged. They want to know more. You have made them think about things in new ways. This is awesome.
  • Your presentation should have a clear argument. When people leave, they should be able to say: “I went to this outstanding public lecture, where the speaker argued ….”

Those are my thoughts on what makes an outstanding public lecture. I have given dozens of public lectures, yet I continue to hone my skills.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and seeing the resources you are aware of for giving great talks. Please let us know in the comments section.

PS: I recently came across this post on Lifehacker that has some great tips on giving a public lecture.