Mark off miles on trip to unknown

December 1, 2006

A lecture can be like a long journey where the audience does not always know the final destination. So, advises Harriet Swain, break up your material into sections and provide landmarks along the way.

Bores, showmen, mumblers, lend me your lecture notes. You come to inspire students, not to daze them... which is why, if you want to improve your rhetorical technique, you have to start by considering your audience.

"Rhetoric is a way of thinking that spends more time considering the audience's point of view than the speaker's," says Ceri Sullivan, reader in the department of English at the University of Wales, Bangor. In its pure form, she says, it is about creating change - getting your audience to agree with you is more important than getting them to understand.

To this end, you have to try to get them on your side from the start. Brian Vickers, emeritus professor of English literature at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, advises: "Start with some remark that makes people feel at ease - a joke or comment to relax people and show that they have been recognised as an audience." But tread carefully, he continues.

"Don't use jokes as an excuse for not keeping a clear line on things."

Kate Exley, a consultant in higher education, says another rhetorical technique is to pose a question or dilemma at the beginning of the lecture to raise curiosity and then proceed to answer it, or explain how others tackled it, in the body of the lecture.

William McNair, managing director of The Rhetorical Company, consultants in effective use of the spoken word, says that rhetoric traditionally has three purposes: to please, to teach and to move. "Each of these may overlap with the others, but my view is that lecturers should really regard what they are doing as moving people," he says. "They should speak to move listeners to go and find out stuff for themselves."

McNair says that because academics are usually highly literate, they tend to regard lectures as verbal versions of documents instead of adapting them for people relying on the ear rather than the eye. Lectures are better at conveying ideas and personality than information, which is more effectively transferred through the written word, he says. He argues that the biggest difference between a document and a lecture is that those listening to a lecture cannot go back and re-read it if they don't understand something.

Structure is therefore essential. Sullivan says that you must think about the structure of your lecture beforehand in terms of what you want to achieve. Do you want to promote understanding, prove a point, praise or criticise something for example?

Exley says you should make your lecture structure clear to the students from the beginning and divide the content of the lecture into explicit sections, providing mini-summaries at the end of each. But Vickers goes on to say that you should not summarise what you have already said using the same form of words. If you spot people looking at their watches, try rephrasing your point and make it shorter.

Vickers says that educational psychologists have shown that people's attention spans start to diminish after about ten minutes. "It is very very important to wake people up at regular intervals during the lecture," he says. This can be done by making regular eye contact with different members of the audience.

He agrees with Exley that it is important to signpost your main points as you make them. "A lecture is a bit like a trip into the unknown and these are little mileposts," Vickers says. They are also a useful way of letting you make extra points that occur to you without going into long digressions and losing your way. Saying "before going on to point three I should perhaps mention..." ensures that your audience knows there is a point three to which you will return.

Exley says that many students find it easier to follow an explanation that moves from practice to theory, so it is particularly effective to begin explanations with real examples and case studies and then move on to the conceptual and theoretical ideas they encapsulate.

She suggests using case studies and analogies that are relevant to students and comparing new information or ideas with something they already know about and understand, "helping your students to build their own networks and to forge their own connections between ideas, concepts, knowledge".

Personal narrative and storytelling in the first person can also be effective.

Sullivan says you should not neglect the emotive side of rhetoric.

"Academics generally aren't good rhetoricians because they don't like to be put on the spot; they like to think things through," she says. "They are interested in saying the truth; rhetoricians are interested in having something persuasive to say. They are opportunistic and performative."

Sullivan says that it is important to use your arms and tone of voice to help convey your message. "Facial expression and gestures are particularly important for a visually literate but perhaps verbally illiterate audience," she explains.

But there are dangers in employing all these techniques too effectively, argues George MacDonald Ross, senior lecturer in philosophy and director of the subject centre for philosophical and religious studies at the Higher Education Academy. "If students are at the receiving end of a really good, well-delivered lecture that is clear and to the point, it enables them to take notes, which makes them feel they have fully understood everything and all they have to do is file the notes away and revise from them," he says. A worse rhetorician may be better at making students into independent thinkers.

Further information

In Defence of Rhetoric , by Brian Vickers, Oxford University Press, 1988.

The Rhetorical Company, www.rhetoric.co.uk

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