The art of the lecture

Inspiring students in the lecture hall requires honing your rhetorical technique and considering your audience.

June 26, 2008

“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.

Brian Vickers, emeritus professor of English literature at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, advises: "Start with a remark that makes people feel at ease: a joke or comment to relax them and show that they have been recognised as an audience. But don’t use jokes as an excuse for not keeping a clear line."

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, but lecturers should really regard what they are doing as moving people 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.

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

Exley adds that you should make your lecture structure clear to the students from the beginning, dividing the content of the lecture into explicit sections and providing mini-summaries at the end of each.

Vickers says studies have shown that people's attention spans start to diminish after about ten minutes. "It is important to wake people up at regular intervals," he says, 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 trip into the unknown and these are little mileposts," Vickers says.

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 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.

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

“Academics generally aren't good rhetoricians; 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. “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 well-delivered lecture, they feel they have fully understood everything and all they have to do is file the notes away,” he says.

In other words, 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

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