How to fix boring lectures and presentations
April 8, 2009
We all know most lectures are boring. They go on too long, most speakers are dull on stage, and sitting in big dark rooms for an hour or more is not going to help anyone stay awake.
But if they’re so boring why do we go? We go because we have little choice. If we want to hear from an expert on something, either we read their books (possibly boring) or go listen to them talk (also likely boring). There just isn’t a Bill Nye the Science guy video for most people’s ideas.
But there are things a thoughtful speaker can do -Here’s some simple tricks to fix dull lectures:
- Kill the intro. Good storytelling gets into the middle of story fast. Rip out the backstory, the story of how you first got into your field, of where you were when you first got the idea, blah blah blah. Tear it out. Start with the first challenge you faced. The first mistake you made. Keep your intro to 30 seconds – that’s the length of an entire TV commercial and should be all you need to establish what you’re going to talk about.
- Structure #1 – Problems and Solutions. Structure your talk around problems people in the audience likely have and how to solve them. Then everything you say will be structured around things they are interested in, or can at least relate to.
- Structure #2 – Frequently asked questions. Instead of making your lecture like a bad textbook, all background and theory, structure the talk around the most frequently asked questions you get on the topic. Or the most interesting and bizarre questions. Or the most challenging and difficult questions. Much of the same material can fit into your answers, but because it’s structured differently it’s much more interesting to follow.
- Make it shorter. Never use the full time you are granted. Never ever ever. Plan to end 10 minutes early to leave time for Q&A. If the audience fills that time with questions, that’s great. But If they have no questions, it often means they don’t want to hear more: so ending early is a gift to them.
- Vary your slides. An endless barrage of bulleted lists is attention death. It divides the attention of the audience between listening to you and reading, which is not good for anyone. Find a way to tell a short story, illustrating each point, with just one nice high quality image, edge to edge, on the screen. Even 30 seconds of strong visual imagery will reset people’s attention spans for the next dull slide.
- Practice. Insights and polish come only from practice and repetition. You have to go through your material several times if you want to be comfortable with the stories you’re going to tell and the way you’re going to tell them.
See my speaker checklist for a great one page summary of how to prepare. Or read my other fine posts on public speaking.