How to fix boring lectures

by Scott | 4/8/2009

We all know 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 tricks I use 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 they fill that time, great, if they don’t get off the stage. At a minimum you will be bore them less than if you continued.
  • Vary your slides. An endless barrage of bulleted lists is attention death. Find a way to tell a short story 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. Jokes and clever lines come out only through repetition. You have to go through your material several times until you find them, and get comfortable with the stories you’re going to tell and the way you’re going to tell them.

4 Responses to “How to fix boring lectures”

  1. Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother Says:

    Check your Bill Nye link. Also, you might want to do a quick proofread. Got a couple of wrong words in there. “… help anyway stay awake …” “… thoughtful speak can do …”

  2. Scott Says:

    Hi Drew – Thanks for catching. Fixed.

  3. Steven Levy Says:

    One big time-waster that I see regularly is opening with “who am I.” Unless the audience has accidentally wandered in off the street because you’re speaking in a dry hall during a rainstorm, they have a basic idea of who you are. They’ll learn a lot more about who you are from your first few minutes of actual content than from a self-description.

    Likewise, try to shorten the bio you give the host — who will likely read it in a monotone. For example, if I were a host introducing Scott, it might go something like: “Our speaker was one of the driving forces behind Internet Explorer during the original browser wars. He’s since written best-selling books about project management and innovation. Please join me in welcoming Scott Berkun.” Chances are the audience knows this already, but a couple of sentences are enough to get them to stop talking and focus up front — just in time for Scott to take the focus.

    Incidentally, as a long-time purchaser of major IT software systems, I offer the same advice to vendors. I don’t care who you are, who funded you, or anything else except how your solution will address a real problem I have. If you convince me of that, only then will I care about the rest of it.

    You have only a few minutes — some people say seconds — to capture the audience. Use that time to set the tone, to reach out to the people who have come to listen to you.

    (At any rate, that’s how I approach it. Scott has interviewed many speakers far better than I, and is a better speaker himself.)

  4. Steven Levy Says:

    Oops, somehow I missed Scott’s first bullet when reading it in my RSS feed. Scott, feel free to kill or edit the comment; it’s largely redundant.

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