For most of us, the word “lecture” has negative connotations—it conjures up memories of bumbling presentations given by mumbling spreaders of boredom. Maybe that’s why lecture has such a lousy reputation as a teaching method. Yet, it is still one of the methods teachers use the most, and I bet it’s one of the primary ways you teach your classes. So it behooves us to know when to use it and how to use it well.

When to use lecture
It is up to you to realize, no matter what the teacher’s guide says, when it would be advantageous to use lecture, small groups, panel discussion, teams, or any of the other teaching methods. The first question, then, is: when should you use lecture?

  • When you possess a body of information your students don’t. Lecture implies that you, the teacher, have some knowledge the students want, and therefore they are willing to spend time listening to you to gain that knowledge.
  • When your students can’t discover the information on their own. Student-initiated learning is almost always preferable, but not always possible or impossible under the constraints of time or resources. You can waste a lot of time letting students thrash about trying to “discover” some facts, when the better choice would have been a short, well-prepared lecture, followed by experimentation that was now informed and focused.
  • When you need to communicate a lot of information in a short period of time. If you are pushing against a deadline and still need to cover a good deal of ground, lecture is the way to go. A well-prepared lecture with strong bullet points is a very efficient communications medium.
  • When you are such a scintillating speaker people will pay good money simply to hear you talk. In today’s multimedia world, it’s hard to believe that people used to sit for hours listening to lectures. Of course, if the lecturer is Mark Twain, it becomes easier to understand. Even today, if you know how to lecture effectively, you can actually get paid to do it. So, the key might be to learn to do it well, eh?

How to lecture well
To give an effective lecture, you’ll need to learn how to do more than talk. Here are some pointers:

  1. Know your stuff. “Faking it” is risky in any teaching environment, but it is deadly in lecture. You have a window of opportunity at the beginning of your lecture to establish your credentials in the mind of your audience. Remember, the audience is there because they believe you know something they don’t.
  2. Have a purpose and a plan. What is your goal? At the end of the lecture, what do you want to have accomplished? You must know what result you want. Then, based on your goal, put together the outline for your lecture. Yes, I said an outline. Unless you are Robin Williams, you can’t simply do stream of consciousness and hope it all works out in the end. It is your responsibility to take your audience on a well-planned journey, with smooth transitions between clear-cut points.
  3. Prepare. Go over your material, and look for weak spots. Is it clear and concise? You may need to tuck it in here, let it out there. Once you are satisfied with it, stop editing and start locking it in. While you may not memorize the entire lecture word-for-word, you should be so familiar with it that you could reproduce the outline, including examples and illustrations, on a blank sheet of paper.
  4. Use “color material” often and effectively. Stories, jokes, analogies, illustrations—these are the spices that the experienced lecture cook uses to good effect. As a rule, you should not go longer than three to five minutes without some break in the flow of content, or you will lose your audience. Note, though, the word “effective.” There is no use including a story in your talk if it is either meaningless or inappropriate for your audience.
  5. Stand up, speak up, shut up. When it’s time to speak, use your posture, facial expression, and general demeanor to take charge of the room. You are expected to do so, and it is false humility to assume otherwise. Speak in a clear, well-paced, authoritative manner—not shouting and not whispering. Have a good beginning, a good middle, and a good ending, and when you are done, stop! There is nothing worse than a speaker who is still speaking even though he ended five minutes ago.

You’re a teacher—take a class!
It may be that you are already a wonderful lecturer, and that you already know how to hold an audience enthralled in the palm of your elocutionary hand. If so, congratulations! You are one of a small and elite group.

On the other hand, you may realize that your speaking skills aren’t as good as you’d like, and you’re wondering what to do about it. Here are three suggestions:

  • Take a class on public speaking. Your local college probably offers night classes on public speaking. Seminars on the topic are regularly offered to the business crowd. Public speaking is a skill that is required for many professions, so if you look around, you will probably find many opportunities for training.
  • Join a club. Toastmasters International is an organization devoted to helping its members learn to speak in public both effectively and entertainingly. There are chapters in most major cities, and the meetings are usually short and well-organized.
  • Record your talks. It may be painful, but one of the best ways to learn to speak well is to listen critically to yourself. Be sure to list the good points as well as the bad, or you will stop doing it! Remember, the goal is to improve, not to beat yourself up.

There’s no doubt about it—lecture is here to stay. As long as we’re going to keep using it, we might as well do it well. Let’s all make a pledge: No more bad, boring lectures out of our mouths if we can help it! Then let’s do the things in this article to make that pledge come true.
Bruce Maples is an author, trainer, speaker, and consultant living in Louisville. To share your reaction to this article, please post a comment below or follow this link to write to Bruce.