How to Make a Scientific Lecture Unbearable
At a symposium, meeting or congress when there are a number of speakers, there comes a moment when your name is called. A nice ploy to attract the attention of the audience to you at this stage, is to place yourself in the middle of the last row, so that when you are introduced as the next speaker, you raise the whole row, stepping on their toes, proceed slowly to the front and then start searching your pockets for a convoluted pack of your lecture notes. Next you extract from another pocket a package of slides with which you go back to the projectionist and enter into an animated discussion with him trying to explain which slide is first and which side up and instructing him: "And don't forget to show slide No. 3 again after slide 7." Then you go back to the lectern, and start searching for your reading glasses. If you find them they would probably be in an unexpected pocket. Next you proceed to "read the paper." and we mean literally "read" it. This technique of delivering a lecture is defined by Prof. Sabin as "kissing over a telephone--completely tasteless."
If you wish to put your audience to sleep as soon as possible after starting to lecture, begin with the enumeration of all historically important papers published in the last 50 years that have any bearing on the subject matter. Another well tested method is to start talking about something that has nothing to do with the subject by saying for instance: "Before we turn to the discussion of......, let us shortly review...etc."
Beginning at the beginning is an unpardonable mistake. Some speakers use the so called multiple colon technique. They say: Mr. Chairman, I should like to say: the situation is as follows: I mean to say that: I should like to clarify in this lecture some points which are not sufficiently clear: etc. etc. If you continue for a few minutes in this vein, you lose the audience very soon.
A useful habit to distract the attention of the audience is to have a "tic," like twitching of one cheek, a sniffing movement of the nose, twisting of the neck, buttoning and unbuttoning your jacket etc. Putting on and removing the reading glasses while you talk, and glance at the audience, may sometimes replace such a tic. If you manage to combine the tic with the glasses, the better.
Some sophisticated speakers like to introduce quotations in their lectures. Shakespeare, Einstein and Wendell Holmes are quite safe in this respect. The trouble begins when the quotations are from classical literature of the Bible in the original language be it Greek, Latin, Hebrew, or Sanskrit.
We shall not go into the use of slides in the lecture. This subject has already been ample discussed in the paper of Wilkinson (JIR Vol. 10 #1). Suffice it to say, that keeping the audience in the dark while running through some 50-60 slides, preferable representing complicated tables of figures, will greatly assist the listeners in taking a solid nap. We shall not discuss the obvious ploys of having the slides intentionally inserted the wrong way, so that it takes the projectionist 6-8 trials before they are correctly set. If you need some breathing space as a speaker, this is how you get it.
Now as to technique of elocution. Wrongly adjusted microphones help in losing the audience. This is especially true if there is only one microphone on the speakers table and he happens to wander around while pointing to the screen or writing on the blackboard. If you happen to be attached to a neck or breast microphone via an umbilical cord then a good method is to stand in front of the blackboard with your back to the audience, and speak over your shoulder so that the microphone is well screened by your shoulders. If the people in the back row are lip readers they might understand what you are saying.
Some speakers like to doodle on the blackboard while talking. We have in our files a collection of such doodles, collected from blackboards and a dictionary which helps to understand what such doodles mean.
Now most of the slides are over, most of the audience nicely asleep and you near the end of your lecture. An hour has gone and you find that you barely managed to convey half of the material you intended, you notice that your chairman is fidgeting and tries to catch your eye to indicate that you must end. You then say: In conclusion I should like to say..." This gives you some 5-10 minutes grace. If you cannot end by then say: "Finally, these results indicate etc...," which gives you another few minutes, and then you still may say: "To sum up...etc."
There are speakers who when warned by blinking lights or threatening posture of the chairman put themselves at the mercy of the chairman and ask "How much time do I Have?" which does not give them really a chance if the chairman is not a mouse. Some bolder types usually say "If I have still five (or ten) minutes, then..." and ignore the chairman.
Some intimidated speakers accelerate the rate of their delivery to a speed that permits only highly trained experts to keep track of the subject matter.
It has been suggested that the listeners should organize themselves in a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Listeners and present the speakers with rules and regulations (and sanctions) before they start talking.
© Copyright 2003 Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)
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