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History professor David Kennedy shares tips on giving lectures

STANFORD -- Invoking the prayer of all graduate students about to give their first lecture, David Kennedy, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, flipped on the overhead projector and asked his listeners to recite the following to themselves: "Oh, Lord, am I scared!"

The recipient of the Humanities and Sciences Dean's Award for Outstanding Teaching and the Richard W. Lyman Award for Faculty Service, Kennedy was the first speaker in the spring quarter continuation of the Center for Teaching and Learning's "Teachers on Teaching" series. In his talk April 13, titled "How to Give a Lecture," he suggested that the "prayer" projected on a screen at the front of the classroom also could be used as a mnemonic device, or outline, for his self-described "nuts-and-bolts lecture lecture."

  • Occasion. "What's the occasion for the lecture?" ought to be the first question any lecturer asks himself, Kennedy said. Will it be one of 35 lectures in a course? Is it a talk intended for freshmen, advanced graduate students or, "most dreaded of all," alumni? The intellectual and physical context of one's remarks are equally important, he added, in determining the level of sophistication of the subject.
  • Help. It's OK to ask for help -- from colleagues, from reference librarians, from the Center for Teaching and Learning. "You're not the Lone Ranger," Kennedy reminded his listeners, "so seek help wherever you can find it."
  • Language. A formal presentation generally calls for precise speech, so it's not a good idea to use slang. "Most important, remember that oral speech is not the same as written speech," he noted, urging his listeners to strive for a conversational style and try to avoid a prepared text in favor of notes.
  • Organization. "There is no better prophylaxis against the jitters than lots of preparation," Kennedy said. Identify the specific theme you're going to develop and come to a specific conclusion. In fact, he said, it can be helpful to ask what the conclusion is first, and then determine how best to build up to it.
  • Research. Once the context, point of view and conclusion have been determined, Kennedy urged lecturers to begin a detailed search for whatever numeric data, visual aids, charts, graphs and maps might be needed. He said he often jots down a number of potential "elements," jettisons most of them and then draws a line down the middle of a page, with an outline on the right- hand side and illustrative material listed on the left.
  • Delivery -- or the moment of truth. Ronald Reagan, Kennedy said, gave the same basic 20-minute stump speech for 10 years, and practiced it every time. "If you're well prepared, your presentation will have a natural flow to it which will put your audience at ease and will put your audience into an intellectually receptive frame of mind."
  • Appearance. "If you're going to command your listeners' attention . . . you've got to spend a little time thinking about what you look like," Kennedy said. Although tastes differ, he said he always wears a tie in the classroom. "It's important that your appearance and body language not be slovenly."
  • Manner. While there's plenty of latitude to accommodate different personal tastes, Kennedy said it is "absolutely fatal" to begin a lecture with an apology. "Your audience has not come to hear you in order to understand that we all live in a vale of tears and that you've had more than the usual number of travails in your life." Lecturers should maintain eye contact by not being locked to a podium by a written text, he said. Mannerisms and tics that might distract listeners can be caught by watching a videotape of practice lectures.
  • Introduction. Calling it "the single most important part of a presentation," Kennedy said that every introduction should signal where a lecturer is going, help to put remarks in some context and announce the argument that will be developed. "The old adage still fits: 'Tell 'em what you're going to say, say it, tell 'em what you said.' "
  • Simplicity. Kennedy reminded his listeners of President Teddy Roosevelt's maxim for an effective political speech: "Make it a cartoon, not a portrait." Simplicity means trying to make only two or three principal points and not cramming a presentation "with too much raw data." Quotations should be short and used sparingly, he added.
  • Clear. Kennedy reminded lecturers that they would be working in an oral medium in which listeners couldn't backflip to points that had been made 15 minutes earlier. Presentations should be "generously studded with mileposts," he added. "Repeat yourself, backtrack and fast forward. Repetition is OK."
  • Accordion. It's always good to have extra material on hand, Kennedy told his audience. "If you misjudge your time, you can lengthen or shorten your presentation by playing an 'accordion' of humor or whatever -- as long as you make sure that it's generationally attuned."
  • Repetition. What is distracting on the written page is essential in the spoken word, Kennedy said. Also, the more analogies, similes and metaphors, the easier it is for an audience to learn.
  • End. Make it punchy, memorable and concrete, Kennedy advised. "Play that 'accordion' skillfully enough so there's time to reach a conclusion. End at the beginning, and point back to where you were."
  • Done. "I mean it," Kennedy concluded. "No postscripts. No afterthoughts. Let it go. Thank you."


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