Back when I was in undergrad at MIT, the quality of my professors’ lectures would absolutely stun me sometimes.
The way they could capture and hold our attention throughout the class was nothing short of amazing. Their use of eight simultaneous blackboards lining the walls, filled to the brim with notes, turned each lecture into its own miniature production.
A good lecturer is a master at walking the class through a thorny subject, expressing ideas clearly, and holding attention — all of which also has to be done during complicated business presentations.
To develop that skill, I’ve been reading Joseph Lowman’s book, Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. It is the best book on teaching that I’ve found over the years. I wanted to apply these lecturing and teaching techniques because I believe that style of education is ideal for the data-driven presentations people have to give in the biotech field.
This is how any business professional can channel a great college lecturer when presenting.
Teach with credibility — and ultimately, with reasoning and arguments.
In college, a professor’s credibility initially stems from authority. She is the professor, after all, and you’re the student.
But professors don’t just shoot from the hip. All good lecturers have a reference for just about every fact and story they share. They know it’s just as important to explain the reasoning behind the conclusions they draw as it is to present those conclusions in the first place.
When you explain the assumptions you’ve made in coming to a certain conclusion, it enhances your credibility.
The class, or the audience, can see how you got there and use their own critical thinking to assess that conclusion. While you’re giving a presentation, some people in your audience may not agree with a point you make. But if they understand what assumptions you’re making and the perspective you’re using, they won’t discredit everything you’re saying.
They will at least understand where you’re coming from.
And if there is a step where you’ve lost your audience, you simply need to work on convincing them that one point is true. They’re already on board with what’s come before.
Know that being knowledgeable about a topic is very different from being able to present it clearly.
Once you’ve become an expert, it’s easy to forget what it was like to be a novice.
You no longer have to think about all the little steps involved in a process — you don’t have to manually make connections to understand a concept. For many experts, that becomes a problem when they try to present a topic. They forget how much they know that the audience doesn’t.
A good lecturer doesn’t just tell students the main point of that day’s class and then head for the door.
He or she walks the students along a path, clarifying points and slowly building a foundation for knowledge. Lecturers have to repeatedly look at the same concept from many different perspectives so that a student can grasp it in its entirety. They can’t just explain the concept the way they understand it.
Business presentations are no different.
They require patience, clarity, and strong explanations. When you’re introducing a complex subject, a good way to help people along that path to enlightenment is by comparing the topic to something people already know. Personally, I like to use original illustrations in my presentations because they act as a simplified point of reference.
You can do the same thing with other aids like anecdotes, references to pop culture, or news stories. Build a bridge to the familiar.
Whatever comparison you choose, your goal is to clarify what you’re speaking about and keep people engaged with your presentation.
Use drama to connect with and capture your audience.
The best lecturers are so captivating because they understand one important fact — everyone understands and responds to drama.
Honestly, the way you stagger information in your presentation is often more important than the actual information itself. When I first started giving presentations on complex biotech subjects, I would put all the important information in the first four or five slides. My thinking was that even if people fell asleep at slide nine, they would at least have seen the key information.
But that isn’t an effective way to stage a presentation.
Once a message “clicks” in someone’s mind, and they guess what you’re going to be talking about, they tend to tune out.
To counter that, I’ve changed up my style considerably.
It’s at the point where my wife looked over my last presentation before I gave it and told me, “It doesn’t really flow.” I was actually happy because I didn’t want the presentation to have a simple narrative. I wanted to keep that sense of suspense and drama that’s present in a good lecture.
Because when people have to wrestle with an idea or follow the clues you’ve placed in your slides, you hold their attention much longer — and they understand the topic more clearly.
Learn how your voice and speech style contributes to the story.
When people fall asleep in a lecture, it’s not always because of the subject matter. Sometimes, the speaker has a low, monotonous voice that induces drowsiness as soon as he begins speaking.
It’s not exactly a secret that some people are more pleasant to listen to. Morning radio shows have known it forever, and some of the best speakers hold attention partly because the sound of their voice is so attractive.
But even if you don’t have a beautiful baritone, you can still change the way you talk to make your presentations more engaging.
Modulating your voice, speaking clearly, and cutting out “ahs” and “ums” will go a long way toward keeping people engaged.
It’s really helpful to record yourself speaking, listen to it, and then work on problem areas in your speech. You might cringe at first when you hear a recording of your voice, but working on your speech can drastically improve your presentations. Personally, I tend to speak rather quickly, so I’ve learned to consciously slow down while presenting.
Keep in mind, not every presentation is exactly the same.
Sometimes you’ll have to throw away the playbook and respond as the situation demands. Still, for most situations, you won’t go wrong by incorporating the tricks of a great lecturer into your presentations.
Since this summary only skims the surface of Lowman’s book on teaching, I recommend reading this classic again and again.