A public lecture

Tonight I went to a public lecture, given at the university by a lady from the UK who is not only a Professor but also a Dame. She is a Commander of the British Empire and has received that commendation due to her services to mathematics education. So having heard all that in the introduction, I expected a great lecture. But, alas, the lecture was not great.

Here’s a couple of pointers:

If you are going to talk about several unrelated topics, listing them at the beginning and end of the talk does not make them any less unrelated.

If your talk is entitled Potential, Policy and Practice then try to talk about potential, policy and practice in your lecture and let us know when you are. (I’m not sure that we got anything about any of the three Ps in that lecture)

If you are giving a lecture about school mathematics then perhaps include something that the school teachers who came to hear it will be able to take away and apply in their classroom – not just another list of the problems that exist, but actual solutions to the problems.

Ok, so perhaps I’m being a bit harsh – I was already in a bit of a mood before I got there and I was reasonably tired – it was a 530pm lecture at the end of a long day. It was possibly a good lecture but I still maintain that it wasn’t a great one. I have high standards when it comes to public speaking and I think that is due to my weekly church attendance.

Now, if you know me at all, you will know that I think that going to church is a very good idea. There are many benefits. One benefit you may not have thought about is that every week the congregation sits and listens to someone give a public lecture – a sermon. And through osmosis we pick up what makes a good speech. In my humble opinion, a speech should contain not just entertainment (though that is important) but also information and application.

We have a few different ministers in our church (ministers, pastors, reverends, preachers, speakers, call them what you will) and they speak with different styles but they are all fantastic.

One of them will usually start with a story, a hook: ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ or ‘The bus dangled over the edge of the cliff…’ or ‘He had always thought that he was a good runner but…’ He’ll catch you and you have to listen to the end of the sermon to find out what happened. Another starts with a story also, but it’s usually a story about himself: ‘When I was a teacher at a high school…’ or ‘My son and I like to go for a bike ride together, and one time…’ He reaches out and makes a personal connection and we listen as friends. One of our ministers is much more academic – he takes the topic of the day and finds supporting documentation and leads us through a few different aspects. I really like his sermons (being an academic), some people find them a little harder to follow, it helps if you take notes I guess.

All of them know their topic, all of them develop the theme, all of them take us on a journey. They may use a bible passage to make it hold together or they may take us on a journey some other way, but the thing is, it always holds together – it’s not just a jumble of random facts or occurrences loosely joined. We all go on a teaching path together, the preachers make sure we are all there with them and they inject humour along the way to make sure we are still awake.

And at the end: application. How does this apply to me? To you? What can I take home today that will change my life in some small (or big) way? This is a big aspect of a Christian sermon but it is just as big when giving a public lecture. We don’t just want to hear stories – we want to know why this is important, how it affects each of us, what we should change as a result.

If people don’t enjoy the sermon they are likely to stop coming to church. So ministers work hard to improve their skills, to make the sermon something worth listening to. I’ve actually heard one minister say that giving a sermon is like taking an oral exam every single week!

The upshot of my weekly training at church is that I know what a good lecture entails, and I know when I’m not sitting in one, and I have very high standards. Hopefully, it also makes me a better lecturer – someone who is entertaining and informs and someone who applies all the rules (or at least some of the rules).

How about you? What do you like in a public lecture? How do you feel about speaking in front of crowds? Have you ever thought of the side benefits that might come from attending a church?

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