Teaching and learning
Teaching involves much more than simply telling students things. But talking and telling are part of the teacher's job, whether in a formal lecture or in a shorter presentation.
This first word looks at talking and telling from the listener's point of view. It deduces some guidelines on how to make presentations which overcome some of the problems of talking and telling.
What will this "first word" do?
It will help you to plan presentations which meet the main needs of your listeners.
Speaking -- and listening
The first thing to realise while you are preparing a speech is that itís much harder to listen attentively than to talk. Reasons for this can be:
The second thing to bear in mind is that, while you are talking, the listeners are doing the real job. It's not the talking that counts, it is what remains in the minds of the audience when the session is finished. Your task is to help them do their job properly.
- the speaker is in control of the situation
- the listener can do very little to influence the situation
- the speaker is often very well prepared, and in detail
- the listener can't know what's going to happen, at least in detail.
Accordingly, you should try to organise your speech in such a way that it makes it impossible for them not to listen attentively.
Something about listeners and listening to you
To repeat: It's very hard to listen attentively.
Normally a person listens with great attention at the beginning of a speech. That is because he or she is there to listen, and they want the situation to be as rewarding as possible. Of course there are exceptions to this, but that is normally how it works.
The initial concentration, however, soon drops to a fairly low level, but at the end of the session it rises again. This is when the speaker, for instance, says, 'And now to summarise', or, 'Just before coffee I would like point out.' You can sketch the process as in the diagram below:
Most of us take this as natural, and we don't even think it is possible to do anything about it. Instead we may ask questions about how long this initial period of concentration is. We may even want to know how much time we have to deliver the information before the listeners lose concentration or fall asleep.
It is impossible to give a general answer to such questions. It always depends on, for instance, whether:
But, above all, the answers about the precise shape of the attention curve vary from person to person and from day to day.
- it is morning, afternoon or evening
- the audience is tired or fresh at the start
- you are a skilful talker
- they know what they are supposed to do with the information you are giving them.
Maybe such questions are not the most useful ones for a teacher to ask.
One thing at a time
Another annoying thing about the human mind that you have to take into consideration is that most of us cannot concentrate on more than one thing at a time.
When you are talking to a class of students, what should they do? Listen to what you say? Try to understand what you say? Decide what is most important to them in what you say, and write it down?
They may stop listening and think of something else, prompted by what you are saying or not. And when they return to your words it is hard or impossible for them to recall what you were saying while their minds were somewhere else. This is almost binary: either they listen or they don't.
Implications for your talk
You have to be so interesting that the students' minds stay with you throughout your whole talk. When you are talking, you must be more interesting for them than their own thoughts.
And you have to accept the limitations on their span of attention.
Of course, sometimes you do want them to think on their own, or write things down, or solve problems. You need to ask them to do such things - because they can't give you their full attention for long, and anyway they should be active as well as listening to you.
But when you want them to listen to you carefully, you have to organise the situation so that they can. They are counting on you to do just that.
How to organise your content
The first thing you need to do is to tell your audience about what you're going to tell them, so they know what to expect.
Then given them the strongest reason why they should listen to you. Assume that their first question is: 'Why should I listen to this? What in this is interesting for me?' If you can answer that question properly, you can be sure they will listen to you and even help you.
If you can't, some of them will give up and you will not get the help from them that you need to make the session into a success.
This may mean that you should start with your results, if that is what they want to know, or perhaps with an exciting and important (exciting and important for them, not just for you!) problem which you are going to show them how to solve.
If they already know something about what you are going say, start with an overview or a summary. If they know nothing or very little about it, start with an introduction that really captures their minds, and maybe even their hearts, and thus motivates them to follow you deep into the subject.
A good model to follow is the way a serious newspaper or magazine organises an article or story.
- Start with a title, a headline, that gives the whole content in a very compressed form. A good title is one that gives a reasonable idea what the talk is all about!
- Give your introduction as a summary of your talk. Again, if the students hear your summary, they will know your content at least superficially. And, when they read and think more about the subject later, they will have some kind of framework on which to hang this reading and thinking.
- Organise the main body of your talk in the order of the listenersí interest. First the thing that interests them most. Then the second most interesting thing, for them. Then the third most . . . and so on. (More on how to do this in a moment.)
- A good newspaper or magazine feature story will end with a firm conclusion or recap. (News stories usually don't do this -- they're written to buy cut?? from the end, paragraph by paragraph, if necessary.) You should end with a conclusion or recap!
Some advantages with this model include:
- It is not too serious if you become short of time because you have already said the most important things.
- You will stimulate more questions, because the listeners know from the start what you're aiming at.
- You will have more freedom of action; as you already have told them the most important things, you can change your structure during the talk according to the audience's responses.
- It will be easier for them to listen: if they lose the thread for a while, they will be able to pick it up again because they already have the overview.
Preparing your talk-- ask questions
We suggested above that you should plan your talk in the order of the students' interest in the topic.
You may wonder: 'How could I possibly know their thoughts? How can I prepare my talk according to their order of interest?'
The answer is quite simple: write down their questions!
Write down all the questions you could possibly imagine, questions that you think they would like to have the answers to, answers that you can give them in your speech. It should be many, many questions. Ask your colleagues, your partner, friends, parents, experts, everybody. Say to them -- 'What questions would you ask about this topic?'
When you think you have enough questions, prioritise and sequence them:
- What question do you think they will ask first? Number it 1.
- When you've answered that question in your talk -- what question do you think they'd ask next? Call it number 2.
When you have done this job, you have your script. You just have to answer the questions in the order your listeners want them to be answered. You have your content organised according to your listenersí order of interest. Or at least as close as possible.
You can extend this process. For example:
- When the course is running, you can ask the students each week to tell you what questions they'd like you to answer on the topic of next week's talk, and maybe on the next few topics.
- You could ask them to research one or two of their questions before next week's class, and maybe be prepared to say next week one or two things which they have discovered.
- You can ask them to spend the last two or three minutes of a class writing down questions they still have about this week's topic. If they hand these to you on the way out you'll answer them at the start of next week. (This will tell you a lot about what they have and haven't learned during this talk!)
- If it's a fairly small class, you could ask one or two people to say what their questions about this week's talk were, and see what answers others in the class have to these questions.
The approach to presentations described here shifts your attention from you and your content to the students and their needs and interests. Of course there will be a syllabus you need to work through. But, by focusing on student questions about the syllabus, this approach should help you to keep their interest. If you involve them in asking questions, and show that you are willing to answer some of them, you will also help them to become more active students. And you will avoid some of the dreadful passivity which is one of the worst features of a poor lecture, talk or other form of presentation.
This "first word" was prepared by Torgny Roxa, Educational Consultant in the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Lund University in Sweden, with "first words" author and editor David Baume.
Last modified: Wednesday, 27-Jun-12 10:24:19 BST