Giving a lecture is not very dissimilar to a performance. In both activities, it is not only important what you say, but how you deliver it. Your movements, your body language, the way you project your voice… they can never be underestimated. There are many lecturers whose excellent knowledge and preparation of the material is let down by poor delivery. You immediately recognize them: they keep looking down, face hidden under a paper, from which they read in a monotone voice. You could also meet the type who gives nightmares to note-takers: the machine gun talker, trying to fit as many words as possible into fifty minutes, ready to break a Guinness record.
The mirror has two faces (1996) is one of my favourite films. Barbra Streisand and Jeff Bridges play university professors whose teaching styles could not be more different. Jeff is a great mathematician, but a very boring lecturer. He spends the lesson endlessly writing equations on the blackboard, with his back to the students. He is totally oblivious to their desperate faces and their attempts to ask questions. As Barbra points out, “You have a Maths party but you only invited yourself”. In contrast, Barbra never loses visual contact with her students. She moves around the lecture theatre and (this is a movie, after all) she is able to recall everybody’s name. Her style is very interactive. She speaks in the form of questions (“What do you think?”) and lets the students figure out the answer. She also uses examples from daily life (i.e. her sister’s wedding) to explain literary archetypes. As a result, Jeff’s class is half empty, while Barbra’s is so full that students have to sit on the aisles.
It could be argued that teaching Maths (an exact science) offers less possibilities of entertainment than Literature. However, in a later scene, Jeff successfully uses an equation to calculate the speed of a baseball. By placing the topic in a context, he makes it relevant for the students. Some film reviewers also accused Barbra of “dumbing down” a university lecture, but I have witnessed similar methods to hers in real life. I have never forgotten the rhythm of alliteration in medieval poetry since the lecturer played the bongos in the lesson to explain it. This said, it is not necessary to do theatrics to give a good lecture. One lecturer I had in my degree never moved from behind the microphone in the whole lesson, but his voice was so mesmerizing that he would have made the telephone directory sound interesting.
During my years in academia, I have been fortunate enough to meet more Barbras than Jeffs. I realised that methods and styles can vary immensely, but they should be tailored to what makes the deliverer feel more comfortable. Just never forget that the main goal is to reach your audience. Like in a telephone conversation, the perfect working of the line is essential to transmit the message.