Over at Ecological Rants, Charley Krebs recently wrote about and listed some very sensible and simple rules for giving a good lecture which are exactly the same things I tell my students when I give my lecture about basic presentation skills. I do, however, also give some other hints and tips to help them give good talks and lectures.
Academics, with a few rare exceptions, are not, as a rule, stand-up comics; although, we are all, to some degree, performers. That said, there is, as I tell my students, definitely a place for humour in lectures and presentations. The secret is making sure that it is appropriate and amusing. My first bit of advice, which I also take, is to avoid the supposedly, subtle scripted joke or play on words. You have all sat in that lecture where the speaker very obviously works in a joke, and then the dead give-away, the expectant pause for the laugh, that is invariably either met by massed groans or a stony silence. If you do feel the need to tell a joke per se, be upfront about it and say, “that reminds me about the…”. It won’t be any funnier and you probably won’t get a round of applause, but hey, at least one person might laugh.
Far better is to go for the self-deprecating anecdote. Your audience will be more sympathetic, and even if they are laughing at you, you will know that it is genuine 😊 I usually tell stories from my working life and sometimes from my childhood. Something personal and shared, as long as it is in good taste, is always a good way to lighten a lecture and help your listeners remember a salient fact.
The thing to avoid at all costs is the careless, off the cuff comment, something that seems a great idea at the time and when without thinking, you let your mouth take over from your brain. I speak, well write, from bitter experience. In 1997, the 19th Symposium of the Royal Entomological Society was held in Newcastle from the 10th-11th September. The subject of the symposium was Insect Populations and I had been invited to give the plenary address on the less than exciting subject of how qualitative changes in individual insects affects their population dynamics (Leather & Awmack, 1998). I had a 45-minute slot and I must confess that after thirty minutes I was struggling. Even I was finding the subject matter a bit dry, and I was desperately thinking of something to add a bit of life and colour to the talk. I had just reached the section about lifespan when in view of an event that had happened a few days earlier, August 31st to be precise, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea, and these fatal words issued from my mouth “Death comes to us all as Princess Diana has just found out” There was a massed gasp from the audience, and then, if I had, had a pin to let go, you would have been able to hear it drop!
I use this story as an example of what not to do when I give my lecture on how to give a talk. It always raises a laugh, albeit a shocked one 😊
My faux pas was certainly memorable. Ten years later I was invited to give the plenary at Ento’07 in Edinburgh; the chair of the session on introducing me, pointedly made a reference to my infamous plenary of 1997 😊
Leather, S.R. & Awmack, C.S. (1998) The effects of qualitative changes of individuals in the population dynamics of insects. Pp 187-204 [In] Insect Populations in Theory and in Practice (eds. J.P. Dempster & I.F.G. McLean), Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston, London.