Friday, August 22, 2014

POST #53: Renee Kahn’s Rules for Effective Public Speaking

A couple of posts ago, I talked about teaching art to “minors” in the Junior High Schools of the South Bronx. But, sometimes it’s just as tough to reach an audience of sophisticated adults, even though they’re well behaved, seemingly eager to learn and capable of sitting still for more than five minutes.

I like to think that my years in the public schools of New York City made me a good speaker. It was a question of survival. I am now fearless in front of an audience, no matter how large or small, socially important or academically advanced, I know I can hold them, keep their interest, teach them something and entertain them at the same time. My twenty-two years of lecturing at the University of Connecticut in Stamford certainly helped. One student wrote in his teacher evaluation that I “made a boring subject interesting.” (I never thought art history was boring). However, I know plenty of people who taught for as long as I did and are twice as knowledgeable as I am who are dreadful teachers and public speakers. They are ‘tone deaf,” blissfully unaware that they are putting their audience to sleep.

I recently attended a lecture by a prominent political scientist with top academic credentials: a Ph.D., years of teaching at a famous university, numerous books and articles and lots of personal charisma. His topic was unfamiliar to me and I was looking forward to learning something. But the minute Dr. X took out a stack of notes and began to read them, I knew it was going to be an ordeal. Escape was impossible; I was sitting in the front row and would have had to cross in front of him to get out. An hour and a half later, I was finally able to reach the door. The problem with listening to a talk that is being read is that you can’t go back over anything you missed, the way you can if you are reading a book. When you deliver something verbally, off the cuff, you automatically simplify it as you would in conversation.

So here are Renee Kahn’s rules for keeping your listeners awake (and learning)

Rule #1: NEVER read your speech - unless of course it is some kind of scientific paper that has lots of formulae and requires total accuracy. If you don’t know your subject well enough to speak with just a brief (VERY brief) outline, you shouldn’t be giving the talk at all. Besides, you are much better off missing a couple of points than you are boring your audience to death. If you must, make as few notes to yourself as possible and print them in large letters you can read without your glasses. If you have a lot of technical information to impart, prepare a handout.

Rule #2: Like (or act like you like) your audience.  Come in smiling, crack a joke, don’t show fear. Interact with the audience constantly. Look at them; gauge how things are going and be prepared to improvise. That’s one of the reasons not to read your speech (Rule #1); if you aren’t looking at the faces in front of you, you can’t tell if you are getting through. Start with something funny; it puts everyone at ease. You can almost hear the sigh of relief when your audience realizes they’re in for an enjoyable experience.

Rule #3: Keep your visuals to a minimum. It’s not that your material isn’t worthwhile, it’s that people’s capacity to absorb it tends to run out after about 20 or 25 images. It all becomes a blur after that. I remember attending a talk on Rhode Island pottery at a local historical society where the speaker marched in with two full trays of slides and promptly proceeded to show all 240 of them. I thought I would die and to this day, have trouble looking at images of Early American pots. Visual overload sets in pretty fast.

Rule #4: Watch your audience constantly for signs of boredom and then react accordingly. Speed up, condense, eliminate, crack a joke, walk around the room. That takes us back to Rule #1, why you should never read your speech.

Just remember, lecturing in public is the intellectual’s form of stand-up comedy.


  1. Deliane always said you were her best and most interesting art history teacher !!
    So it's been confirmed.


  2. Another good blog post.....I have elected to revise my "stand up"--12 college lectures--- which has to be all the good things you mention...... but for 2 and a half hours (!) at a time before an audience of tired 18-20 year olds with extreme Text-itis.....such a challenge there's nothing like that sinking feeling air/energy leaving the the college lecture format dead, interactivity is in? / Prof G.