Tips on Giving Public Lectures

Be aware of who your audience is. How much math and science do they know?

  • Not sure who will be there? Ask the event organizer.
  • Wondering if you are using too much jargon? Run your draft slides by a non-specialist (family member, local teacher, staff person at your institution).

Decide upon one simple story and tell it as clearly as possible.

  • What do you want the audience to learn or be convinced of? Why?
  • What perspective do you want them to take on your subject?
  • How does each piece of information in your talk support that goal? What is "core"?
  • What is just "nice to know, but not essential"?

Consider how the talk's structure can enhance its effectiveness.

  • Is there a central question, mystery or paradox to be emphasized?
  • An outline can help the audience keep in mind where you're going.
  • Transitions between subtopics can be a time to re-engage directly with the audience (make eye contact, ask for questions) and maintain momentum.
  • A summary can help the audience see how all the pieces fit together.

Use visual aids for specific purposes.

  • Brief, reliable live demonstrations can add drama and flair.
  • Slides can keep the 'big picture' in view while you address sequential points (e.g. an outline or cartoon) or can display detailed supporting evidence.
  • Plots and tables need large jargon-free labels and must be on-screen long enough for the audience to absorb their unfamiliar content.
  • Photos need captions: what is shown and why is it relevant?

Practice good speaking habits.

  • Talk at a moderate pace. Do not read your slides verbatim!
  • Use a pointer where needed. Don't block the projector.
  • Make eye contact with the audience.
  • Encourage questions where it won't disrupt the flow of the story.
  • Do a practice run to check your timing. Talks that run over are annoying.

Bridge the gap between the lectern and the seats:

  • Be enthusiastic . . . and the audience will be too.
  • Use humor. Part of your job is to entertain.
  • Make connections to ideas the audience will find familiar: draw analogies, explain where an abstract principle is applied in real life.

Reflect on good talks you've seen (or see our database) and use them as a model.