Gian-Carlo Rota was a well known mathematician of the twentieth century. He was also known for his innovative teaching style. Rota wrote an essay on the things he wished he had been taught. Although, the essay covers a lot of bases, I will briefly comment on Rota’s main advice on giving talks/lectures/presentations:
- Every lecture should make only one main point: One mistake which we all are prone to making is putting too many things in a single presentation. A presentation is more effective if there is a single theme and the theme is explained gently and highlighted by examples. Rota, gives the analogy of the audience as a cow herd which needs to gently steered to the central point.
- Never run overtime: Rota really stresses this point. It is true that even if a presentation is great, it can be irritating for the audience if the speaker does not keep track of time. Interestingly, in a conference I attended, the program chair stressed the same point but ended up running over time in her own presentation. One could hear chuckles in the room.
- Relate to your audience: Rota also writes that making a connection with audience is helpful. It is certainly helpful in breaking the ice, easing the nerves and also making the presentation more personalized and conversational. The talk should be tailored according to the audience. Yeats once said, “Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people”.
- Give them something to take home: This is one consistent habit, I have witnessed in all good speakers. Some speakers even emphasise to the listeners they might want to listen to a certain particular point as the take home message. The take home message also pleases the listener as one can remember something useful from an involved talk.