Joe Collier on bad lecturing

Professor Joe Collier Recently I attended a debate on aspects of the pharmaceutical industry. The venue was prestigious as was the audience. There were two speakers and each was given twenty minutes for presentation followed by ten for discussion. The first speaker addressed his title with a talk clearly prepared for the occasion: he entertained, used well-chosen illustrations, masterfully avoided some of the more controversial but relevant issues (as debaters do!), paced his talk well and finished at the allotted time, and finally answered questions professionally.

The second speaker arrived too late to hear the bulk of what his “opponent” had to say, started by saying that he had used the talk on a previous (longer) occasion and that he would have to hurry through, often addressed only bits of slides and then jumped to the next with unnerving speed and without explanation, never truly tackled the issues in his advertised title, overran his time finishing in a flurry and without a rounded conclusion. What on earth was going on?

In my view, the conduct of the second speaker sullied the session. I see it as both an honour and a privilege to be invited to give a lecture. In many respects there can be little better than to be offered the opportunity to ponder in depth over an issue in an area that you find fascinating, and then in due course to be given a platform to express your findings to a willing and expectant audience, addressing a title to which you will have agreed.

But, in agreeing to talk and accepting the privilege, lecturers have an unspoken duty to honour the interests of four constituencies: themselves, the audience, the organisers, and scholarship itself. As a speaker you owe it to yourself to research the piece, to integrate the data, and then to ensure that the presentation honestly reflects the findings. For your own sake your talk should also reflect a sound understanding and your originality. You owe it to the audience to present the talk clearly, coherently and cogently, to address the particular occasion, to adhere to the title (in the time allotted), and to meet the audience’s legitimate expectations. You owe it to the organisers to deliver the talk in accordance with the agreement struck when you accepted the invitation, and to ensure that the delivery itself meets the professional standards of speakers of your position. Finally, you owe it to scholarship to present the arguments with honesty and integrity.

It always seems a terrible waste of time and intellectual energy when speakers fail to meet the demands. As an optimist, I would wager that were this lecturer to be given help and support, a second such performance could be avoided – but I fear that nothing will be done.

Joe Collier is emeritus professor of medicines policy at St George’s, University of London