Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What's in a Lecture?

Juliet asked of Romeo, "What's in a name?"

My question: "What's in a lecture?" And: "What shouldn't be?"

I started giving "Inviting Disaster" talks in November 2001. The total number of appearances is somewhere past fifty now. In the first few years my audiences were structural and aerospace engineers, accident investigators, inspectors, college students, refinery workers, power-plant operators, safety officers, and emergency responders. Lately the scope has expanded to medical people and business execs. Audiences have been as small as a few dozen people and as big as 3,000.

There's plenty of advice for speakers out there (like "PowerPoint is not a TelePrompTer"). PowerPoint has a place in technical subjects, but those tempted to overuse it should heed the Old Testament, Habakkuk 2:2 --
Write your vision on a tablet so clearly that even a runner can read it.
So that means no shotgun-style PowerPoint slides, loaded with bullets!

I once listened to a biz-whiz do a keynote at a big trade conference. It was lighthearted rambling but he was famous at the time and his jokes affirmed the crowd's world view, so at the end the listeners looked happy enough.

But the rest of us speakers, the non-mega-celebrities, had better work harder than that. For one thing, canny organizers collect feedback from the audience, so they're going to know whether an appearance was worth the time and money. Every speaker can do better the next time, including me. And today's speakers need to be good if they're to hold the Blackberries and iPhones at bay.

Regardless of the speaker's fee, there are a lot of person-hours being used up in a room of a thousand people. This summer I gave a talk to a hospital system that shuts down all surgery suites once every three months so the doctors, nurses, and technicians can hear an hour-long safety briefing, so I was mindful of every one of my 49 minutes (and 30 seconds!).

My work starts about two months ahead of a lecture, to figure out strong connections between my world and the listeners' world. With the advice of event organizers, I work up a short list of subjects around a central theme. Then I develop a speech with the intent that it will resonate with a wide variety of listeners.

If the time-frame and setting works, I like to pause for a few minutes and organize the audience into small conversational groups to share their experiences on some safety question. Afterward I'm happy to sign copies of my books, since that's the best way to get my entire message out the door.

To finish with my one-man mission statement:
Provide dramatic narrative and accurate detail that will energize and bring new seriousness of purpose to listeners who are on front lines of safety and emergency response ... where every minute counts, every decision matters, and there are no second chances.

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