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In one week from now I am holding a course in computer programming, which takes place twice a week. The course has 30 participants. It is the first time I am holding a course.

Now I have to prepare myself. I think it will be quite similar to prepare a talk, hence the title.

So the situation: I know the information I have to present extremely well, so this is not a problem.

My problem is

  • preparing myself effectively, not spending much unnecessary time.
  • what to focus on and how to train myself to speak well
  • 50% of my talks don't run very well, in part I have a problem speaking without gaps or pauses, and sometimes I get nervous, especially if I run out of material I have to say or if I feel the audience is not listening to me.

So it is like a coin flip, if my talks run well and up to now I didn't have to speak for 2 hours or more in a row.

To address part of the problem I joined a debate club, where I speak in front of groups from time to time. It was a superb tip I got from a friend!!

I did a storyboard to structure my content and did the slides of the first course lecture. I watched the most popular youtube video of someone teaching a similar course and I copied interesting things.

Now I will hold the first 1-2 course lectures in front of friends and once also in front of a presentation coach, who among my friends.

Any tips on

  • how much time I should spend preparing the slides and content versus holding the course/rehearsing the course
  • how to train rhetoric skills like moving the arms, pausing from time to time.
  • how to focus on the most important things (not getting distracted by technical things, like the programming examples)
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I will start a bounty for this question as soon as it is possible! – mrsteve Mar 6 '12 at 3:06
up vote 7 down vote accepted


Seriously, giving a course for the first time is hard to plan/prepare for and much will happen that you did not plan for -- and that is okay.

It sounds like you are giving a regular lecture where you will do most/all of the talking. In this case, get feedback from the students during the course and adapt your lectures without compromising your standards (like a formative evaluation). It is often hard to gauge their level of knowledge, attention, interest, etc. and thus how the course should look like. Your high knowledge might be a disadvantage if you cannot take the perspective of the students, what they know and can comprehend (e.g., you assume that they know -- and remember it immediately -- something your talk builds upon but most will fail to do so). So you likely will need to modify your style. In my courses students fill out a sheet of paper which asks them about how well the a) presentation, b) discussion, c) slides, d) other aspects were. It usually gives me (and the student presenters) good feedback. You might want to ask more specific questions, e.g., regarding aspects of the content that were clear and those that were unclear.

Regarding feedback, keep in mind that there will always be 1 or 2 people who will hate what you do no matter what you do. These people can be very salient, so make sure you talk to those who are interested as well. And especially if you are unsure about your teaching abilities, be careful what you take from feedback. It should improve your current and future work. Some will be personal preference of the students (unless there's a strong majority opinion, tough, but keep your own style), but what is interesting are barriers to comprehension. Remove those if you can (either by improving the explanations or pointing them to additional material they have to read about it, and keep in mind that you cannot make someone learn and they have to do their part). Otherwise don't sweat negative feedback.

There are other forms of giving a course, which are more constructivist and involve more contribution by the participants instead of them just listening to you (e.g., assigning projects, discussions, student presentations, etc.). However, planing such a course would take more than a week. You can make your course more participatory even if it is a lecture, if you can pull something off like Sandel did with his Harvard "Justice" lecture:

Regarding academic talks, I found this document by Paul N. Edwards really helpful: (much that I knew, but useful to see it written down in one document).

In any case I would write down what the central issues would be for each lecture to convey and say/present them again at the end of the lecture (and check that you cover those and the basis for understanding them) -- and I would enjoy the teaching, no matter how confusing it gets in the first trials. It's going to be ... interesting and you learn a lot by doing it, reflecting on what happened, and adapting your style until you found one which works for your students and for you.

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I give lectures and courses fairly often now to audiences ranging from deep technical staff to financial directors, CEO's etc and the three things I have worked out I need to do to make things work for them should help you too:

  1. Practice - no matter what your normal speaking rate, under stress you are likely to talk faster, so work out how long your slides/material should take when talked through non-stop at your normal rate. Have you got enough to fill your time plus up to 10% more?

  2. If you do find you get flustered, print out notes pages for each slide, so the audience sees the slide and you can read from your notes if necessary. Write in useful things like take a breath - and deliberately do it. You know your material, but if the audience don't, pausing really helps them, and makes you look more relaxed.

  3. Don't try not to do things with your hands or legs. If you are a walker, try and walk with intent - visit both sides of the stage, target individuals to get eye contact with. If your hands really do get fidgety, have a glass of water - and add a note to go and take a sip every 4 or 5 slides.

But really, just relax. The more you do, the easier it gets. The audience (most of them) want to hear what you are saying so it is more a case of making that easier for them, rather than worrying too much about doing something wrong.

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It is not your first mistake that makes the talk go badly but rather your reaction to that mistake that sends your talk downwards. You allow your initial mistake – which was probably quite minor – to throw you to the point that you are no longer thinking straight. Instead you're allowing yourself to become distracted and flustered and it isn't long until you're on a downward spiral.

First you must accept that you're not going to be flawless. You can be the greatest speaker in the world and you are still going to make mistakes. Put yourself in the position of the audience. 95% of talks I've been to have been incredibly boring – if you want to be a great speaker you in luck, because the competition is pretty poor! Even if you're just enthusiastic about the content of your talk you're ahead of the curve. Throw away any text on the PowerPoint slides and crack a joke or two and you're heading to a lofty position. Forget about stuff like moving your hands. No one is going to listen to you speak and leave saying "wow, did you see that guy's hand movement!"

You seem very concerned about timing and running out of things to say. The best way to counter this is to practice giving your talk to the mirror. Aim to have your mirror practice take the right amount of time. That way that if you end up speaking faster when you're in front of the crowd you'll have time for questions at the end. If you finish early just ask if anyone has any questions and if they don't then just end the talk early – it is hardly your fault if they didn't have anything to ask you.

What often threw me off when I was giving talks was when someone asked a question I didn't know the answer to. I thought everyone would think I was an idiot – I was up here supposed to be an expert but I now I can't answer simple questions. It took a while, but I realised that you come across far better being honest and just telling the guy that you don't know. Tell him that you'll look into it and come back to him with answer – get his email address and now you're networking! I consider this analogous to a guy with a receding hair line. No one thinks there is anything strange or embarrassing about someone who is bald, but you see a guy with a comb over or a wig and it looks pretty stupid. It is the fact that you're trying to cover up who you are that makes it so. Own who you are. You make a mistake – forget it and move on. You don't know the answer to a question, admit it and offer to investigate further ...and if you're losing your hair – shave it off!

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I suggest reading books of Dale carnegie on public speaking :

The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking

How to Develop Self-Confidence And Influence People By Public Speaking

This is more for talks than courses, but they are advice that apply on both (for example on the preparation of your material). But one week seems very short to read the books and apply the techniques described in it...

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