7 paradoxical assumptions for teaching and public speaking

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Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

7 paradoxical assumptions for teaching and public speaking

one of the values i’m most excited about at eikon church is that a variety of people—not just me—lead the teaching time each week. whereas i speak semi-regularly, most weeks feature a different person from our community (and sometimes beyond), who is responsible for preparing for and leading the hour-long teaching/discussion time. we have a very casual space, where people gather round in chairs and on the floor, so our teaching time is much less preaching than it is, well, teaching and communal conversation.

one of the challenges of this model of co-leading is that most people, quite frankly, aren’t public speakers. most people don’t regularly—if ever—get up in front of people and speak. whereas we most certainly don’t expect the most articulate, rob bell-like speaking skills, we do hope to equip people to lead a time that people benefit from and are able to thoughtfully engage.

over the last several weeks, the people leading the teaching have been at least minimally used to public speaking, but we’re entering a stretch with a handful of people who just don’t do this ever or, at best, very sporadically. i decided to throw together a really quick set of tips and suggestions to send out. by no means whatsoever do i consider myself any kind of expert on public speaking, but with about 10 years of regular (even weekly) experience, i’ve picked up a few things that have been helpful. i thought i’d share those things with the upcoming speakers and i thought it would be worth sharing here as well.

one of the most transformative books i’ve read concerning, specifically, teaching is parker palmer’sthe courage to teach. it’s a book i recommend to anyone who in any way leads people (even beyond traditional “teaching”). in his seminal book, he assembled a list of 6 paradoxes/tensions that need to be built into teaching spaces. they are as follows:

1. The space should be bounded and open.

2. The space should be hospitable and “charged”.

3. The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group.

4. The space should honour the “little” stories of those involved and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition.

5. The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community.

6. The space should welcome both silence and speech.

[if you’d like to read more detailed descriptions (and get more information about palmer and his writings), click here.]

these have been constant reminders to me as i’ve created long-term plans for teaching times/spaces, as well as on a weekly basis as i prepare talks/sermons/teaching times. using paradoxes/tensions is a great way to illustrate the steady balance needed to create an engaging space. so, i thought i would use the same type of format for my suggestions for our teachers. here goes.

NOTE: some of the these descriptions are worded in a way that is pretty specific to our context. but, all these things have universal applications for various contexts and formats.


1. assume you speak with some authority.
assume you could be wrong or incomplete.

don’t forget that you’ve been asked to lead for a reason. you have a point-of-view that is valid, unique and necessary. speak with boldness and authority. speak like you know what you’re talking about and that you know why you’re talking. people will trust a teacher who speaks with conviction and confidence. at the same time, though, people cannot and will not learn from someone who speaks with a unyielding certainty. whereas you shouldn’t shrink away from some sense of authority on the subject, you should work to create a space in which humility is a shared virtue. your point-of-view might just be wrong or even incomplete. be prepared for people to ask questions that suggest another angle or offer a completeness to your perspective.


2. assume there will be unexpected and difficult-to-answer questions.
assume people will remain silent in spite of questions.

speaking of questions, a good teacher engages a teaching time that doesn’t simply answer questions, but leaves people with more questions. that isn’t to say that you withhold information or tease your listeners, but that you rupture their curiosity in a way that disallows them to simply cease to engage the subject. because of this, people will ask questions. tough questions. questions for which you don’t have the answers. anticipate what they may be. when appropriate, prepare a method of response. for others, prepare to state your sincere ignorance. at the same time, some people will be either fearful of asking questions or uncertain how to articulate them. anticipate those as well. find ways to make people feel comfortable voicing their questions. create a space where people feel at ease to explore the subject in community.


3. assume people want to hear your point-of-view.
assume the point-of-view of others’ is as valid as yours.

related to the need to speak with authority, you should assume that people actually want to hear your point-of-view. you’ve been asked because someone believes that you can and will be engaging and helpful to the ongoing conversation. further, remember that people have chosen to show up to and engage in a gathering in which a person gets up each week and teaches. peoples’ fundamental assumption is that you are going to bring something of worth as the person who is leading the conversation. conversely, though, people want to be a part of the conversation as well. they have a point-of-view that, whereas they may not be the primary idea-sharer, they have experiences and points-of-view that will supplement the teaching. allow them to speak. they will complete your ideas and only help to further the job you’re doing.


4. assume people know nothing about the subject.
assume people know everything about the subject.

this is one of the trickiest sets of assumptions. on one hand, over-assuming a students’ knowledge level will kill the learning process immediately. it only makes sense that without the fundamental building blocks, a more intricate structure can’t be erected. so, assume that you’re entering a space in which people have never considered your point-of-view. in the midst of that assumption though, let’s not forget that “lowest common denominator” teaching that insults the listener’s intelligence is an equally large stumbling block. the key is to build in a mechanism for evaluating the group—a certain testing of the waters, if you will. if, early on, you sense that it is, in fact, the group’s first time to engage these ideas, operate with your first assumption. if the group seems to grasp the subject, you should be prepared to elevate the level of comprehension and conversation. assume both and be prepared for both.


5. assume that this will be the last time others will engage the subject.
assume that many will want to continue the conversation.

quite frankly, the hour that you are speaking will be the only hour that week—or month or year or ever—that many people will ever pause to consider your subject. that realization elicits quite a bit of responsibility and power on your part. seize that moment in ways that maximize the information presented and level of possible engagement. on the other hand, don’t try to do too much. again, your goal isn’t only to answer questions, but to leave people with more questions—or at least the possibility of more questions. if you give every single answer with every single piece of data and every single angle of viewing the subject, you’ve eliminated the ability for people to be able to truly engage the subject beyond that space. many people—likely most people—will continue the conversation you’ve begun if you allow for it. pique curiosity. engage questions. challenge people.


6. assume that the subject is the most sacred entity in the room.
assume that the people are the most sacred entity in the room.

honor the subject. lift it up. treat it like a delicate piece of treasure. prepare accordingly. research it. pray about it. step away from it and revisit it later. and then do it again. and again. and when the time comes to present it, create a space in which the subject can be collectively honored. teach with enthusiasm and passion. infect others with your zeal. convince us that the subject is truly important and worth our time. but never, ever cease to value the subject more than the people who are honoring said subject. why uplift the subject if not for the uplifting of the hearers? don’t talk over or at people because of your quest to share information or convince us how important the subject is. honor the subject by honoring the student.


7. assume people will accept your point-of-view.
assume people will be skeptical or reject your point-of-view.

your fundamental assumption should be that people are there because of their willingness to learn and be taught. people are eager to learn and are eager to lend you their ear. they assume you speak with authority and your enthusiasm for the subject will lead them to believe your point-of-view can be trusted. at the same time, though, you simply aren’t going to convince everyone. nor should you try. convincing people cheapens the subject. people will trust authenticity and passion and knowledge. despite these things, though, never forget that some people will simply disagree with your point-of-view. and that’s ok. some will voice their disagreement. some will not. some will show it with their facial expressions and body language, while others will exhibit an unflinching poker face. be gracious and humble to everyone who was willing to engage your point-of-view, even when they fall on a different side of the conversation in the end.

so there you go. there’s my list. some of these things are harder than others, but i think all help to produce an environment of healthy and engaging teaching and leading. when these are held in careful balance, you will succeed, the subject will be honored and, most importantly, people will be engaged and transformed.

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