It sounded like a good idea at the time. A former colleague who teaches at a local university asked you to give a guest lecture. You agreed, thinking, “This will be fun. They are just college kids, after all. I’ve been working for as long as some of them have been alive. This should be a piece of cake.”
Then the class date draws near, and you begin to worry. How do you prepare to face a room filled with starry-eyed students whose news diet is more likely to include “The Daily Show” than “60 Minutes”? You’re used to asking the questions, not answering them. What kind of advice can you offer aspiring journalists when no one knows what the future holds for your profession?
After a half-dozen years of teaching in a university and regularly hosting guest lecturers, I’ve learned that the best presenters follow the basic rules of journalism, putting their professional know-how to work before, and during, their time in the classroom.
Here are their top five tips:
1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
You wouldn’t start writing a story without researching it. Likewise, the best lecturers want information about students and the class before their visit. They ask to see course syllabi and examples of student work. They want to know how many students are in the class, what courses are pre-requisites, what texts are used and more. If you are heading to a campus for a class visit, check out the course’s learning objectives — those will be the skills that students have to master or the information they must learn to pass the class. With the right information, you can tailor your talk and your focus appropriately and set yourself up to be a rock star in students’ eyes.
2. ASK MORE QUESTIONS IN ADVANCE THAN YOU COULD POSSIBLY NEED
The best lecturers, like some of my favorite journalists, ask for too much information. They want to know what topics have been covered so far. They want to know what course objectives they can help support. They want to get the background on the class dynamics. They want to know what students are used to doing during class periods. In short, they interview the instructor so they come to class more than prepared.
3. MAP OUT A STRATEGY
You may outline your stories using strong quotes as your guide, or you may organize them by important themes. Do the same when planning time in the classroom. After pumping instructors for information, great guests come up with a few important pieces of advice, or lessons learned, to share with students. They can be as simple as, “Look for stories everywhere,” or “Always ask how names are spelled,” or as complex as, “Dig to find the universal truth behind the basic story.” Depending on the type of class, the level of discussions can range widely. Great lecturers, like great journalists, enter the room with plans, then listen carefully so they can adapt those plans as needed.
4. KEEP YOUR AUDIENCE ENGAGED
As journalists, we know that if we don’t keep readers/viewers/listeners hooked, even the best stories can fall flat. Great lecturers do what it takes to keep students of all levels engaged. They come in with a strategy; they listen carefully; they mix things up by having students contribute; they ask as many questions as they answer. They understand that students’ attention spans last about 15 minutes, after which time they are ready for a commercial break. They plan transitions and switch gears accordingly.
5. SHOW AND TELL
Finally, great guests, like the best journalists, know how to mix showing with telling. Showing examples of your work, or better yet, sharing them in advance so that students can study them and ask questions, is an excellent way to keep your presentation interactive and interesting. But in addition to showing, it’s also important to tell students about the realities of being a professional journalist. They love nothing more than to hear stories of your personal triumphs, unless, of course, they can also hear stories of your biggest on-the-job mistakes. By sharing the best and the worst of your times with students, you can offer them the best lesson of all: a realistic view of your job. Students love to know that journalists have made a difference in the world. But they also thoroughly enjoy, and will always remember, hearing about the times you made a fool of yourself.
Elissa Yancey, MSEd, is the assistant director of the journalism program at the University of Cincinnati, where she serves as an assistant professor and the faculty adviser of the UC SPJ chapter. On Twitter @esonnenberg.