Dr. Brené Brown is a multilevel phenomenon. There's her TED Talk on vulnerability (43 million views and counting), several New York Times bestsellers, conversations with Oprah on SuperSoul Sunday, and now a Netflix special, Brené Brown: The Call to Courage.
Let us not forget where Brown got her start, however: academia. Brown currently works at the University of Houston TX as a research professor and the Huffington Foundation‐Brené Brown Endowed Chair in The Graduate College of Social Work.
It is her outsider‐within status in higher education and her brilliant research and scientific mind, coupled with her intentional and consistent willingness to remove her “academic armor” and lead with her heart, that set her apart as a singular figure in our field.
Brown, I believe, points toward the potential of higher education to live up to the truth of its name, to help people raise themselves through a pedagogical vision built upon a potent combination of fierce intelligence and a loving, vulnerable and courageous heart. Along with this vision, Brown's latest Netflix special highlights a more practical offering: the art and science of giving a compelling lecture.
The role of lecture in teaching has become a point of controversy in recent years, with the rise of active learning in the classroom. Teachers are called to shift from being “a sage on the stage” to “a guide on the side.”
I think our reactions to lecture fall along a spectrum: those who clutch to lecture with a death grip—relying on it as their sole pedagogical strategy—are at one end, and those who call for lecture's immediate death are at the other. In the middle lay the rest of us who recognize the value of a balanced approach. For us in the middle, the lecture can be highly effective when infused with specific strategies and used in combination with other active learning approaches.
From Brené Brown, we see a master‐class lecture at its best: captivating, funny, empathetic, informative and empowering. Read on for five simple strategies, inspired by Brown's Netflix special, that you can begin infusing into your classroom or work presentations:
I had the idea to turn on a timer whenever Brown told a story during her 74‐minute Netflix special, in order to track how much time was devoted to storytelling. As the timer ran and ran, I gave up, because almost every word she utters is told within the context of a story. Her stories are the meat and the potatoes of her lecture; “important” details are the salt and pepper, used sparingly.
Many of us do the exact opposite when we prepare and present lectures. We treat small details (e.g., statistics, key findings, facts, results) as the core of our talks, and punctuate here and there with a couple of stories. The next time you present, try flipping your model. Let the story lead and the details follow.
A friend of mine recently texted me for advice on how to fit 90 minutes’ worth of content into a 45‐minute presentation. I think it's safe to say that we've all faced that conundrum. As I watched Brown's talk, I thought of the reams of data she's gathered in her illustrious academic career. She shares with her audience that before her first TED talk went viral, she used to fill her public lectures with that data, until one day she decided to be vulnerable, a decision that changed everything.
We've been trained to believe that proof, facts and stats are essential items. We have to share them with our audience if we want to be legitimate and professional. In truth, most of them are better included on a handout or can be sent by email after the presentation or class. What matters most is that we speak to and from the heart and that we inspire people to make connections between our teaching and their own lives. When making tough decisions about what to cut and what to keep, keep what matters most: the stories, the big picture and the relevance.
Brown's talk takes place in a concert venue that appears to hold at least a couple of thousand people. Most of us won't ever teach or present to a group that large, but it's good to know that even with a big crowd, we can still make use of the timeless teaching strategy of asking questions.
Every couple of minutes, Brown punctuates her statements with a question. Some are a quick hit. Others are followed by a longer pause, giving people a chance to nod or raise their hands. We often hear that it's difficult to engage large classes, yet my observations showed that almost everyone in Brown's audience was actively engaged in her lecture, hanging on her every word. Questions are one of many simple ways we can involve students or attendees in the learning process and create more interactive lectures.
Despite being a self‐proclaimed “super introvert,” my read on Brené Brown is that she was thrilled to be in front of her audience to give that talk. It comes across in her energy, body language and smile. The message to her audience: “I'm pumped to be here with you tonight.”
We all have tough days, days when we'd rather be home, or in bed, or with our loved ones, than in front of a classroom or workshop. But if that's the norm rather than the exception, it invites some additional self‐reflection. Most of us can tell the difference between a teacher who is enthusiastic about her students and her content and one who's just trying to get it over with. Those internal motives influence how our message will land, so take some time to notice yours, from a place of nonjudgment, making sure that you're investing your time and energy doing work that thrills you, and sharing that work with people who can appreciate your enthusiasm.
It wouldn't be an essay on Brown's work if I didn't end with a call to courage and vulnerability (two concepts that Brown reminds us are not opposites, but, rather, the same thing, because we can't have one without the other). Academia celebrates an idealized version of perfection. To see a highly respected academic confess to eating peanut butter on her couch while watching Downton Abbey after reading through the nasty comments on her TED talk is nothing short of revolutionary. Brown isn't so wildly successful in spite of stories like those, but rather because of them.
So, how can we be more vulnerable in our teaching? How can we share our very human stories with our students and our colleagues? Who among us will follow Brown's lead?
Brené Brown: The Call to Courage is currently available on Netflix. Her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” is one of the top five most popular TED Talks of all time, and it's available at https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to Women in Higher Education, available in print and online!