10 Thoughts for turning an Academic Work into a Public Talk

I'm not the most traveled speaker, I'm not the least, but I travel on average once a month in order to speak in a variety of settings. I've spoken to church planters in Chicago as well as to a roomful of seminary professors in Toronto. I've given a seminar to skinny-jeaned worship leaders in Waco. I've presented an address to mission leaders in Pattaya, Thailand, and I once gave a brief "Evangelicals 101" talk to a group of journalists at The Austin American Statesman.

After my recent visit to LA to speak at the Preaching in the Visual Age conference, it struck me how difficult it is in fact to turn academic work into a public talk. I revised my plenary talk nearly twenty times, up to the last moment. It took that much to get it just right, in time, on point, which turned out to be a different one than the one that had captured my imagination on the fourth floor of the Duke University Perkins library.

I'm sure other folks would have helpful things to add to this list, and I don't pretend it's comprehensive; it's admittedly idiosyncratic. But since I've yet to see anything of the sort, I thought I'd share it with the hope that it'd help others engaged in similar exercises of communicative translation. Please feel free to exchange the details of my discipline for whatever might be yours.

I offer this in the hope that it might encourage academic folk--whether students or professors or otherwise--to craft public talks that demonstrate care for the audiences which God has entrusted to them in any given case. (Read: please don't be tediously abstruse or intellectually pretentious.)


1. There is a hunger for theologically clear-headed, biblical coherent, ecclesially friendly, contextually and missionally relevant thinking about the arts (or whatever subject on God's green earth that might interest you). Full stop.

2. Ruthlessly define your terms. If there is one thing you can assume, it's that you've lived way too long with your material and have likely forgotten how much of it has become subconsciously obvious. The fact is, it's not obvious to others.  Do not assume that your audience will understand terms like transcendence, sacramental, symbol, art, mystery, mission, culture, history, the good, the true, the beautiful, the Word, the church, etc--unless you define it for them. And you might tell them again and again the context you have in mind and why your material matters for that context.

3. Ask God how you can love your audience, and do pray. One of the ways you can love your audience is by asking the organizers of the event what outcomes they hope to see as a result of the event. Say some prayers that God will grace you to serve those outcomes to the best of your ability. Really, do pray. Pray during your preparation. Pray at the end of your preparation. Pray before speaking. Pray after your talk. Pray for the people you'll be addressing. You'd be surprised how the Holy Spirit, who is alive and at large, welcomes and answers your prayers in very specific, perhaps surprising ways.  As many times as you might give the same basic talk, ask God how you might love this particular audience in this specific setting.

4. Along these lines, to paraphrase the editor-in-chief at Eerdmans, Jon Pott, do not underestimate the disinterest of your potential listener. Remember that the things that you care about—perhaps intensely—may or may not be shared with equal interest by your audience. Remember that the things that seem “plain” to you may be far from plain to the people you’re addressing here and now.

5. Do not be too proud to receive feedback from your friends and colleagues. Let me say that again, because it’s a hard one to practice (as I’ll be the first to testify): do not be too proud to receive frank, cold-eyed but not cold-hearted feedback in advance of your talk. Be like Pixar: be fearless. As Pete Docter, director of Up and Monsters Inc., said to us, it never pays “to hedge or play it safe. The product suffers and you hijack the creative process.”

Trust that this feedback will only make your talk more effective. As good as you might be at any given point of preparing a public talk, there is always a chance that you can’t see a blind spot in your presentation. Imagine your most demanding audience and craft your talk with a precision that anticipates their critique; but write your talk with language and a rhetorical style that is accessible to your actual audience. I shared my talk with colleagues at Duke prior to flying to LA, and it was terrifying to anticipate their critiques. But as always: it was so much better for it, thank God.

5a. To state the obvious perhaps (as a corollary of the above): an academic talk does not equal a public talk. Nor for that matter does an academic research paper translate easily into a public talk. It’s not apples to apples; it's apples to NASA.

6. There is no such thing as writing, as New Testament scholar Gordon Fee used to say, only re-writing. “Cut your darlings.” Less is more. Beginnings and endings are critical as are transitional statements. Use illustrations strategically to evoke an empathetic understanding of the material or to sharpen the imaginative importance of your point. Pete Docter told us that at Pixar, with 400 people working full-time, they’re able to animate on average 4 seconds per week. That. Is. A. Lot. Of. Work. Lord. Have. Mercy.

7. Practice, practice, practice. Some of us (not me) have extraordinary memory capacities and can recall our material with barely a glance at written notes. Others of us (me) have to practice repeatedly in order to remember it well. It's immensely dull to watch a speaker with his head stuck down in the lectern. Practicing out loud is also a great way to get a “feel” for the material--where it bogs down, where a point is one too many, where transitions are fuzzy or misleading, where a good story needs to be given breathing space to tell it well as well as to receive it well.

8. When you become famous, don’t be a prick (pardon the french). Don’t assume that people owe you a listening ear. Don’t play the guru (as Eugene Peterson would tell us in class, and as the guy "who wrote the Bible," he should know how tempting that is). Don't play favorites. Don't dismiss the "little people" at your event in favor of the "important people." Look people in the eye when they talk to you. Thank people generously for their questions and comments. Try to be genuinely interested in what they have to say to you. Trust that God can use anybody to make you a better scholar and a better version of yourself. Remind yourself daily that you're lucky to get to do this.

9. Be on the watch if the topic you’re addressing is an especially sore spot for you. I’ve done this myself, I’ve seen it done by others: use our woundedness as an excuse to bludgeon the audience. The point is not that we should prevent ourselves from feeling our woundedness deeply. If we have felt hurt by God or by the church or by our family and friends or by our bosses and leaders, it’s important not to shut down emotionally. Being present to these feelings can become an occasion for a deep work of God in our lives. If we’re not careful, however, we can allow our wounded hearts to justify hyper-generalizations (“All Christians are X or Y”), over-simplifications (“The church is anti-art”), finger-pointing pronouncements (“Evangelicals give Christianity a bad name”) or myopic judgments (“If Christians would only do X, then our society would benefit from Y”). Left to their own devices, wounded Christians with a public platform become dangerous to themselves and toxic to others.

10. Work hard but hold your work lightly. As Brian Moss and I talked on the first day of the conference, it’s easy to stress about the outcome of our work. We want to be liked. We want to be great. We want to be respected. Brian led the worship of the conference (to which I contributed a few bits), while I gave a plenary talk on a “Theology of the Eye.” Both of us wanted to do well. Both of us knew that we could not please every participant, as much as we might like to have done. We had to remind ourselves that it wasn’t this event or that event that mattered. What mattered was the long haul. What mattered was how we conducted ourselves "off stage." What mattered was how we treated the folks who had paid hard money to attend this conference. What mattered was how well we loved our family back home.

Because our work at the conference mattered, we sweated long and hard to make it as good as possible. This was a way to honor the people who had invited us and to love the people who had gathered for three days of conferencing. And while we gave ourselves permission to speak candidly with each other off the record, we tried not to take ourselves too seriously, which is why an adult beverage at the end of the day played a critical role in relieving us from the burden of being "indispensable to the Kingdom of God."


Pete Docter

Bill Dyrness and Betsy Halstead

Barry Taylor

Bobette Buster


Ralph Watkins

Mark Labberton

Ralph Winter


Andy Rowell said…
Good stuff. Thanks.
Thank you, Andy.
Unknown said…
Very well done. Thank you.
Many thanks, Paul.
Rebekah Eklund said…
Thank you, David! I think your Ten Thoughts could be subtitled "How to Teach Theology to Undergrads."
PastRemains said…
Excellent, since every speaker has to woo his audience to listening to him. But he has less time to do it than a writer (for whom these points apply).
Rebekah, that sounds about right, hey? Love it.

Charity, well said.
Unknown said…
Much of this applies to classroom teachers as well- especially the 'guru' comment.
Thank you!

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