Richard Feynman is often called the "Great Explainer", because he excelled at explaining complex physical problems to students and laymen. I find it very interisting to watch Richard Feynman's legendary BBC lectures on the laws of physics (Presented on Project TUVA) and jot down some notes. In a nutshell:
- Feynman pursues a single coherent theme per lecture.
- He builds up the theme in coherent phases of less than 10 min length.
- He uses examples and drawings (concrete and picture superiority).
- He works with mutliple input channels and reaches sensory integration.
- He builds up arguments point by point, often leading to surprises.
- He always concludes his lecture in a strong finish.
- He summarizes the most important insights.
In print: [Feynman2011]. I like to relate them to literature on presentation design, e.g., Made to Stick [Heath2007] and the SUCCESs paradigm (cf. Notes on Made to Stick).
Structure of the Lecture
Single Theme for the Lecture
- Feynman establishes a single core idea, a simple theme as topic for the entire lecture
- This is his core idea, the take-home message.
- This reminds me of the "Simple" paradigm in SUCCESs (cf. Notes on Made to Stick).
Structured in Coherent Phases
- Each step of the lecture is a phase with one theme. It establishes an idea or a step in an argument.
- The phase has a length of less than 10 minutes, which allows to re-grab the audience attention at proper times (cf. Notes on Medina's Brain Rules, Rule #4).
- Feynman introduces the theme of the phase and the concepts needed.
- Feynman motivates each phase with one question to answer, e.g., how does the two-hole experiment work with electrons.
- It's a question that intrigued the scientists, e.g., "Now that we know how the earth revolves around the sun, what makes it move that way?"
- Feynman uses this question to let emotions shine through, what fascinates and inspires him (emotional aspect of SUCCESs, cf. Notes on Made to Stick)
- The answer of the question at the end of the phase usually brings a surprise! (unexpected aspect of SUCCESs, cf. Notes on Made to Stick)
- Feynman gives a summary at the end of each phase, highlighting the most important results and insights. (Repeat to Remember, cf. Notes on Medina's Brain Rules, Rule #5)
- Also, he lays the ground for the next question.
- Feynman uses the last part of his lecture to make a strong statement.
- It summarizes the most important insights (Remember to Repeat, cf. Notes on Medina's Brain Rules, Rule #6).
- He uses some very well-chosen sentences to drive his message home.
- He uses analogy and vivid language, a metapher, a story to close - not just dry facts.
- The coherent story as closing statement must be very strong, as they are a representation of System 1 and will make up the memory [Kahneman2011]. It's the most important part of the lecture. It reminds me of
- the peak-end effect observed by Kahneman [Kahneman2011]
(The final impression and the peak impression will determine the overall impression, not a sum over the duration), and of
- Rules on presentation design
(They acquire the last bit of material best).
Elements of Feynman's Lectures
Structure the Argument in Distinct Points
- Feynman makes one point at a time and structures the points with first, second, etc.
- Example: "First, what you hear in the electron detectors is 'clicks', electrons come in lumps."
- Feynman tells his story in very concrete terms.
- He avoids technical language, whenever possible.
- He uses anologies and contrast, even for the most incomprehensible and abstract parts of quantum mechanics.
- Feynman builds up an argument to solicit surprise, for instance, when he shows the interference pattern of electrons.
- And, he uses a dramatic pause to let the surprise sink in.
- Feynman uses drawings whenever possible (Picture superiority effect!, cf. Notes on Medina's Brain Rules, Rule #10).
- He develops the drawings step by step, unfolds the argument with the drawings.
- Feynman just uses simple-most drawings, by hand with one color. This conveys the idea in simplicity and essence.
- He imitates real-world experiments, shows physical processes (e.g., doulbe-slit experiment).
- In the lecture about symmetry, Feynman starts several sections in a row with "I give you another example".
- Feynman uses a lot of examples and anologies, e.g., comparing physics with watching a game of chess.
- The use of examples makes it concrete as well as very detailed and thereby credible (SUCCESs, again, cf. Notes on Made to Stick).
- He usually starts with the easiest to understand example (e.g., law of electric charge in conservation laws).
- Feynman makes his examples lively, for instance, say a lightning hits there and we get a electric charge.
- The example is expressed in a language of the senses, seeing, hearing, smelling even.
- Feynman does not replace an abstract concept with an abstract example, but makes it utterly concrete (even when it comes to quantum effects).
- Feynman uses a separate board for formulas/tables than for drawings.
- The audience can always see both.
- Actually, he has
- slides (e.g., for showing photos of actual stars),
- a board for drawing (e.g., to build up the two-hole experiment),
- a board for tables/formulas (e.g., to compare bullets, water waves, and electrons)
- The structure gives the audience a sense of orientation.
- He uses visual input, written word and oral description, and thereby reaches sensory integration (cf. Notes on Medina's Brain Rules, Rule #9)
- Feynman uses his voice for a dramatic effect, for emphasis. Examples:
- Speech of the pompous philosopher.
- "The most re-e-e-asonable possibilities..."
- The use of voice makes his talk very lively (SUCCESs, emotional, cf. Notes on Made to Stick), but also re-grabs attention.
- Feynman uses acting as well, e.g., in which, he plays out how to look at the electrons passing through holes.
[Feynman2011] Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton and Matthew Sands. The Feynman Lectures on Physics, The New Millennium Edition. Basic Books, pp. 1552, ISBN: 9780465023820, January 2011.
[Heath2007] Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House, pp. 291, ISBN: 978-1400064281, January 2007.
[Kahneman2011] Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, fast and slow. Allen Lane, pp. 512, ISBN: 978-1846140556, November 2011.