Case Study: Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman’s lectures at the California Institute of Technology appealed to both the heady physics majors and non-physics majors who simply dropped in to his class for fun (an unprecedented phenomenon for a physics class). Feynman’s accessible communication style earned him the title The Great Explainer.

Feynman once explained the theory behind his lecturing style in an interview with the BBC: “How should I best teach them?… From the point of view from the history of science or the application of science? My theory is… to be chaotic and confuse it. Use every possible way of doing it.  You catch this guy or that guy on different hooks as you go along. So during the time the fellow who is interested in history is being bored by the abstract mathematic… the fellow who likes the abstractions is being bored by the history. You do it so you don’t bore them all, all of the time.”

The contrast in Feynman’s lectures stemmed from an analytical side and an emotional side that were both highly developed. In addition to winning a Nobel Prize, designing a visual representation for subatomic particles, participating in the development of the atomic bomb, and predicting nanotechnology, he also played the bongo drums on a regular basis. The asset he prized most was the boundless curiosity his father instilled in him. “My father taught me to notice things,” Feynman said. “I’m always looking, like a child, for the wonders I know I’m going to find.” Feynman taps the emotions of humor and curiosity again and again to present a view of science that’s both balanced and fascinating.”

Feynman communicated from both his head and his heart in each lecture.

Analytical Devices:

  • Signal: Feynman uses organizational signals to help the students understand how the structural pieces of a lecture fit together. He states the structure at the beginning and uses rhetorical questions and verbal signals when transitioning to new points.
  • Itemize: He breaks some sections into chunks by stating how many points he is going to make and then articulating what point he will be covering as his lectures progress.
  • Visualize: Feynman regularly used 35mm slides, overheads, and the chalkboard, but he didn’t overuse them. He used dramatic gestures and sound effects to accompany his lectures instead of blackboards covered with esoteric symbols.

Emotional Devices:

  • Wonderment: Feynman’s child-like curiosity drove him toward science while also influencing his lectures with poetic phrases of wonderment, not only for science, but for life.  Feynman didn’t just talk about physics; he marveled at the subject, and the magnificent beauty and brilliance of nature.
  • Humor: Feynman had a self-deprecating sense of humor and a knack for weaving in humor related to the subject matter. He knew that an entertaining story is often more readily received than a well-reasoned lecture. He interjected humor in almost even increments across his lectures.

The lecture references that follow reflect Feynman’s ability to employ the power of contrast.

Gravity Lecture

As you’ve learned, contrast is critical to holding an audience’s attention. Feynman’s lectures are a magnificent example of contrast and structure. Some academic topics simply can’t contrast between what is and what could be until they lay the foundation of what is over several lectures.

In this lecture on the Law of Gravity, Feynman masterfully incorporates contrast by moving back and forth between fact (mathematics) ad context (history) in nearly perfect timing. Technically, this sparkline should be one flat what is line. So we’ll pretend we’ve zoomed in on that line to look more closely at the contrast between fact and context.

There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom

Richard Feynman delivered this groundbreaking speech at a lecture to the American Physical Society at Caltech. It gained international notoriety for its innovative perspective on atoms and their potential to become machines. Feynman’s famous technical speech has a tighter frequency than most non-technical presentations.

He moves between the laws of physics what is and those laws applied at the subatomic level what could be.

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