10 Tips for Lecturing on Sensitive Subjects

ROIer and Schusterman Fellow Gadi Ezra is a human rights attorney and a law lecturer, currently pursuing his Ph.D. while counseling on public and constitutional law. He is also acting as the Secretary of the Israeli branch of the International Society of Public Law (ICON-S). Gadi is a requested speaker in venues around the world, where he unfolds his unique perspective on war as both a lawyer and a special forces veteran, and is currently in the midst of completing a book describing his experiences. In 2016, Gadi was named by Forbes as one of Israel’s 30 Under 30.

Three years ago, I was asked to address an English-speaking audience who was visiting Israel. The subject was not clear. “Just lecture about something interesting,” they said. A human rights lawyer by training and an IDF combat veteran, I felt that I had a unique perspective to share on war and armed conflict. Not an easy subject, by any stretch of the imagination.

That engagement ignited a journey I hadn’t predicted. I have since spoken about the application of the law within war and armed conflict to audiences across the globe, each with different cultures, ages, occupations and, of course, political and philosophical sentiments. Discussing difficult topics like the one I have chosen presents many challenges, and over time I’ve had to learn to navigate some tricky waters. The troubling era of COVID-19, in which most speaking engagements are confined to the virtual domain, has added another layer of difficulties to this reality. I wish I’d known some of these insights earlier, which is why I’m glad to share 10 with you here:

  1. Provide ample context. What is known to you may be unfamiliar to others, particularly when it comes to sensitive subjects (since many naturally evade them). Omitting vital background information can thus leave your audience disoriented. For example, while it was unnecessary to explain the details of a historic military operation when lecturing at the IDF headquarters, such an explanation was vital when speaking to Brazilian students in Sao Paulo.
  2. But don’t patronize. People read. And if they don’t, they can often understand what you’re saying by drawing comparisons to their own lives. Find a healthy balance between being informative and being redundant.
  3. Adjust your terminology. While certain expressions may be acceptable in some cultures, in others, they may be questionable or even offensive. In my case, terms such as “casualties” may be uncomfortable for some audiences, yet are necessary for others’ understanding of a scene I am describing. Alternative wording is always at hand. Use the guidance of a local friend who’s familiar with the cultural nuances, or reach out to the organizers of the event. At the end of the day, an offended audience is an audience who focuses on everything but your message.
  4. Talk about the elephant in the room. Adjusting your terminology is not meant to sugarcoat your story or forfeit its core. In my case, while it is difficult to describe the chaos of war, doing so provides important context for understanding the topic at hand. Skipping the unpleasantness might take the sting off your story, but it will also waste your audience’s time (not to mention your own). What’s more, a completely flat talk will probably end up a talk with zero demand.
  5. Sometimes it’s the how, not the what. Using the wrong tone when discussing sensitive issues can be as destructive as using the wrong words. On the other hand, the right tone can assist in delivering complex ideas in an inclusive and thoughtful manner. Sometimes it is not what you say, but how you say it.
  6. Use humor only where appropriate. Nothing beats a good joke during a talk. It can break the ice and help you develop a better relationship with your crowd. However, when discussing sensitive subjects, humor can sometimes be perceived as irreverence if overused. Therefore, apply it wisely, and don’t forget that humor is not only a matter of your timing, but also of your audience’s background and culture.
  7. Read. Your. Audience. Advanced preparation cannot replace real-time observation. Indeed, certain audiences may need to be engaged more actively than others, and Zoom fatigue is real. It does not mean that what you’re saying is “not interesting,” or that people disrespect the sensitive topic you’re discussing. Sometimes, and especially now that virtual lectures are the norm, people simply find it hard to concentrate. If you sense this happening in your audience, take a turn in your talk. Engage the people by asking questions, running a survey among them, or integrating a slideshow or short videos (such methods can be easily applied in the virtual domain). You would be surprised to know what a significant impact a minor shift in your approach can make.
  8. Look them in the (virtual) eye. One of the best methods to deliver a compelling message, especially when speaking about sensitive subjects, is to look people in the eye. When your audience is “locked” in virtual boxes, the only way to do this is to speak directly to the camera. Make sure your notes, or the box you watch most closely (and let’s be honest, for most of us, it’s our own…), is right under your webcam.
  9. Be intentional about your background. Many things can draw attention away from your message when you’re speaking, particularly in the virtual domain: your background (which may also reveal a lot about you), lighting, and outside noise, to name a few. Try to keep things as neutral or quiet as possible, so people focus on YOU, rather than what is around you. Despite the understanding that many of us are stuck at home (in our personal spaces, among family members, etc.), if you’re speaking about something serious, but a pile of laundry is sitting right behind you, or loud noises are emanating from the kitchen, you risk distracting your audience.
  10. Always use the bathroom before going on stage or logging on. Trust me.

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