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Lectio praecursoria

Tips for writing and delivering your lectio praecursoria

The purpose of the lectio praecursoria

A skilfully written, prepared, and delivered lectio sets the tone for the public defence, and the interaction between you and your opponent. After the opening lines by the custos, your lectio praecursoria, the opening lecture, is the prominent task in the beginning of the event.
The lectio praecursoria is directed at a heterogenous audience that has come to watch the defence in the lecture hall and/or online. The lectio is an opportunity to introduce your research topic and to give the audience members tools to follow and enjoy the academic and in-depth conversation during the examination. Finally, the lectio gives you a chance to place yourself among the experts in your field of research. 
A great lectio

  • provides background on the phenomenon studied in the dissertation, 
  • introduces the audience the key concepts that will be used during the defence, 
  • makes visible the research problem which you aimed to answer or even solve with your research.

For many doctoral candidates, the lectio is also an effective and appropriate time to address the main results and conclusions of the research, and to mention the potential impact, contributions, and beneficiaries of the research. 

Note: The traditions may vary in different fields so do consult the professors and experienced staff at your doctoral programme on what your lectio should and should not include.

The length of the lectio praecursoria and key words

The lectio should last no more than 20 minutes. The length is approximately 7–8 pages. Under 3000 words (18,000 characters including spaces) is an 18-minute lectio. 
Traditionally in the lecture hall, you deliver the lectio standing. After the lectio, you remain standing to listen to the opening words of the opponent. If you have a condition that restricts you from standing up during your lectio, you most certainly can deliver the opening lecture sitting down. Same applies if the defence is fully online.
The lectio begins with the following words, during which the doctoral candidate should look towards each party addressed:

  • Honored Custos, Honored Opponent, dear audience members, or
  • Honored Custos, Honored Opponent, Honored audience members.

Avoid gender specific terminology such as “Ladies and gentlemen” –there is no need for such categorization. Same with gender pronouns. Instead of saying he or she, use ‘they’ unless it is significant to your research to make a distinction.
Once the lectio has come to an end, the doctoral candidate addresses the opponent and asks them to present their critical comments regarding the dissertation. You can say, for example:

  • I ask you, honoured Professor NN (Doctor NN, or the title that has been agreed), as the opponent appointed by the Faculty of XX, to present the observations you consider appropriate for this dissertation, or
  • I now call upon you, Professor / Dr. NN as the Opponent appointed by the Faculty of XX to present your critical comments on my dissertation.

If you have two opponents, you naturally address them both.

The content of an excellent lectio praecursoria

An excellent lectio will consider what the audience knows and what they do not know, as many of the people attending your examination have not necessarily read your dissertation. Therefore, the purpose of your introductory lecture is to communicate

  • why the research was important to conduct (background and research problem), and 
  • what new insights it gives us on the phenomenon you studied and at large (benefits and impact).

Remember that the purpose of the public defence, not the lectio, is to discuss the choices you made in detail, e.g., on your research methodology and the results. This means that you should leave out the finest details of your study from the lectio as they will be covered in the academic conversation to follow.

The beginning of your lectio

One way to start thinking about your lectio is to remind yourself of the reasons that made you begin your doctoral studies. What was your motivation? You can also start with what moved you or called you for action, what provoked your thoughts or demanded attention. Remember to elaborate on the 'why'. 
The better your audience can understand the content, the terms and concepts, goals, significance, and role of the study as part of your field and science, the better equipped they will also be to follow the examination conversation that follows your lectio.

The ending of your lectio

End your lecture with something impactful and elevated. The last few paragraphs carry a lot of weight also because the listener tends to remember best what was said last. A common and highly effective and eloquent ending is to return to the beginning. 
No matter how you started, tie your lectio together and articulate how the beginning, (the middle) and the end connect. In addition, summarising and repetition are effective rhetorical device, particularly with new and complex information.

Visualizing your lectio

A lectio praecursoria is more of a speech than a conference presentation. There are differences between fields of study, and you should adapt the tips to suit the traditions of your own field.
Visualization can be done verbally, nonverbally and with technological aids. Verbal visualisations are stories, examples, analogies, pieces of qualitative data, quotes, etc. Nonverbal visualisations are gestures, facial expressions, smile, elements of voice such as pauses, stresses, volume, pace, pitch, etc. 
When you use e.g., Power Point slides, the most important question to guide your planning should be: Does it support the listener in understanding my message or does it compete with my verbal message? Reflect on the number of slides that you initially draft. The listener wants to hear about your research from you and is less interested in a slide show.

How to deliver your lectio to the audience?

When you deliver the lectio to the listener, make use of the vast resource that is your nonverbal communication. Effective nonverbal means of communication: 

  • Emphasise and illustrate your message with gestures and facial expressions. Facial expressions are particularly important in an audio-visual medium / online, 
  • Include meaningful pauses when you make an argument that you want to move the listeners or to evoke emotion and thought, e.g., when you address common beliefs or misconceptions about a topic,
  • Slow down your speech when it involves numbers, such as percentages or years,
  • Smiling connects and relaxes both you and the listener. Smiling creates immediacy both face-to-face and online,
  • Make eye contact and sustain it with the whole audience. Online you can simulate eye contact by looking into the camera. It creates a sense of interaction between you and the listener.

Practising your lectio

Practice your lectio out loud. When you practise aloud, time your lectio. A great way to write, edit and learn your lectio is to tape record it and listen to it back or to make a video recording. Particularly if you plan to have slides, take the role of the listener. Evaluate critically if all the slides and details on them are necessary for the listener especially if you also explain the same content.

Videos and further guidance to support your process

In the attachment, you will find further details and tips on the structural choices you can make in your lectio.

For more guidance on communication tasks related to your doctoral defence, you may wish to

Did you know that some journals publish lectio praecursorias? See if this is an option in your field or approach an Editor-in-Chief with a suggestion. Publishing your lectio is a great way to make use of the hard work you did.

Enjoy your accomplishment and showcasing your expertise during the public defence and after!

Published: 2.5.2022
Updated: 30.6.2023