In researching my previous post on the Feynman Technique, I happened upon another insight uncovered by Shane Parrish. This time, the idea is even older, from Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, published in 1580:
We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own. We are just like a man who, needing fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?
There are several insights we can take from this passage, depending on whether the “man” is the speaker or the audience. In my post on the Feynman Technique, I noted that in order to teach better, we need to learn better. Reading Montaigne with this idea in mind, we realize that in order to teach well, it’s important to fully digest your topic and “make [it] your own.” While it’s possible to simply parrot another teacher’s ideas, this approach almost always falls flat. Your teaching becomes more powerful when you put your own spin on it.
The relevance of this passage to your audience is even clearer. In order for your audience to truly understand your topic, they must also find a way make it their own. And of course, as I note in The Science of Speaking, this is actually your responsibility as a speaker, and there are many ways that you can fulfill it, for example, through discussions, role plays, demos, and imagination.
When you as the teacher make knowledge your own, and then use that understanding to help your students make it their own too, that’s when learning truly comes alive.