Do you really want to be a cruise lecturer?

You may have read our descriptions about our cruise lecturing and have thought to yourself – I could do this. What a great way to get free cruises! But before you go too far with this train of thought, I will summarize what is really involved in lecturing on a cruise ship. Many “cruisers” may be unaware of the details and requirements – I certainly was before my first opportunity in August 2022. Now with lecturing on two cruises (August and November 2022) under my belt I have a better idea of what is involved.

First, you need to consider the viewpoint of the cruise company – in my case Holland America. They are a business, and like any business, they must make a profit to survive. When they choose to accept a lecturer for a particular cruise this must be a balance between various factors. The lecturer (and accompanying person) occupies one room and has a few other benefits. And their travel to and from the cruise port is also generally covered. These are the main direct costs to the cruise company. But there are also indirect costs that are harder to calculate. For example, if a lecturer attracts 300 people to a talk, these are people who might not be visiting, during your lecture’s hour, the ship’s shops, playing at the casino, or eating at restaurants that charge an additional fee. The cruise company is losing potential income from these activities – if cruisers are at your lecture and not at these other venues. However, the cruise company needs to consider the positive value that a lecturer provides that are likewise difficult to calculate. For example, if the cruise company develops a reputation for providing consistently good lectures and there are enough people who select their cruises based on this lecturing reputation, then this can outweigh the direct and indirect costs associated with bringing lecturers aboard. These calculations vary with the focus that each each cruise line has. Some lines, like Holland America, attract older cruisers who may be more inclined to value talks over partying, compared with some other cruise lines that offer more active entertainment activities (think water slides, all night dance music etc).

Lecturers are not usually desired for shorter cruises, or those with few sea days. When the ship is in port, most cruisers will be off the ship so there is little need for lectures on these days. Many Caribbean, Alaskan or Mediterranean cruises have few sea-days, so it is harder to justify lecturers on these cruises. The most suitable cruises for lecturers would be those with long sea stretches, such as repositioning cruises from the Caribbean to Europe or from the US to Australia. Perusing the cruise offerings will give one an accurate idea of how many sea days are available for providing talks on any specific cruise.

Some cruises have dedicated naturalists or lecturers for certain segments. These might be in Antarctica, Alaska, or on some Mediterranean cruises. Such dedicated speakers can provide lectures that are specifically tailored to the cruise destinations.

Lectures are usually scheduled in the daytime, to not compete with the high value (literally) groups (dance or musical groups) or individuals (e.g. comedians) that perform in the early evening hours (7 PM and 9 PM for our Holland America cruises). The duration of your talk is quite strict – in my case it was 45 minutes. I was mildly scolded for running over (to about 52 minutes) in one talk I gave. There is a reason for this. The room is usually needed immediately after your talk for a practice session for the evening performers, or for another activity.

I was surprised when I boarded the ship on my first speaking cruise and was informed that my talks would be in the “World Stage” – where all of the main performances are held. I had expected to provide talks in a smaller room, with perhaps 50 seats. My first talk had standing room only – with the World Stage capacity near 650 people. I was very surprised. I had never given a talk to so many people. The audiovisual support was excellent, so there was usually no problem in hearing me or seeing the powerpoint slides I was showing.

It is time to restate an important point. The role of the speaker is to entertain the ship’s passengers. A lecture delivered without passion or without material of relatively wide interest will not attract many repeat listeners (after your first presentation). The cruise line asks every passenger to respond to a detailed questionnaire at the end of their cruise about the various onboard activities. I’ve not seen the results of the questionnaires, but suspect that speakers presenting low-interest talks would not be encouraged to return. Informally, many people have told me that they appreciated my talks, my dry humor (I don’t consider myself a comedian by any stretch), and diverse material of relevance to the cruise’s port visits.

Your challenge as a lecturer is to provide interesting material in an engaging manner, so that attendees feel the talks are an important addition to the cruise. Not everyone can do this. Even individuals with extensive teaching experience may not be suited for such a role. Cruise participants don’t have to attend your talks. Unlike most college or high school students, they won’t need to get credit or a grade. And they won’t be penalized for non-attendance – or even walking out while you are talking. I would guess that only a minority of researchers in my field have the public speaking skills needed for a cruise ship lecturer. I might be wrong, but the audiences for the talks of most scientists tend to be specialists in the speaker’s own field. Unless a scientist makes the effort to speak to public groups, one can find it hard to judge what works and doesn’t work for such audiences.

The work required for preparing my lectures was more than I anticipated. Although one could in principal prepare all of the talks prior to a cruise, it is important to avoid the impression of giving “stale” material. I found that adding some photos that I took from the previous port visit – and discussing them – generated additional interest. I also provided a quick overview of the natural history attractions of the next port that cruise participants could use for planning or making the most of their excursions. This material was generally not provided in the EXEC talks by the cruise director – whose focus was on cultural or more traditional touristic attractions.

While cruise speakers can talk on any subject they choose, it will usually be more effective to talk about subjects that are related to the cruise destinations – either cultural or natural. Good speakers can provide interesting talks on almost any subject but I tried to connect the subject matter of my talks to our cruise destinations. For example, it would be more effective to give talks on Polynesian culture during a cruise to the South Pacific than to provide talks on Norse Mythology – even if the speaker was excellent. The connection between a lecturer’s talks and cruise destinations is important. This requirement can reduce the pool of potential speakers.

My view is that a cruise speaker, to be successful in attracting a large audience, needs to have a genuine interest in providing material to the cruise participants. The cruise is not nearly as relaxed for speakers as for those without such responsibility. The large audiences I was attracting put pressure on me to prepare the most effective talks possible – and this required lots of additional work. I missed many of the evening shows put on by the performers because I was preparing my talk for the following day.

Being a cruise speaker requires not only a solid background in the material to be presented, but some experience at providing talks to the public in an engaging manner. Also, one needs a willingness to answer questions and interact with cruise participants throughout the cruise. My personal view is that this one-on-one interaction, together with the good attendance of the talks, is very satisfying and worth the effort.

Finally, cruise speakers are usually retired people because there is no pay for providing the talks (although some other cruise lines have different renumeration procedures than Holland America). Yes, the value is considerable if one had to pay for the cruise, but because there is no payment you cannot support yourself financially with such an activity. Also, at least on the Holland America cruises most cruisers are not young. A speaker closer in age to the cruise participants will have greater acceptance, will carry greater authority, and will be more familiar with the background experiences of the cruise participants.