When Speakers Truly Care: From Spouting Witty Repartee To Transforming Lives

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Our conferences and association education programming depend upon speakers as experts sharing their knowledge with the crowd.

Yet, the education research is loud and clear that people talking at an audience does not necessarily lead to attendees’ learning. Actually, there’s more likelihood that you’ll win a multi-million dollar Powerball lottery than telling leads to learning.

Speaking, telling and presenting does not usually lead to learning. Nor does it lead to transforming lives by changing attitudes, behaviors and skills.

Learning Is Not The Byproduct Of Listening To A Speech

Most speakers are very good at preparing their speech.

They spend adequate time putting their main points into an outline. They weave in personal stories and insights to make their speech more entertaining.

Then they often practice their timing and delivery of their speech.

The entire presentation process is focused on the speaker as the expert planning and organizing what they are going to say.

Yeah, that’s the way it works, you might say. But does it really work? What is the result we hope to achieve?

A speaker talking at and telling an audience about their knowledge is predicated on the belief that an audience member listening to their voice creates a product. We have bought into the belief that the speaker has a magic wand and their speech will produce learning as a byproduct.

Well, the education research shows that it is just not the case

When Speakers Really Care About Bottom Line Results

When speakers really care about the audience learning something, they plan their presentations differently.

They see their role as that of a learning facilitator, change agent, education evaluators, adaptive learning experts, seekers of audience feedback about their presentations and a guide on the side to paraphrase Visible Learning author John Hattie.

When speakers really care, they believe one of their fundamental tasks is to evaluate their role in their audience’s learning. They see their job as more than one of dispensing knowledge like a Pez candy machine. They embrace that their role is to help audiences wrestle with making sense of the information, creating a deeper understanding of the content an uncovering ways to apply it.

Speakers Should Concentrate On Audience Interactions More Than Their Speech

When speakers really care about an audience’s learning, the focus their energy on the interactions they have with each audience member and the interactions participants have with each other.

The interaction between what participants are doing with each other and the speaker is key to the participants’ learning.

Hattie says:

“It is the interaction– and being tuned into the nature and impact of these interactions — that is critical.”

This means that speakers need to start by seeing learning through the eyes of their participants, not through the lens of their speech. It translates into presenters evaluating what they are doing and what their participants are doing during the presentation.

This shift in thinking is about assessing the effect of the presentation on what the participant does or doesn’t do during the presentation that leads to change in the brain.

In short, the question we should ask speakers is: what will the audience do during your presentation? If the speaker responds with “They will listen to me,” reconsider securing that speaker! They aren’t about transforming lives!

What are some criteria we can use for selecting speakers that focus on audience learning instead of just spouting their speech? Why have we bought into the idea that learning is the byproduct of listening to a lecture?

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  1. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Thanks for this, Jeff.

    To your questions, in reverse order:

    Why have we bought into lectures as learning? Because many did and still do learn in school that way. Yes, some schools (grammar, junior high, high, college, graduate) are changing and others are not. Web based learning is not, in many cases, teaching other than by lecture. We are not breaking the mold.

    And some people do prefer lectures or partial lecture-style learning.

    Criteria for selecting speakers? Although some groups ask speakers to provide a time frame for how much of each session will be in various styles, the groups don’t hold the speakers to what they’ve said. It surprises me how many education/training/meetings staff are not in the sessions to listen, watch and otherwise help determine who did what and to evaluate based on pre-established criteria.

    Many people who speak are uncomfortable with interaction. They are SPEAKERS not trainers or learning facilitators or any other term. Speakers are being trained to speak on command (‘woof-woof’)and not to do more than “Q&A at the end” or with aisle mics (which make me even less comfortable than schoolroom sets)where you could stand for minutes before the speaker acknowledges you.

    Groups are not providing training for people who are SMEs to be better at design and interaction. Speakers bureaus don’t seem to know which of their speakers are more interactive.

    Rooms are still set in ways that appear to be for lectures. Case in point: I did a workshop today at a meeting in which there were two headtables (no clue why!) and a lectern. I asked for the lectern to be removed. The tables were on the floor not a riser so they could be ignored.

    I’m now past traditional retirement age. I’ve been saying all this for 40 years and still… Please when I’m gone, carry forth!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thank you for reading and continuing the discussion. I agree that many people who speak are uncomfortable with interaction. That’s one of our challenges for sure. And you have been a maverick in the field of education asking speakers to do more than talk, explaining that telling doesn’t lead to learning. Thank you for paving that path for others!

      Two thoughts…

      1) are you aware of the new requirements in the Common Core where students must be given time for peer to peer discussion and less focus on lectures? The old education model IS changing.

      2) I totally agree that some people prefer to attend a lecture over any other type of presentation that requires their involvement. They like living in a dream world that it’s the speakers responsibility to hand them knowledge through spoken word and then they have learned. It’s much easier to push the responsibility on someone else. 😉

  2. As far as criteria goes, here’s an idea that will tip you off if the speaker is audience-centric (or not): When you are having the initial discussion about the session objectives, style, etc., listen closely to the words that your potential speaker is using. Are they all “I, me, my” words that talk about what they are going to do or are they more inclusive words using “we, you, ours”? Chances are, if the speaker is using more inclusive words, they will have a tendency to include the audience in the speech.

  3. When speakers really care about the audience learning something, they plan their presentations differently. This is the perfect blog for anyone who wants to know about this topic. The article is nice and it’s pleasant to read. Thanks

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