Speakers: Covering Content Actually Obscures Understanding

Dress wristshot - Marina Militare 1936

Education is one way to improve ourselves personally and professionally.

Whenever we find ourselves lacking knowledge, understanding or skills for a specific job task, we take a class. Or attend a conference. Or participate in a webinar. Or read a book.

Sounds really simple. Right? Well, it’s not.

The challenge with most education is our belief that learning something we don’t know requires an expert (the speaker) or another means (books, online, computers).

The Watch Analogy

Note: I first saw this analogy demonstrated in my professional education many years ago. I’ve seen it referenced in many books such as Active Training by Mel Siberman, since then. I think it will help explain our challenges with education, experts, speakers, books, articles, webinars and computer based trainings.

In some of my presentations, I ask who in the audience is wearing a watch. (I stopped wearing one several years ago.)

I pick one volunteer and ask her to stand. Then I ask her to cover her watch with her other hand.

“What is she doing?” I ask my audience.

“She is covering her watch,” is the typical audience response.

“What are some synonyms for cover?” I reply.

“Hide, obscure, block, shroud, conceal, camouflage,” are some of the responses I get.

“Right! So the next time you have something to cover with an audience, or the next time you’re working with a speaker that needs to cover specific content, please know that you may be hiding the information from your listeners. The more content you cover, the more you obscure it and block it from view.”


That’s the typical deer-in-the-headlights look I get from my audience. Suddenly, their thinking about sharing information via the spoken word and learning is slammed with the truth! It’s a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee learning moment.

The Truth About Covering Content

When a speaker, or author, or blogger tries to share information, at that moment it’s their understanding of the content. It does not belong to the listener or reader yet.

It is only when the listener, attendee, participant or reader begins to uncover what the content means to them that the real learning occurs.

The uncovering only occurs by the learner’s own activity. It is something she must do on her own.
Unfortunately, the speaker, the book, the internet cannot do the work for the leaner!

And uncovering that content requires thinking. Thinking is the work.

Regrettably, (or fortunately, depending upon your view), an attendee cannot focus their attention on listening and thinking at the same time. It is one or the other. So the more content the speaker covers, the less thinking the attendee does. And the less learning that occurs.

Active Learning

All learning opportunities must provide active learning experiences for their audiences.

Active learning opportunities require the participants to do the majority of the work. That includes thinking and reflecting.

Listening is not an active learning process. It is passive and it does not necessarily translate into learning.

As a presenter:

  • If you neatly package your information…
  • Or you logically frame your understanding…
  • Or you elegantly design your graphs and charts…
  • Or you phenomenally demonstrate the skills…
  • Or you show and tell…

You, not the learner, are doing all the work for them. It’s your understanding and not theirs…yet.

No, I’m not saying that effective instruction is pointless. It is necessary.

However, the key to effective learning opportunities is active audience involvement.

Want more information on developmental learning the futility of covering content? Read

What does “covering or obscuring the content” mean to your education offerings? Why do we believe that we can transfer our own understandings through the spoken or written word to a listener or reader and it result in change?

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  1. I love how you keep returning to the most important point: “the key to effective learning opportunities is active audience involvement.” Turn on the lights, get the audience involved in their own learning process and get them rambunctious! Learning is a bumpy, exciting and often challenging road; therefore, conferences should be bumpy, rambunctious and exciting too as they challenge the audience to expand their thoughts, beliefs and actions.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      I really like your thoughts….get them involved in their own learning…learning is bumpy, exciting and challenging. So true! There are no shortcuts to learning like talking to the audience from the stage and pouring the information into their heads through listening.

      Thanks for reading and commenting too Roger.

      1. You know you challenge me, Jeff. As an entertainer/educator, I have spent years on honing presentations and shows so that they are well crafted, slick story machines that take the audience on a journey, together. It’s fascinating to turn that energy around and find the journey is better when bumpier – at least when we are discussing learning objectives (as opposed to entertainment objectives).

        However, after saying that, I realize that many of my “shows” have their groundings in the participatory model where the audience is the stage, content is interwoven with fun, team play is encouraged and it’s all about them (the audience). This model informs most of the work we do at Actors Unlimited Entertainment.

        I’m so glad I found this site/your company. It’s helping me solidify my thinking in this area as well as challenging me to expand my ideas around conference design and what we can achieve.

        You are pushing this very important conversation forward, Velvet Chainsaw, and that is a very good thing.

        Love it!

  2. Beth Kanter says:

    i agree that active participation = learning. As presenters, we should always include some discussion questions or exercises with content delivery. Also, deliver content in brief chunks followed by discussion or interaction.

    1. Hi Beth
      I agree. Chunking out your presentation into burst of engaging content followed by active participation/discussion by the audience in small groups is a great way to organize a presentation.

      It works on a variety of levels: chunks or bursts of information are easier to absorb and usually more interesting than long-winded presentations; discussion with peers supports social learning which is powerful way of learning; it encourages “out loud” thinking which means participants need to absorb, reflect and then find their own words/thoughts as they grapple with ideas; and it allows for repetition/spacing.

      All really good methods to increase learning and retention.

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