Please stop calling me a “speaker”

by Adrian Segar

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Please, don’t call me a speaker. Yes, anyone who’s met me knows I like to talk; yes, I have been accused (justifiably at times) of talking too much; yes, I get invited to “speak” at many events.

A typical conference speaker spends the vast majority of his or her time speaking, while an audience listens. These days, “speakers” often show pictures or videos too (but they’re still called speakers; interesting, yes?)

To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with the act of speaking itself; it’s the timeframe that’s invariably screwed up.

Most speakers speak uninterrupted far too long. How long is “too long”? Ten minutes is about the maximum for effective learning. Up to twenty minutes may be acceptable occasionally. More than twenty minutes—you’re doing your audience a disservice!

People cannot listen and simultaneously think effectively about what they’re hearing or seeing. We need quiet time to reflect on what we have just heard and seen; time to think about what it means, how we understand it, whether we agree with it, and so on. We also greatly benefit from doing this reflective work with other people as we are then exposed to different interpretations, new points of view, additional relevant experiences, and so on.

None of this can happen with a speaker, no matter how engaging and entertaining, who speaks for fifty-five minutes non-stop, leaving five minutes for questions.

Even if you give me just twenty-five minutes, I will include time for people to interact with the content and ideas I’m sharing. People will learn more, retain it longer, retain it more accurately, and develop more ideas of their own when they participate actively during our time together.

So, Adrian, what would you like to be called?
So what should we call people like me who don’t see their job as speaking? Well, presenter is one better descriptor for what I do. “Presenter” can, at least, imply that I present some content and then give the audience opportunities to work on that content alone / in small groups /collectively, rather than just listen.

Another word that is often appropriate is facilitator. As a facilitator, my job is to help participants engage in their learning and sharing. As a facilitator, when I’m working with a group of people who have experience and expertise in a common topic, I can help them learn in valuable ways from each other without possessing comparable knowledge myself. Because the combined expertise and experience available in a room full of peers is generally greater than that available from a single expert, effective facilitation is a powerful tool for providing great learning experiences, with the added benefit that participants become aware of other resources for their learning and development besides the folks at the front of the room.

A request

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers
—William Shakespeare, Henry VI

I’m not suggesting that you banish all speakers from your events. (Though many meetings, in my experience, would be better if you did.) But I do want you to be aware of the consequences of blithely calling everyone who contributes a “speaker”.

Whether I’ve been described as a speaker, presenter, or facilitator, I’m going to keep on doing what I’ve been doing. But language is important. I’m asking meeting planners and their clients to stop labeling people like me as “speakers”. And, if you want your attendees to receive optimal benefit from your events, I urge you to remember the reality that filling your program with speakers lecturing at an audience is a terrible modality to use if you claim that your conference is really about adult learning and connection, rather than promotion and status.

Photo attribution: Flickr user theenmoy

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