Do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?

speakers emotional experience Motivational speaker 3775763004_ae663793fc_o

Do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?

Feeling good—for a while

At MPI’s 2011 World Education Congress I heard the best motivational speaker I’ve ever seen. Bill Toliver gave an amazing twenty-minute speech.

I felt inspired by Bill. Here’s what I tweeted at the time.

Bill Toliver 2013-06-01_2215

But three months later, I didn’t remember a thing Bill said. (In fact I didn’t even remember his name when I came to write this post and had to ferret it out from an archive.)

Now this may be simply because my memory is declining with the passage of time—though I suspect that you may have had a similar experience. But I don’t think my dying brain cells are to blame.

As a counter-example, I still have vivid memories of workshops I attended over ten years ago.

Why do I remember what happened at those workshops but not what Bill said? We’ll get to that shortly, but first….

Testing two styles of lecture learning

I am not surprised by the results of research published in the May 2013 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Here’s the experimental setup:

“Participants viewed one of two videos depicting an instructor explaining a scientific concept. The same speaker delivered the same script in both videos. The only difference was in how the information was delivered. In the fluent speaker condition, the speaker stood upright, maintained eye contact, displayed relevant gestures, and did not use notes. In the disfluent speaker condition, she hunched over a podium, read from notes, spoke haltingly, and failed to maintain eye contact.”
Appearances can be deceiving: instructor fluency increases perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning—Shana K. Carpenter, Miko M. Wilford, Nate Kornell, Kellie M. Mullaney

Right after watching their video, participants were asked to estimate how much of the information in the video they would be able to recall after about 10 minutes:

“Participants who viewed the fluent speaker predicted that they would remember a greater amount of information than those who viewed the disfluent speaker. However, actual performance did not differ between the groups [emphasis added]…

…It is not clear precisely which aspects of the lecturer’s behavior influenced participants’ judgments, and the experience of fluency may be subjective. What is clear, however, is that a more fluent instructor may increase perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning [emphasis added].”

What can we conclude from these results?

It’s just one experiment, but it does support something I’ve believed to be true for years. A great speaker may well provide a more enjoyable and emotionally satisfying presentation—but the learning that results is not significantly better than that provided by a mediocre lecturer!

Am I saying that we should discount the value of the quality of a speaker’s presence, examples, stories, and presentation as a whole? No! If we’re going to learn something from a speaker, there’s value in having the experience be emotionally satisfying.

What I am saying, though, is that it is a mistake to correlate the quality of a speaker’s presentation with the learning that occurs for those present. That is a big mistake.

Highly-paid speakers may provide better emotional experience, but that doesn’t mean their listeners learn and retain what they hear especially well.

But there’s another mistake we’re making when we fill our conferences with speakers.

What’s the use of lectures?

Back to those workshops I attended. Why do I remember vividly what happened in 2002 but not what Bill, the magnificent motivational speaker, said in 2011? Because in the workshops I was participating in my learning. I was interacting with other participants, receiving feedback and insights about what I said and did, and what happened led to deep learning that has stayed with me ever since.

When we give center stage at our events to presentations at the expense of participative engagement, learning suffers. The best speakers may be far more entertaining and emotionally satisfying than the worst ones, but, according to the above research, we’re not going to learn any more from them. Perhaps a truly great speaker may inspire her audience to take action in their lives—and that can be a good and important outcome—but I wonder how often that happens at our events. (There’s an idea for more research!)

What we have known for some time though, is that if we are truly interested in maximizing learning at our events, hiring the best speakers in the world will not do the trick. Instead, we need to incorporate participative learning into every session we program. That’s the subject of my next book. Stay tuned!

So, do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?

What do you think is the real value of good speakers? How much have you learned (and retained) from presentations compared to interactive workshops?

Photo attribution: Flickr user psilocybes

10 thoughts on “Do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?

  1. That is an awesome post Adrian. Made me think about my presentation style as well. It takes a lot of effort to be entertaining and sometimes we are too lazy to make that extra step.

    1. Thanks Julius! I must admit I love to talk while presenting and have to remind myself frequently to build appropriate participative process into my presentations. Old habits and training die hard :-)!

  2. As a speaker, I need this reminder every darn day. Hard lesson to have become a fabric of our being, is it because there are not enough examples out there? I just proposed a Great Idea session that is about as participatory as I could imagine with some modicum of value for me as a presenter to be there too.

    1. Monica, I admit that, like most presenters, I like to talk too much too. Yes, there aren’t enough people doing meaningfully interactive presentations, and that’s mainly because we’ve experienced so many poor models of what a presentation could be.

      You may well find that the experience of running participatory sessions has more than a modicum of value for you. I learn every time I run one; I hope it works that way for you too!

  3. Well Adrian as a speaker I always have a certain bias in these discussions but, two examples: One, John Bradshaw was giving a lecture on TV about issues of family dynamics and he showed a chart about “hero children,” a concept that was new to me, and it just struck me to the core, because he was talking about a problem that I had. In other words, he was not merely presenting information, he had done his homework of perceiving what other people were having issues with, and both articulated it beautifully and then offered various tested solutions.

    Something similar happened to me in a dance workshop with Mario Robau, it was a fab 12 hours of training, but at one point he addressed a problem I often ran into and offered a quick and easy fix, and I still remember that “shock” moment when I got that info.

    Using dance as an example, I also get a lot out of peer-to-peer discussions, but oh my, to have a chance to sit and listen to a master like Mario talk, he can offer solid expertise and push me to new levels that peers cannot. If he is in the room I don’t want to listen to lesser mortals giving their opinions. Not that anyone would dare to do so 🙂

    So I would say that a good presenter, well, there is value in just putting on a good show where you have a sense of connection and fun for an hour. After all, what do you “learn” from a jazz concert? But if you want to judge it purely on its educational value (and how many gatekeepers who hire speakers think in those terms?), well, to me, a speaker who has done their homework and has in essence “listened” to that audience and knows the common problems and also has experience with implementing various solutions is of course going to be far more effective than someone who simply has a package of stories and showmanship and has not researched and “listened” to that audience beforehand. The things that really resonate with me is a speaker who is aware of my problems without my having to tell them. So while the format may look like “broadcast,” a speaker who is both a true master of what they do, and is engaging in two way communication in terms of perceiving the pressing problems the audience faces prior to the event, is my preferred style. I can learn a lot from peers, but I also want to learn from someone who is a true expert as well, and they are not going to chat with me as a peer, nor should they.

    So I guess we should differentiate between a peer level person giving a talk vs a true high level expert. If one of those experts is in the room, I really want to hear them and no one else, including me. Which is not to say that peer to peer conferring is not also just as effective at times, in fact in dance, it is a very important element of developing technique to work with a “practice partner,” but it’s just a different dimension of it. Imho tho, I think we do not demand enough of a high standard for people who speak. Speaking is not just a delivery system for information, it’s a performance, and as in any field, some folks are just better at it than others. – jl

    1. Justin, thank you so much for your long and thoughtful reply. I really appreciate your care and willingness to spend time sharing your perspective.

      It’s funny that you mention John Bradshaw. His book Homecoming is sitting on my “important books” shelf two feet away from me. I also learned something important and healing from him listening to a tape of a visualization from his 1990 “Inner Child Workshop”.

      I agree with you completely that experts (if we can agree on what an “expert” is) have value, and that their personal value to us as an individual can potentially be effectively communicated during a talk. And experts who can “listen” to an audience, via prior experience of their needs or pre-talk research, are going to do a better job than those who can’t or don’t.

      Where we differ in perspective, perhaps, is in the comparisons we’re making. You say: “So I guess we should differentiate between a peer level person giving a talk vs a true high level expert.” Yes, we probably should, but I’m not comparing the relative value of two different speakers but that of two different processes: speaking and peer learning. In my experience, on balance people learn more when they are actively involved in their learning. Yes, a moment in a speech by an expert may transform our lives, as your Bradshaw and Robau moments illustrate. But when I look back on my life, I have experienced many more profound insights discussing issues in groups than listening to one person present for a long time.

      One other thing. You say “I can learn a lot from peers, but I also want to learn from someone who is a true expert as well, and they are not going to chat with me as a peer, nor should they.” While it’s true that experts may be harder to make contact or spend time with, I haven’t found them in general to be adverse to chatting and, while they have every right to be remote from their public, I disagree that they shouldn’t chat. The really smart ones, in my experience, are ready to engage with the people around them, because they know there is always more to learn, and that learning may appear from an unlikely seeming source. Of course there are exceptions to this: I wrote about my experience with a Nobel Prize winner here:

      1. Well Adrian, after disagreeing with you, you let me now agree with you, but let me put some alternate spins on it.

        In sum, yes, I certainly agree with you. How can I not, having written a book about the ills of “classroom conditioning.” 🙂

        You are right. Peer-to-peer/one-on-one shop talk is, in general, going to yield far more valuable information than passive classroom learning. Yes, they are different processes, and overall, the peer group interaction is going to yield better results. But I do want to make this 2% exception to this conclusion: the reason the classroom learning process is not as good is not necessarily a flaw in the process; what is lacking are people who are effective in that situation.

        To further support your side of the argument, when you consider the average person with any kind of degree, that person has been immersed in a culture of classroom. Their whole concept of how information gets shared is one where there is a room with all the chairs and desks facing one person at the front of the room. When I went to school, we were punished if we interacted with our peers, and did not show respect for this one-person broadcast learning.

        So it is easy to see how the average not terribly innovative person would just fall into that mode, when thinking in terms of doing education for adults, as that was all they saw for some 16 years. Loss of centralized control was seen as evil.

        The trouble and corruption begins when people start to assume that if there is a person in the front of the room talking, “education and learning” must automatically be happening. For people steeped in the process, they see it as the only way, and they don’t think critically about it. This dogma is killing many stodgy conference models, when social media has removed the power to compel attendance.

        And even on its best day, classroom learning can never create mastery of anything.

        Unfortunately, the standards for “teaching a class” are grievously low. And while classroom learning is intrinsically limited anyway, and it generally cannot take advantage of the stimulation that comes of one-on one engagement (not to mention individual trial and error dogged persistence), part of the reason why your process is so much better than the classroom process is because a different issue altogether, i.e., so few people are good at doing the classroom process, and that is skewing the numbers even further, as many people feel that simply going thru the motions of “teaching a lesson” and presenting information in a dry linear format is good enough. So yes, you are far more likely to get a better result from the peer to peer model, the classroom model can only compete (and does) when someone really pushes themselves to do it well. I suppose we are both pointing out flaws in the standard system, just from different angles. And I have to agree, in real life applications, overall your approach is going to be more effective and more efficient, in its many iterations of mentoring and small group discussions.

        That said, in general I don’t care for the classroom model either, but there are some people . . . maybe 2%? For whom the classroom/lecture teaching model is the optimal format for them to disseminate their knowledge. For people who are both super experts and super entertainers . . . whose presentations are shows, not just classes . . . How about let’s keep that part, but other than that, I’m with you, let’s junk the rest of it.

        The trouble is, the classroom model lends itself well to a model of monetizing the dissemination of information . . . people are used to it, and it’s $1 trillion a year business . . . what to do . . . – jl

        ps Also I didn’t mean speakers shouldn’t chat with folks, they should at every opportunity, and I always seek to make myself available for one-one one chats when I am at an event as a speaker. What I meant was, I hate it when someone in the crowd (or the event owner) stands up and starts talking too long about their opinion, taking time away from the limited time we have with the speaker/expert at hand who is the one whose precious wisdom I came to hear. At that point, listening to a peer is not what I wanted! 🙂

        1. I agree with everything you said, Justin! I’ll add that, from the thousands of evaluations I’ve seen over the years, about 2% of attendees prefer a traditional classroom teaching model, while ~98% prefer peer learning. And I won’t quibble with your speculation that some 2% of presenters can really work from the front-of-the-room to full advantage.

          1. Well it’s a fractal, I would much prefer playing chamber music than play for 98% of conductors, but that 2%, wow. I would be happy to offer my thoughts on why that 98% continues to exist. — jl

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *