Does public speaking matter in 2009?

I find YouTube fascinating from a “how much things change yet stay the same” perspective.

We love to talk about how different the world is than the pre-internet days of say 1989, but when I look at YouTube I see lots of video of people speaking in public. Lectures, talks, monologues, etc. Yes, it’s true, today it’s online and you can watch for free and at home, while in your underwear, but its the same thing: one person, talking to a crowd, or straight into the camera, about something you want to hear. For all our tech, we’re still very fond of the most low tech thing there is: a monologue.

And then we have events. People pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to go to TED, corporate offsites, full day courses, professional conferences, team meetings, awards event (e.g. Academy awards) or even to high school or college, all events centered on having one person speak to many. Look at the agenda of any large event: it’s a series of talks and lectures. One of the biggest news stories of 2007 and 2008 was Randy Pausch, and his last lecture and the story behind it.

I’m convinced public speaking, the ability for one person to communicate well to many others, is just as important today as its always been. Maybe even more important. Powerpoint and Keynote are everywhere. Lectures certain have limitations, but it hasn’t stopped the world from depending on them. It still is a primary use of all the technologies we have, and is still a form of communication people want to consume.

What do you think? Is public speaking more or less important now than it was a decade ago?

(fyi: my next book is about public speaking).

9 Responses to “Does public speaking matter in 2009?”

  1. Jamie McCue

    I thrive on public speaking(ers), especially being a freelancer. Soaking up information through sitting at the computer just doesn’t compare to being engaged by an individual or a group. I think listening to a public speaker opens up another part of my brain that craves human interaction.

    The more I work on the computer the more I hope for sharing ideas with others face to face. Its really the best way to soak in deep knowledge, otherwise its all surface information.

  2. Scott

    It is interesting – this idea that the more our interactions with other people are done through technology, the more interested we are in the things we know we lose through technology.

  3. ssp

    Your question is impossible to answer as it’s unclear whether you mean public speaking as in lectures or public speaking as in PR bullshit.

    My impression is that the PR bullshit increased in the past decade with CEOs having to do their little dance to promote the latest iPhoto effects over and over again. Which may taint the whole area of ‘presentation’ and public speaking.

    Public speaking that is about teaching and learning – rather than glorifying the presenter – seems to have remained as common or rare as it was a decade ago and just a little of it seems to have made it to the YouTubes. Probably because you usually don’t get it for free.

  4. Scott

    ssp: You make a good point, but I’ve been surprised in reading on the history of all forms of public speaking that there has *always* been this problem.

    There have always been people who used podiums to sell crap, and there have always been people who used podiums to try and inform and educate. The ratios made have changed now and then, but there has always been both.

    And then of course there are lectures that are some of both – PR bullshit mixed with teaching and learning.

    If I understand you’re point, you’d agree with me then – that technology hasn’t reduced the popularity of lectures, for better or worse.

  5. Mike Haden

    I think that we only have to look at the success of TED and the Ignite events, both of which involve learning from each other in a lecture format, to conclude that public speaking is alive and strong in our communities today.

  6. Sean Crawford

    The word “PR bullshit” leaves a bad taste in my mouth not just because it is a swear word and thus disrespectful towards me but because it is disrespectful of the human who is speaking and just too sweeping. Rather than say Obama’s speech was PR b— why not just say it was (insert your own term) or, better yet, say what you liked and disliked? Even a broken clock is right twice a day…. …Heck, I don’t have cable nor rabbit ears but I don’t swear at TV content or those who watch the boob tube… lest I degrade myself along with them.

  7. Scott

    Hi Sean: You’re welcome to an opinion on swear words, but mine is different. If it’s in the dictionary its okay by me. I believe in George Carlin on this one – there are no bad words.

    Even so, I do agree with you in that some words can be crutches against thinking and communicating clearly.

  8. Anon

    The reason I attend conferences is to have direct interaction and networking with interesting people. Otherwise, I would rather listen to a podcast or watch a youtube lecture. If I don’t care for the speaker or the topic, I can skip to something else. Currently social networks merely enhances interaction. But as social networks become more sophisticated, I think it will replace much of the advantages of a live conference experience.

    I spoke at an industry conference recently. The conference organizers spent a lot of money for me to travel, attend the event, and stuff me with incredible food only to hear me give a 20 minute talk to a crowd of a few hundred. Of the crowd, I was probably lucky if less than half were interested in my topic. I had a great time. But honestly, I would have preferred a few hundred people interested in my topic to see my blog with a perfect video of me delivering the same presentation.

  9. Jay Zipursky

    Hey Scott — Are you asking a rhetorical question, here? :)

    How is a lecture given to people in person any different than one watched on youtube?

    Perhaps if you had not used the term “monologue”, I could see your point. An interactive presentation cannot be done without a live audience. Even here, though, the audience doesn’t need to be physically present.

    My simple response is that, absolutely, public speaking is more important than ever given the broader reach speakers now have.

    The challenge is to use these technologies to your advantage — can we make the lecture experience even better?


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