The paradoxes of lectures

One of the themes I explored in Confessions of A Public Speaker are paradoxes around lectures. Here’s my list of strange observations:

  • Many people hate lectures but attend anyway.  The word ‘lecture’ is often used as a criticism, as in ‘don’t lecture me’.  Communication that only flows in one direction has never been much fun (and there’s evidence it’s a hard kind of communication to learn from) but people attend lectures and conferences in droves anyway. Perhaps it’s the easiest and cheapest way to get information they want?
  • Lectures are popular but most speakers aren’t very good.  Despite the pervasiveness of lectures in universities and at professional conferences, most speakers are not very good. Somehow despite the universal nature of lectures, and the key role they play in some professions (teachers / professors) good speakers are still rare. How can something be so old, and so important, but generally done so badly? (See an open letter to conference organizers and do we suck at the basics?).
  • Attention spans are shorter than ever, but lectures on average are as long as ever.  Everything has gotten shorter (except perhaps for feature films and TV shows), but most lectures are an hour or longer and most college professors have 60 to 90 minute lecture sessions. There are now popular short forms like lightening talks, pecha-kucha, and ignite, but they are far from mainstream.

Any theories on why these paradoxes occur? Or have you observed other contradictions worth exploring? Let me know.

9 Responses to “The paradoxes of lectures”

  1. TJ

    Momentum. College professors and speakers at professional conferences ‘lecture’ because that is what they themselves experienced and it is what they think is expected (or at least acceptable). I frankly don’t think the average presenter even gives it much thought – they are already uncomfortable speaking in front of a crowd and so it is much easier to simply blend in.

    I’m sure most speakers recognize and appreciate when their peers break from the pack and deliver information in a more compelling way, but it doesn’t occur to them that they could do it themselves. When someone says “wow, he’s a great speaker/teacher” they seem to be assume that its due to some innate ability rather than learned skill.

  2. Scott

    TJ: I think you’re right that most speakers are trying mostly not to be embarrassed and are happy to fit in with whatever they think the status quo is.

    I think part of the problem is feedback. it’s very hard to get honest feedback on giving a talk and without feedback there is 0% chance of people doing something different next time around.

    People are extremely polite, even organizers, when it comes to telling someone who did a lousy job what they think. Rarely is anything substantive said.

    Feedback to professors on their lecture abilities is something I suspect is often ignored – especially the feedback that comes from student surveys. If there are any profs/academics out there, I’d love to know any stories on this.

  3. Jason Robb

    Regarding feedback, there is a site called SpeakerRate – – which attempts to harvest feedback. It hasn’t been especially useful to me, but perhaps others are gaining some useful feedback.

    People are way too polite. I think it’s because they have no idea how to criticize without being offensive. Everyone should learn how to give feedback. There needs to be a lecture on that! ;)

  4. Scott

    Jason: There are a few sites like speakerrate, but I haven’t seen one that has anywhere near enough content to be of use. There are simply too many speakers at too many venues.

    Here’s an essay I wrote on how to give and receive criticism.

  5. Eric

    Lectures remain popular, even though most speakers are mediocre, for a very good reason: once in a while you hear a really great lecture, one that makes your brain cells hum for days after.

    That’s why people keep going. The price of sitting through most OK lectures is not high enough to erase the memory of the last great one, and to hope tonight’s might be one like that, too.

  6. Ramanand

    In the case of academics, I think this is largely because they get hired for their research credentials first and then for their lecturing/teaching qualities. I agree ith you – I have met several professors during my studies who did take feedback on their lecturing skills, but also said they would not be able to do much about their styles.

    We don’t get taught that communicating well, especially for teachers, is something that is fundamental, not just a useful accessory. It’s a pity for, as you and others have pointed out, it’s a skill that can be learnt.

  7. Percy

    I think it makes sense for colleges (or schools) to invest some time in training the teachers. When I was a TA (teaching assistant) at Ohio State, they had a two-day program (I think) training a bunch of TAs on how to teach students, etc.

    The most interesting part was that they videotaped us delivering a sample “lecture” to our fellow trainees, at the end of the training. As a practice session, it was immensely helpful. The other thing that I still remember about the training was that they taught us about the specific challenges that international students, like me, would face teaching (mostly) US undergrads.

    So, for me training is a part of the solution. Feedback is another key tool but like the commenters have mentioned, for some reason they’re not used properly.

  8. Sean Crawford

    At my university toastmaster student club, after first apologizing to any students majoring in education, I gave a speech on the “see Spot run” basics of how to teach using a lesson plan. Afterwards a guy getting who was both a TA and getting a Ph.D came up and enthusiastically shook my hand to thank me. Sad to say, I was merely teaching what high school kids in JROTC or army cadets (Canada) learn. During NCO training the kids practice on each other.

    When I asked a masters student/TA why TAs don’t practice their labs on each other she said, “There’s no time.”
    At my local university of Calgary it has finally been officially recognized that Professors aren’t trained in teaching or test giving or theoies of learning, and so a little training is now being given.

    I attended one morning of such training and my prof saw me as we exited. She blushed and said, “You aren’t in any more of my classes, are you?” We had just covered the topic of what to do when you don’t know the answer. Because it happens so frequently there is no use in saying, “I don’t know, I will get back to you” and so instead we were taught tricks. I reassured my prof that I was graduating.



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