D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

Teachers vs. Speakers

Sunday, May 18, 2008 10:16 AM

"We have very little need for speakers, and we're starving for teachers."

"The difference between speaking and teaching is subtle, but the whole point of leading a session is made or lost in that subtlety."

"Clear sign you're speaking rather than teaching: you believe that an hour isn't a long enough time to really teach something."

- Scott Bellware via Twitter (all of the above)

I've had it all wrong. For so many years I looked up to the rock-star speakers that I saw come through events or get up in front of people at a big conference, and I thought "That's where I want to be." Hell, those of you close to me know how much I fell into idol worship only to be left disappointed with the false god I was worshiping at the feet of.

I had an experience this past January that, when I look back on, impacted me more than I thought. I was creating courseware for the fourth level in a series on VB.NET, and as I had total control over the content I decided to make it more about design patterns, architecture, and software design which happened to include VB.NET. Creating that course material wasn't an exercise in presentation...it was a deep want to impart knowledge that I never got going through college. Seeing them actively discuss these topics, "get" the ideas, and put them into practice in their assignments...that was kewl...that was way more satisfying than going to a code camp and speaking in front of a group of people...but why was it? It shouldn't have been...shouldn't they have been the same experience?

Unfortunately no, because typically code camps, conferences, user group events...they aren't seen as venues for teaching in the truest sense of the word. I think we as presenters can get too wrapped up in things like evaluation forms, or making sure that our power point slides are perfect, or that our demos are exquisite...and sure, you need to be prepared since these people are showing up to watch you. But its the mind-set of the talk that seems to become skewed.

How many of us really speak on what we're *truly* passionate about, or do we just have some pre-canned presentations that we've done before and can regurgitate at a moments notice? Do we strive to impart understanding to our audience, or are we just worried about ensuring that we get through our presentation without the demo blowing up?

I've had the opportunity to do some speaking and leading of discussions over the last few months, and I've been challenging myself on why I speak, how I choose my topics, and what my goals are when I do these things. When I read Scott's tweets, it really summed up what it was that I was trying to wrap my head around:

I don't want to be a presenter, I want to be a teacher.

A presenter is someone that can get in front of people and entertain them, or communicate an idea in some way, but not make any major change in the audience's life. A teacher is one that strives to connect with the audience, and who ensures that content is relevant and understandable because he/she wants the audience to "get it". They aren't just a fountain of information, they're drivers for change, challengers to current thinking, and instigators of debate and discussion.

So here is a new mantra that I'll be using as a measure going forward:

1) Altered mindset: I'm not a speaker, I'm a teacher.

2) I teach only on those areas that I'm qualified or passionate about.

3) Teach what you know, be honest about what you don't.

3) Treat each session like a dialogue, not a lecture.

4) Never, EVER, review evaluations: You should know if you connected or not, if you were effective or not, and if you were relevant or not.

5) Don't assume the audience can't teach you; encourage two way learning.

I've got some speaking engagements coming up in the fall. Having this new outlook brings more excitement to them already instead of that "Geeze, I better get my PPT deck together" feeling.

Thanks for the words of wisdom Scott. And btw, I never thought you were gay. ;)



# re: Teachers vs. Speakers

As someone who's spent a good chunk of the last seven years teaching and speaking I have a lot of feedback but I'll boil it down to a couple major points.

I don't think a 60 - 75 minute conference session with 20+ people is the proper venue to try and teach (by teach I mean impart a skill that someone can apply fully with little additional learning on their own). Your goal should be to give people choices by raising their awareness of a technology or technique and by giving them advice on the applicability and use of such. You are there to plant a seed which attendees can choose to cultivate or not.

The second thing is your comment about evaluations. I cannot disagree more with the idea of ignoring them. They are a vital part of the feedback you receive from your audience and an extremely important tool in helping you improve as a presenter. No matter how good you are, you cannot make a connection with everyone in a conference session once your attendance grows beyond 15 - 20. You may even get an improper read from someone you felt you did connect with. Looking at aggregate scores to see where you commonly receive low/high marks and reading the comments are the only way you are going to able to determine if you are improving. 5/18/2008 11:59 PM | Rob Windsor

# re: Teachers vs. Speakers

I originally had another two paragraphs that dove into the scoring comment, but I took them out since the post was going pretty long. Let me clarify where my stance on the evaluations comes from:

Evaluations can be a double edged sword based on the presenter. Yes you get feedback, but you also have to be confident enough in your own skills to be able to filter out the noise. At the same time, you have to watch to ensure that you don't become addicted to audience-love when they tell you how good you are. I know of one well known presenter who has said to various people that he will *never* speak in Winnipeg again. Why? Because his scores are consistently lower here. I guess he feels that he knwows he's better than the feedback, and takes it personally when he gets negative comments/scores.

I don't want to ever fall into that trap. I would rather single out a few people in the session and talk to them directly after about what they thought of the session as opposed to reading anonymous comments from people who may/may not be good sources of feedback. I want to be at a point where I'm confident in my own skills that I care more about whether I imparted something to the audience instead of getting good scores, and I don't know that good scores is always a telling statement on that.

Just look at the comments that have shown up on Rob Conery's blog in the last few months that he started his webcast series...there is a LOT of people who, at the surface, are giving negative or critical feedback, but who Rob refutes in his comments...but its a dialouge...its two way discussion. Evals are one way and without a face.

D 5/19/2008 6:46 AM | D'Arcy from Winnipeg

# re: Teachers vs. Speakers

I'm with Rob on the evals. It's not hard to filter out the crap, which is essentially every question that requires the attendee to circle a number. It's the last question that's important. The one that says "Do you have any comments on how to improve this session?" Answers could range from "No" to "The presenter should rethink his love of ascots" to "He read my signals all wrong." There are plenty of people you may connect with that simply don't speak up. If someone is taking the time to write down his or her thoughts, rather than arbitrarily checking off numbers, it's a disservice to them not to read it. 5/19/2008 9:31 AM | Kyle Baley

# re: Teachers vs. Speakers


A teacher plants a seed that will germinate. A speaker scatters some seeds out into the audience and believes that he has made a connection and the seeds will take root.

A teacher can do all of the things in the 60 to 75 minutes with the 20+ attendees that you assert is unlikely. Teachers are always accomplishing things that are unlikely. 5/19/2008 12:04 PM | Scott Bellware

# re: Teachers vs. Speakers

Agreed that teaching is what we need more of in this industry. I have found that my best talks have been when I have finished early. Once this happens the talk becomes way more dynamic and interactive I find .

I have seen this with other presenters as well and sometimes you see that they are talented and knowledgeable. Other times you see that they learned enough to talk about the subject and anything out of bounds "they will get back to you" .

I honestly think that if you are going to give a talk on something you should be able to pull it off with no slides/canned code. Granted you may not get to talk about everything you want to and it may not be 100% smooth but that is the way the real world works.

I also do like feedback but only the negative ones. They usually show the week points and areas to be improved. 5/19/2008 7:04 PM | Dave Woods

# re: Teachers vs. Speakers

I think you've really hit the nail on the head about imparting knowledge and the difference between a speaker and a teacher. Personally I'd like to see the more of the latter in screencasts and tele-learning.

I think you only really know something when you can teach it, and in teaching something, people invariably ask questions that firm up what you might have just accepted as a someone trying to learn something. 5/20/2008 2:06 AM | Jon Lebensold

# re: Teachers vs. Speakers


Evals can be used for good or evil. They are a tool for self improvement, not something to make you look cool and help you pickup chicks.

Things get evil when your ego gets involved. If you go the "edutainment" route and gear your talk with the goal of getting good evals then you're on the wrong road.

You should be using aggregate evals scores and looking for trends (e.g. you tend to score low on ability to answer questions relative to your other scores over the course of ten talks) to identify weak/strong areas. Monitoring these results and the comments over time is the best way to measure wether your improving.

Talking to individuals will not give you the whole picture. People, particularly in Canada, will paint a rosey picture when speaking to you directly becuase they get uncomfortable and don't want to hurt your feelings. They are much more likely to express their feelings completely on an evaluation form.
5/20/2008 12:47 PM | Rob Windsor

# re: Teachers vs. Speakers

I think Dave has a good point though: that you should only focus on the negative ones if you're going to use evaluations as a basis for improvement. I've been to many events where even I went through and checked off all 5's because I really just wanted to get my eval in for the prize draw. These can be misleading if you look at it and say "Hey, I had a huge amount say I was great!" Well, no you weren't...people are going to have the tendency to be lazy or hurried and not really give their actual thoughts.

I think we should all strive to hurt at least one person's feelings a day*. That way, if we all do it, eventually Canada will shed their good-guy facade and everyone will see us for the a-holes we really are. ;)


*Justice: It's better if its not *only* Donald *every* day. 5/20/2008 12:55 PM | D'Arcy from Winnipeg

# re: Teachers vs. Speakers

Although I'm not a speaker, I can understand the argument for ignoring evaluations. I imagine it's similar to blog stats or web stats - they can be a time sink, or an ego boost, and they don't necessarily provide good feedback. You will know when you've been effective in engaging with your audience, and if you need evals to spell this out, then you probably shouldn't be speaking. :) 5/26/2008 9:15 AM | Adam Kahtava

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