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Is Lecture the Root of all Evil? My Position is Evolving.

Recently I saw my picture in a newsletter.  The caption under the photo read: “Picture shows participants listening as Brian Washburn delivers a lecture.”  Delivers a lecture?!  I don’t lecture.  I facilitate.

For years I’ve crusaded against the all-lecture format.  I’ve never found any research that suggests even auditory learners retain information through lecture better than through a more interactive format.  How can a lecturer tell whether or not the audience gets it, let alone whether or not they’ll be able to do something better or more easily?

But there’s something about some of my favorite TED talks that is compelling.  And TED talks are 100% lecture.  Last week in response to a post I had written, instructional designer Kirby Crider posted a link to this video.

It’s 100% lecture, yet I hung on every word.  I still remember some of the major points.  And the speaker’s 8 minute riff on the future of gamification and how it just might be integrated into everyday life both amused and haunted me.

What Lecture Can Be Good For*

Maybe, just maybe, it’s ok for people to come together, invest their time (and often their money) to attend a presentation without being able to do something differently.  Perhaps some presentations aren’t as much about learning in the moment, but rather being introduced to a topic, being excited about a topic, being inspired to go out and discover more about that topic on your own.

In the “Design Outside the Box” presentation posted above, the speaker does an amazing job offering some context and painting a picture of what might be possible.  He uses a few well-placed and well-designed slides with limited text in order to illustrate his points.  He doesn’t overdo it, he doesn’t rely on stale templates with lots of bullet points.  He’s obviously invested significant time preparing what he wants to say.

The Asterisk

Sometimes presenters – subject matter experts, keynote speakers, employees who have been asked to address their colleagues or some other group on a topic – mistake the time and effort invested in preparing a presentation (which ends up being lecture-based with lots of slides and lots of text) with good design.  Just because a presentation took 8 or 12 or 20 hours to prepare doesn’t mean it is a good or useful presentation.  And herein lies what I feel gives lecture such a bad name.

When the forum or format allows only for a lecture-based presentation, I appreciate the “SUCCESs” model espoused by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Made to Stick.  A compelling, inspirational, memorable lecture really needs a combination of the following elements (many of which were demonstrated in the “Design Outside the Box” presentation/lecture):

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

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