Don’t Just Talk to Your Audience — Engage It


I’m sure you are familiar with the concept of the “elevator speech.” The idea is that — if you are asked what you do for a living or what your company does — you should be able to give a complete, compelling answer in the time it takes to ride an elevator to your destination.

But what about when you have the opportunity to speak to a group for more than the length of an elevator ride — say, 30 minutes or an hour? Does that mean you can just relax and let yourself ramble?

Quite the contrary.

Don’t Talk — Teach

You should still be able to boil down your presentation in a simple statement; you should have an elevator speech that explains what you’re going to teach your audience and why it’s worth listening to. And then you must move beyond simply talking if you want to continue to engage your audience.

For example, if I were speaking to photographers about social networking, I would start with a simple premise — that the key to successful social networking is to listen. I would then organize my talk around the different ways to listen, would provide demonstrations to help make my points, and would engage the audience in discussion.

Why would I take this approach, rather than simply lecturing the audience?

Take a look at the illustration below from the National Training Lab in Bethel, Maine. It shows how information taught through different methods is retained by students or other audiences.

teaching photography 9-3-09

As you can see, just talking to an audience doesn’t do much to educate them. Even if the audience member takes notes during a lecture or presentation and reads them back later, he or she still only retains 10 percent of what was taught. If you demonstrate what you’re talking about and then engage your audience in discussion, however, retention jumps to 50 percent.

When your audience has an opportunity to “practice by doing” — e.g., homework — retention increases to 75 percent. And since “teaching others” is the most effective learning method, you can see why educators like to put students in small groups and ask them to present a project to the class.

teachingIt’s also why teaching photography (or anything else) is a great way to learn a subject you know even better.

Simple or Complex?

Another factor to consider when you are teaching — particularly if it’s in a classroom, over a period of time — is how simple or complex your material is. We all understand how easy it is to walk on a flat surface, but to climb a mountain takes more work.

Good teachers understand that there are stages of learning. Here are the six basic stages, listed from the most rudimentary to the highest levels of comprehension:

    1. Knowledge (memorizing, recalling)
    2. Comprehension (expressing ideas in new forms)
    3. Application (transfer of learning to a new situation)
    4. Analysis (breaking a communication down into its parts)
    5. Synthesis (creating something new by putting parts together)
    6. Evaluation (judging value based on standards)

When you think about these stages of learning, it’s easy to see why you might have struggled with some of your teachers growing up, as I did. Too many teachers are stuck at stage 1 or 2 in their teaching methods, but expect you to somehow get to stage 5 or 6 when it’s exam time.

Engage, Engage, Engage

Whether you are making a 30-minute presentation to colleagues in your profession, or teaching a semester-long course to college students, success begins and ends with your ability to engage your audience.

One of my favorite examples of effective teaching is from “The Sound of Music.” In the movie, Maria tells the children, “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything.” Then she finds creative ways to engage them in the joy of music, again and again.

So don’t teach by talking. Teach by engaging.

[Photo by Stanley Leary]


One Response to “Don’t Just Talk to Your Audience — Engage It”

  1. Stan,
    Thanks for sharing this. I found this very, very helpful.

    When I was a student, the most engaging photo instructors were the ones who didn't just lecture.

    Inevitably those same instructors were also real world practitioners like you.

    Their photo assignments were always geared towards practical applications like using the pictures in an ad or to illustrate a story.

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