September 9, 2011

Lecture vs. presentation

I have a friend who recently presented a lecture at a conference. She's in a creative field where you would least expect to hear the word "lecture" come out of her mouth, yet that's what her presentation was called. A lecture.

I avoid this word, if at all possible, because I feel that it has negative connotations, and not just as a style of presenting.

I rarely do this in a blog post or presentation (it's a real amateur move to start a presentation with a dictionary definition), but in order to make my point, I looked up the word "lecture." There are two meanings of "lecture." One is about presenting: "a discourse given before an audience or class especially for instruction" or "a speech read or delivered before an audience or class, especially for instruction or to set forth some subject." The other is about reprimand: "a speech of warning or reproof as to conduct; a long, tedious reprimand" or "a formal reproof." The thesaurus shows everything from "address," "deliver" and "expound," to "harangue," "berate" and "preach."

Most of us have experienced both kinds of lectures, but the kind that sticks with me is the kind I got from my parents when I came home late or forgot to do my chores. That's the version of "lecture" that reverberates when I hear the word. When I think of the word "lecture," I literally think, "Don't lecture me."

A lecture really does combine the aspects of both a presentation and of a reprimand or reproof -- especially the tedious part. (A lecture and a lectern are just made for each other, by the way.) A lecture is a one-way spiel that doesn't invite audience interaction, assumes the speaker is the keeper of all the knowledge, and puts the speaker above the listeners. Just like when you got busted for not putting gas in the car, causing your dad to be late to work the next day.

Now, I understand that this is common terminology in academia: When you go to class, your professor doesn't give a presentation; your professor gives a lecture. And I would like to think that not all lectures meet the criteria of "long and tedious." But really, when you think of a lecture, do you think of audience involvement? Do you think of humor, good visuals, demonstrations, props, activities, dialogue and engagement? Me neither.

Lecture: I'd like to ban both the word and the act from the speaking world. Let's move away from lecture and toward presentation. Away from "expounding" and toward "conversing." Away from "holding forth" and toward "connecting."

Even as the province of angry parents trying to teach their teens a lesson, it rarely works.

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