November 23, 2011

How to be an inconsiderate speaker

I recently heard a speaker who acknowledged up front that:

1. He had 90 minutes of material for a 30 minute presentation, and

2. He talks fast. His exact words were, "When people complain, I tell them 'listen faster.'"

In my blog post, "Don't waste time talking about time," I discussed the pitfalls of trying to cram too much information into a too-brief time slot. I also pointed out the negative perceptions that can develop when the audience realizes you didn't prepare properly for the amount of time you were given.

But what I didn't discuss, and had never experienced until this presentation, was a speaker who triples his rate of speech in order to get through too much material.

The speaker said he talks fast, and implied that he doesn't care if the audience can't follow him. Apparently only I am to blame for missing half of his presentation because I'm unable to listen fast enough. I'm being absolutely literal about missing half of his presentation. I could follow only a portion of each sentence. Entire paragraphs were lost to me. I think he was making some good points and saying some funny things and had a good overall message, but I could only understand some of what he was saying, so I'm not really sure. People I spoke to after the speech told me that they also found it difficult to follow him.

As someone who gets paid to teach, train and motivate audiences, but also is just a regular audience member like everyone else, I took this speaker's behavior to be quite rude and unprofessional.

A speaker only gets a gig because there is an audience for his topic. A speaker who blatantly disregards his audience's needs (at minimum, the need to understand what's being said), and who has no consideration for the money they've spent and the time they've taken out of their day to listen to him, is one I will not pay to see again or recommend to organizers looking for speakers.

This presenter doesn't understand that listening involves not just hearing, but also processing concepts, organizing and understanding them, and then remembering what was said afterward. Sometimes it also involves taking notes, and when the words have zipped by me like a bullet train, I can't retain enough of them to write anything down. Listening is not a single momentary action; it's a process.

I don't have any power to change this person's behavior. I can't make him be more considerate or care about his audiences. And I certainly have no say over who hires him next. And he will be hired again, because of who he is. I feel especially sorry for his international audiences; if I can barely understand him -- and we speak the same language -- how painful must his presentations be to audiences in other countries?

All I can do is share this experience with you and hope that you will find a lesson for yourself in this post. I'm a fast talker, and I've made a concerted effort over the years to slow down so my audiences don't have to struggle to follow what I'm saying. I do it out of basic respect, courtesy, and appreciation for the gift of time and attention the audience is giving me.

Have you had an experience like this? Have you ever felt a speaker didn't respect the audience?

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