Speaking: Entertain, Don’t Teach

It’s tempting to think of a talk as the opportunity to take a body of knowledge and to educate your audience about that body of knowledge. You have something in your head and you want to get it into theirs.

Making education your top priority leads to terrible talks, with an unhappy audience that won’t retain any of the information you wanted them to remember, anyway. Instead, think about how you can create a compelling narrative through your material, layering in the deep technical content so that the most attentive listeners will take away a deep understanding while the people who are only half paying attention will, at the very least, enjoy the experience.

I can’t think of any talk that demonstrates this better than Gary Bernhardt’s WAT:

Remember: you’re entertaining, not educating.

This article is part of my series of speaking hacks for introverts and nerds. Read about the motivation here.


  • http://twitter.com/bhargavjoshi Bhargav Joshi

    thanks for suggestion Gary Bernhardt WAT!!
    Enjoyed a ton.

    And ya your talks are also entertaining :)

  • Michaela

    Agree. My tip for employees that have worked for me is to flip the timeline. Start with OK, you just finished your talk. It was great. What thoughts are the audience leaving with? Now that you know that, work backwards to make that story come to life. I knew I’d made a small impact when I was walking by a former employee’s cube and I heard him say to someone, OK, the talk is over….

  • The Chemical Statistician

    Hi Hilary,

    Thanks for your thoughtful ideas. I speak regularly on statistics and machine learning to the statistics and business analytics community, and your blog post has motivated me to consider adding entertainment as a bigger flavour to my presentations.

    My philosophy of public speaking (and teaching) involves audience participation as a core element, and I constantly challenge my audiences with questions and problems throughout my presentations to make them active and engaging; even though the questions/problems may be entirely intellectual or technical, I find that my audiences consistently enjoy this engagement and find my presentations fulfilling as a result.

    Often, I ask a question that is a little challenging, and a (sometimes awkward and long) pause ensues; rather than debilitating my presentation, these pauses generate a lot of buzz, and a great hush of attention and concentration envelopes the crowd. It is then very satisfying to see people pitching their ideas fearlessly and collaborate spontaneously to answer the question, and these are often the memorable moments in my presentations that people take away.

    If I ever have the privilege of attending your presentations, I look forward to learning from your style and incorporating it into mine.

    Thanks again for sharing.

    Eric Cai
    http://chemicalstatistician.wordpress.com/

  • Mark Volkmann

    I admire you greatly, but I 100% disagree with this viewpoint. If I want to be entertained, I will go to a movie or concert. When I go to a tech talk, I want to learn.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Walter-Reade/637817524 Walter Reade

      Agree. A good presentation is equal parts Education, Enlightenment, and Entertainment. Give them facts. Given them insights. And have some fun.

  • http://kpfrahm.com/ KP Frahm

    Actually, it was your entertainment skills that got me hooked back then at FOWA 2010 in London, i.e. you got my attention and I looked up from my “smart” device and started to listen.

    Before, I didn’t really care about bitly because it was just a boring (but useful) url shortener. But thanks to your entertaining story telling I got the message and started to really think about all the value behind it, and about how cool Betaworks actually was/is.

    2,5 years later felt the need to write a piece about how your talk inspired me to think of Betaworks and the NY startup community in general as the place to be for media innovators: “Adore the Valley, Explore the Alley”

    Maybe you’d like to have a look, even if it’s in German: http://bit.ly/Za2QhP (and here’s a short url for a google translated version http://bit.ly/ZaHssM but this should feel like eating sushi with a fork :)

    Best, KP

  • http://www.sleepydragon.org Denver

    Your ideas have literally transformed the way I deliver presentations. My first experiment with having fun as the first element, facts as the second was when at work when my boss asked me to do a presentation about an algorithms course that the company had paid for me to take. I worked through everyone that attended to solve the “Top N” problem, where given a list of numbers, find the largest 5, 10, 50, etc numbers in the most efficient manner (in case you’re curious, the most efficient algorithm is O(n) in the average case!). Our use case was finding the most populous countries from a big long list. I did things like get them to guess the top country, which is China, and the 2nd top country (which you’re first guess is probably right!). Using this example, I talked about Big-O notation, did some live coding and code profiling to show the performance of various solutions as the input size increased, and got them to suggest algorithms for solving it. Anyways, it was so much fun for me and the attendees all unanimously said the same. Entertain first, teach second, and people will actually remember what you say… or at least they’ll remember you! Thanks for posting this, Hilary.