Master the arts of creating and performing talks

Video Instruction? Don’t do it. Unless…

Evidence that you are getting old:

  • You watch the Grammy’s and don’t know many of the performers.
  • You say, “These trainees used to be so much better.”
  • You think the online lessons are the key to successful training.

Let me focus on just the last one.  Older folks were making the decisions in your company.  They were easily amazed by all the new-fangled gadgets.  “Interactive whiteboards and response systems!  Wow!  If you touch the board, stuff happens!!  If you tap ‘A’ on the little thingy, the answer shows up on the board!!  We gotta have that!!”  Will the trainers use it?  Does it improve results?  Will the glitz wear off leaving you with a “the emperor has no clothes” sort of thought?  “I don’t know, I just know it is really cool like the stuff I saw on Star Trek as a kid!”  And so your company has lots of seriously expensive and seriously underused tech stuff.

Then came the video micro-lessons idea.  “Wow!  You can make a video?  Then you can post it on that Internet place?  That is so amazing!!  Why I bet these millennials will just love that sort of thing.  They love their computers and smart phones and I just know they will love watching us on those little screens!” The interest in online learning was high.  Does it put trainees in charge of their own learning?  Is it more appropriate for new employees? Do trainees retain as much? And so on.  I won’t get into the debate here. It doesn’t matter at the moment. Why?

Pandemic. All travel suspended. All in-person training canceled. Everything moves to Zoom or whatever tool your company uses. (For a fun look at how those work see this.) It is no longer “Should we try this?” but rather “We have no choice.” And now we find out a sad truth: most of us aren’t that good at online presentation.

That is a rough statement, perhaps even rude.  But think about this: actors get paid well for a reason.  They can do something that few people can do—they can be very impressive on a screen.  Very, very few of us can command attention in a digital format. All media (radio, TV, podcast, webinar) require much more than in-person communication requires.  When you digitize a live presentation, the nature of the small screen/small speaker makes a great presentation seem good; a good presentation seem blah; a blah presentation seem dreadfully boring. Who in your company has the chops to pull this off? Way less than you think. One out of twenty? One out of fifty?

And think about this: editors and special effects and foley artists and soundtrack people get paid well for a reason. They can do things that few people can do—they can enhance a presentation. No one wants to watch a trainer talk for an hour. Five minutes is pushing it. No one wants to listen to ten minutes of looped jingles added from GarageBand as a soundtrack. No one wants to watch a Camtasia screen capture. It is cruel to ask trainees to watch some of the things being created, and when companies switch to digital instruction, forcing their employees to go home and spend an evening watching the junk created is beyond the bounds of reasonable.  YOU go watch some the stuff out there and see how YOU like it.

I started out teaching students how to be better oral communicators. Now my work is with adults.  Companies, schools, and universities are contacting me not to show others how to teach oral communication, but to show the managers, trainers, and educators how to be better communicators themselves.  These institutions realize that to be effective educators, all adults need to be more effective speakers. They realize that in an era where digital media showcase oral communication skills, everyone needs to seriously improve those skills before attempting to use the new communication tools available.

At some point, this crisis will be over and we can meet people face-to-face. Then we’ll continue the discussion about whether we should make changes for all time. I think the idea that online instruction is the key to all future learning will wane now that we have seen how inferior it can be, and we will realize the digital lessons are not a magical cure for an organization’s problems. Maybe I am wrong. I know I am not wrong about this, though: Don’t even think of heading down that road unless you first absolutely master oral communication. Yes, this stuff is all new and wow-inspiring, but to pull it off, your speaking needs to be wow-inspiring also. Start there.