Seth Godin on Teaching

Listen to this… What’s the point of talking to a group? I’m serious. We spend a lot of…

Listen to this…

What’s the point of talking to a group?

I’m serious. We spend a lot of time in presentations, or at the United Nations, or sending our kids to school. We have orientation sessions and keynote speeches and long-winded oratory on the floor the Senate. Why?

One reason: to incite. To share emotion. To sell. And that’s never going to go out of fashion, as far as I can tell.

But most of the speeches I’m talking about don’t incite. I heard an excerpt on the radio the other day… someone at the EU going on at length about admitting Romania and Bulgaria to the EU. There was even a mention of food safety issues. Thousands of people listening to one person drone on about food safety. This wasn’t an emotional speech designed to sell us on an idea. Instead, it was designed to teach us.

To teach us the way a schoolteacher I heard recently teaches: by reading a text. She stands up at the front of the room, and along with a few web images, reads a text to the class.

Here’s my point: In our scan and skip world, in a world where technology makes it obvious that we can treat different people differently, how can we possibly justify teaching via a speech?

Speech is both linear and unpaceable. You can’t skip around and you can’t speed it up. When the speaker covers something you know, you are bored. When he quickly covers something you don’t understand, you are lost.

If marketing is the art of spreading ideas, then teaching is a kind of marketing. And teaching to groups verbally is broken, perhaps beyond repair. Consumers of information won’t stand for it. We’re learning less every time we are confronted with this technique, because we’ve been spoiled by the remote control and the web.

If you teach–teach anything–I think you need to start by acknowledging that there’s a need to sell your ideas emotionally. So you need to use whatever tools are available to you–an evocative PowerPoint image, say, or a truly impassioned speech.

Then, and this is the hard part, if you’re teaching to a group of more than three people, you need to find a way to engage that is non-linear. Q&A doesn’t work for a large group, because only the questioner is engaged at any given moment (if you’re lucky, the questioner represents more than a few, but she rarely represents all).

If it’s worth teaching, it’s worth teaching well. If it’s worth investing the time of 30 or 230 or 3330 people, then it’s worth investing the effort to actually figure out how to get the message across. School is broken. Legislative politics are broken. Linear is broken. YouTube and Bloglines, on the other hand, are new platforms, platforms that enable the education of millions of people every day, quickly and for free.