The difference between speaking and teaching

by Derek Featherstone

Which one are you: a speaker or a teacher?

While I do "speak" at conferences a lot, my background is in teaching. I taught high school, did some instructing at the college and university level, and have done a lot of what most people would call "corporate training." I'm always one to make the distinction between speaking and teaching. Why? Because they're different. At least, I think they are.

What is speaking?

If you "speak" for a 45 minute session at a conference, that usually implies that you're up there, on the stage, running through your slides, talking to the audience, presenting material in a fairly straightforward way—usually, you're telling them about things or showing them examples of work that you've done. That's what I consider speaking. You or the conference organizer have decided that you have specific things to say, to speak about, to share. Speaking is all about you and the knowledge that you have that you're giving to the audience.

But what would "teaching" entail? How would it be different?

What is teaching?

If you're teaching, you're thinking about the learner. Those people in the audience. You're thinking about their state of mind. Their prior learning and knowledge. Their experiences. And you're thinking about what they need—to go off and do their job better, to sell more, or to take action and change the world.

In that case you'll create learning objectives (I like starting with these four questions -- what do I want them to know and do, and what do I want them to feel and who do I want them to be?) and you'll put a lot of time and thought into what their current knowledge, skill or mindset is, and what it will take to get them to where you want them to be (to achieve those objectives). You'll create an experience for them. You'll set out a logical knowledge pathway. You'll choose examples that take steps towards that new knowledge or skill acquisition.

You'll even figure out what key questions you'd like to ask the audience (not just rhetorical ones, either) to assess their understanding. And you'll actually ask them those questions and listen to the answers and DO something with the answers. You'll come up with things to do (other than "listen and watch") that make them think: thought experiments, visualizations of end goals, or even analysis of examples that help them down the path you want them to take.

Sure some speakers do these things too. But when they do, I'd actually suggest that they're being much more like a teacher than a speaker. And yes, I know there's much more to teaching than these few things I've pointed out above. But they are a big part of the difference to me.

If speaking is about the speaker having and giving knowledge to the audience, then teaching is all about them and you crafting an educational experience that helps them discover new things, and that helps them create new knowledge for themselves from within.

Next question?

A simple question for you: which would you rather be? The sage on the stage (a speaker that speaks at the audience) or the guide on the side (a teacher that engages the audience)? I know what I want to be. Every time.

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