Learning and development should be engaging but avoid focusing too much on entertainment
I am a real fan of TED Talks and the type of highly polished talks delivered by professional speakers as keynote speeches. I often watch these talks on YouTube and find myself wishing I was as good a public speaker as some of those folks.
While I consider myself to be a pretty good facilitator and trainer, I recognize my public speaking could be a little more engaging at times. I have even considered joining Toastmasters or possibly taking a course to practice, develop and receive feedback on my public speaking skills.
While I have been a speaker at conferences, I can’t help but feel I am approaching the sessions more like classroom teaching or training courses rather than speaking engagements. In my opinion, public speaking is a little different from teaching, training or facilitation in that the goal is often to inspire, entertain or persuade rather than to inform or educate.
While there is a difference between a keynote speech – one that could often be delivered to a wide variety of audiences with only minor tweaks – and a smaller, more specialized breakout session, the entertainment factor cannot be ignored in either. People attend conferences and seminars at least partially with the goal of being entertained, and they shouldn’t come away from a session feeling overwhelmed or like they had to think too hard about the material.
The ‘TED Talk factor’
These types of sessions aren’t quite like teaching in an academic environment or even in the context of corporate learning and development programs. There is no denying the “TED Talk factor” has raised people’s expectations of the quality of public speaking at conferences, seminars and public events.
I also believe shorter attention spans and an increased desire to be engaged, along with better animation, graphics and audiovisual aids, have made people to expect learning to consist of “edutainment.” This is true even in an academic context where it is harder for professors to grab the attention of students due to distractions like smartphones and social media.
While that likely makes public speaking a little harder these days, I also think higher expectations have raised the bar on corporate learning and development programs. According to one public speaking expert I heard speak at a symposium last year, there is really no difference between speaking and teaching in terms of best practices for presenting to and speaking in front of an audience.
While I’m not sure I would go as far as that, everyone who speaks in front of or presents to an audience would benefit from improving her public speaking skills. Being able to engage an audience is a special skill that can help boost your career – whether or not you actually do a lot of public speaking or training in your current role.
Learning and development as edutainment
I also think HR and learning and development (L&D) practitioners should be mindful of the desire for edutainment among learners. This applies not only with respect to traditional classroom learning, but also in terms of e-learning, workshops, webinars, facilitated organizational development sessions and other types of workplace learning activities.
I am a firm believer that learning should be fun and interesting wherever possible. However, I also believe there can be a downside to this as well.
Sometimes learning can be difficult, uncomfortable or messy – particularly where it is truly transformative in nature. Learning isn’t always supposed to be fun, and sometimes people need to be challenged to learn new skills, ideas or concepts. An engaging speaker, a pretty PowerPoint presentation or a cool video isn’t always going to cut it.
Workplace learning generally has the goal of improving employee and organizational performance in some way. Despite many employees viewing workplace learning as a perk or a break from their daily routines – and the fact that providing learning and development opportunities can help retain and engage employees – this is really secondary to the main goal of workplace learning.
While HR and L&D professionals should try to design, develop and deliver interesting and engaging learning programs wherever possible, they shouldn’t be overly focused on the results of learner satisfaction surveys, which are sometimes referred to as “smile sheets” for good reason. Just because learners enjoyed a session doesn’t mean they actually took away anything meaningful from it.