Delivery vs. Content: Lectures and Scalability

A couple weeks ago, I was browsing through Tim Ferriss’s blog and began reading about a novel start-up incubator called Y Combinator. One of the chief founders, Paul Graham, is a pretty interesting guy. In his life, he’s spent significant time working as a programmer, painter, investor and, most importantly for me, essayist.  He could also lay a decent claim to having invented a little thing called the “web app.” So, you know, a pretty bright guy.  

He publishes a lot of his writing on his website and one piece in particular, titled “Writing and Speaking” caught my attention. The essay itself is worth reading, but his argument can be summed up this way: 

1. Any presentation is allotted a finite amount of preparation time. 
2. That time is split between developing content and practicing delivery. 
3. Consequently, well-polished speakers often have presentations poor in content
4. Similarly, those with the best content are often unimpressive speakers.  
5. Therefore, don’t focus on being a great speaker. Content always wins.  

At a glance, the first premise seems weak. Preparation for important presentations tends to balloon a la Parkinson’s law. However, Graham’s underlying premise, I think, is that it shouldn’t. Unless you want to talk for a living, you give lectures to support your main line of work, whether its research, software, clinical practice, or whatever else. This even applies, I would argue, to teaching, where large group lectures are given in hopes of developing a smaller subset of interested students (i.e. majors, graduate students, research assistants, sub-interns, etc).  

My disagreement with Graham lies more in his conclusion and, principally, in the particular context for which he tries to leverage it. As a Platonist, I understand his implicit critique of rhetoric. Great speakers are, by and large, great convincers.  But for all their persuasive power, they rarely instill much knowledge.  The problem is that acquiring knowledge of any kind is work.  A lot of work. And before people are willing to invest substantial effort into something, they need to be convinced that it’s important. Think of the early political career of Willie Stark in All the King’s Men. Or the meteoric rise of Barack Obama’s political career.  Rhetoric is important because knowledge rarely emerges directly from ignorance. First, you need to arrive at true belief and that, unfortunately, is a product of persuasion. And persuasion rarely relies on content.

Now, if you’re lecturing principally to a graduate seminar, things are different. Those in attendance are already educated in your field and convinced that the subject is important. But what if you’re in a giant lecture hall? The bigger the church, the less likely any particular audience member is already part of the choir. Consequently, most of them aren’t already invested. People who don’t care get bored fast. There’s something more interesting on Buzzfeed or Netflix. My rule of thumb: if you can’t introduce yourself to everyone at your talk and remember their names, persuasion is important. Same things goes for multiple iterations of the same talk. Pitching a hospital-wide quality improvement idea to the staff? Selling a high volume product? Trying to pick up people at bars? Delivery will eclipse content. But if you’re presenting to your CMO, selling someone an EMR or trying to find a life partner? Paul Graham is right.  There’s two “t”s in content. Cross both of them.  


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