Being a Speakers vs Being a Presenter

This one is personal. Unusual for me there isn’t a bunch of research papers behind it (as far as I know no one has written any!) but it’s based on ten years of being a presentations trainer – not a speaker trainer. Well yes, I train speakers, but I think of myself as a presentations trainer at heart.  The key question then, is “what’s the difference between being a speaker and a presenter”.

What do presenters and speakers have in common?

What do presenters and speakers have in common?

Rather like an elephant, it’s hard to describe but you know it when you see it.

And I’m not pretending it’s not a blurry line between the two. The skill-sets overlap, for sure, but there are some interesting and important differences – which can lead to big arguments, sometimes, about where the presenter/speaker’s loyalty lies… or should lie, at least!  Oh, and before you read, know that these aren’t in order of importance (or how strongly I hold the opinion!).

Intent and content

For me, this one is relatively easy and not contentious.  For a presenter, it’s all about passing on some specific information, (generally business-related?), and to get people to take action on that information. That means a presenter is typically an expert in the topic, rather than an expert in speaking/presenting. Conversely, a speaker, particularly a professional speaker is more likely to be involved in something that has a higher content of entertainment-for-entertainment’s-sake. They’re experts in speaking, not necessarily the content (though they should be both, ideally! 🙂 )   Note that I’m not saying a presenter shouldn’t be entertaining (and heaven knows most of them aren’t!) but for a presenter, being entertaining is a means to an end.  People are more likely to remember entertaining content than boring content! For a speaker, the entertainment is sometimes even the only reason for them to be speaking!

I suspect that in reality things are a bit of continuous spectrum, but it’s a matter of priorities and intent. With my tongue a bit in my cheek, speakers are entertaining but presenters use entertainment as a means to an end.

Audience

Speakers have to cover a wider range of audiences than presenters do, in my experience. Presenters tend to work:

  • in their own organisations
  • in conferences of people form different organisations but with a common interest/background

On the other hand a speaker can be faced with more or less anyone! 😃   (Well, professional speakers can be faced with more or less anyone who can pay their fee, at least!)

Medium

This is a flaky one, I admit it!

My hunch/experience is that presenters tend to use slide decks (PowerPoint and Keynote etc) as a matter of routine, whereas speakers tend to use slide decks less, if at all. For speakers, it’s all about speaking in the literal and specific sense. I’ve seen people who describe themselves as ‘speakers’ use singing, magic and props, but fewer of them use slides (or at least fewer of them use them heavily).

There are obvious exceptions of course, such as Geoff Ramm from the UK who describes what he does as a ‘dance with the slides’ sometimes.

Integrity (who who you’re responsible to)

Okay, obviously both speakers and presenters should have integrity. That goes without saying. What I’m getting at here is more to do where the loyalties lie. If push comes to shove and something has to be compromised, what should be kept with absolute integrity and what can be compromised for the greater good?

For example, as a member of the Professional Speaking Association I hear time and time again that the first priority (and loyalty) of a speaker, particularly a professional speaker) is to the audience. Specifically it’s to the person who booked them. That can give rise to conflicts of course, if the booker and the audience don’t perfectly align with each other. It’s happened to me a few times when I’ve been asked to turn up and deliver on X but the audience clearly wanted and needed Y.  How you deal with that is something for another time, but the main point I’m fumbling around is that I don’t believe that presenters owe their ‘top level’ loyalty to the audience.

For me, this is perhaps the defining difference between a presenter and a speaker.

While a speaker is looking to satisfy (and delight) his or her audience, a presenter’s first loyalty is to the integrity of their subject-matter. An example might help me be a bit more clear.

I recently gave a presentation in which I mentioned in passing that the VAK model (of learning preferences, suggesting that people learned best if the information is given to them either Visually, by Audio, or Kinaesthetically) was largely tosh.  In the audience were a few people who made their livings by selling ‘tests’ to establish if people had a Visual, and Audio or a Kinaesthetic preference. As a speaker, my loyalty would have been to help those people do better what they do.

But here’s my problem… as a presenter, my job was to represent the truth of the research, not to help the people in the audience. And if that meant that they weren’t at all served by my presentation than so be it. The problem, of course, is that this made me, as a presenter, unpopular with the people in question.  You might argue that in the long term I was helping them by increasing their understanding that what they were doing wasn’t worth doing but it certainly doesn’t feel like that at the time – and very much not to them!

I’m not saying there aren’t means of being less brutal in the way I focused unremittingly on the content, but the hard fact is that there was a conflict of loyalties there – the audience or the content. I chose the content.

And it’s not just me this difference impacts on.  Marc Gordon (marcgordon.ca) recently turned down work because of this. He was asked to speak on social media, immediately after another speaker would be talking about FaceBook but Marc felt he “had to decline as I knew my advice would contradict a lot of what the speaker before me said. And that was just going to be a bad scene for the entire event.” Kudos to Marc for not talking the money and running, but personally I’d have done the gig.  Why?  Because my priority is to the absolute integrity of the content (as a presenter) whereas Marc was thinking of the event/audience etc.   Marc’s main thinking was that speakers disagreeing on stage always looks bad for the organisers…

Other people’s ways of differentiating

Like I said up top, this is a blog based on personal experience.  I was talking recently to Cindy-Michelle, who runs the antidote to speaker bureau (https://iwantaspeaker.com/). She pointed me at this conversation where the difference between a presenter and a speaker was more to do with skill levels: a presenter is simply someone who can take material and present it (in much the same way an actor does), where-as a speaker is someone who can do that and go on to do more, such as handle the complicated questions, interact, follow-up, train, go broader – in short, someone who owns the material… a content creator.

To me, that’s the difference between a crap speaker/presenter vs a good speaker/presenter – it’s looking at different things.   😃

You can see Cindy chatting about this (and other stuff!) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkReN2TAblc&feature=youtu.be . It gets relevant to what I’m saying here just after the six minutes mark.

Lee Warren (http://invisible-advantage.com/) is a specialist in “public speaking expertise & presentation skills training” in London. His take is interesting. He says he describes himself as a speaker but is constantly introduced as a presenter – suggesting that in industry the terms are actually interchangeable.

But another speaker – Julie Cooper (www.springdevelopment.net ) – suggests something similar, saying that presenters’ material doesn’t need to be unique/new. Speakers on the other hand bring something new to the table. If not new material (is there anything really new? 😉 ) then at least a new take on it, a new perspective. As you can imagine, while I recognize that as a commercial differentiator, it’s not, for me, the defining difference between the two.

Or maybe it’s more of a useful difference than I first gave it credit for. After all, a presenter, working in a company is more likely to be simply presenting something like (for example) the regulations on the new tax laws and how to comply with them – as well as making sure people do so, of course. So perhaps while this isn’t for me a defining difference, it certainly appears to correlate with the difference.

There’s an interesting take from Jim De Piante (https://www.linkedin.com/in/depiante/), based in North Carolina who uses the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs to find his way around the problem. Pointing out that “present” is transitive — it’s about a third thing — the thing being presented” he reasons that presenting is about ‘the thing’. By comparison, speaking is intransitive and needs no direct object in the sentence (for example the verb “to arrive”). It doesn’t need to be based on anything else to make sense.

I like that.

Firstly I like it ‘cos it’s smart (and long ago I got a PhD and spent 24 years as a researcher at universities, so I like smart!) but I also like it because it seems to chime very will with my conclusion… presenters relate to what they’re presenting about.

Finally, a friend of mine, speaker Steve Haughton-Bernett (http://theformulaguy.com/) suggests that it’s about the balance of the three Es. The Es are: Educate, Enthuse, Entertain. Presenters lean more to the first part of that list while speakers lean more towards the latter parts of the list.

Again, nice. And again, it seems to work nicely with my assertion that it’s all to do with loyalty – to the subject or the audience.  (Yes, I know he’s not saying the same thing – I’m saying it’s compatible, not the same!)

Summary

I think I stand by my opinion.  I’m not saying the other definitions are wrong, just measuring something different.

But what does it mean?  Well, not to put too fine a point on it – everything! If loyalties differ between content and audience, then for most presentations that won’t make an iota of difference… but when it matters, it really matters.

So which are you – a speaker or a presenter?

Comments

  1. Nice analysis Simon. I quite like your conclusion. However I’m not sure that everyone who books speakers is aware of the distinction and therefore expects a different approach from speakers and presenters. Depends on context, environment, audience and past experience of the booker and think.

    • Hi Mark. You could very well be right!

      I guess what I’m starting to move towards in very stumbling steps is a situation where people do see the difference… I’m not sure it’s always critical though – but it can give rise to some significant issues. Imagine how unpopular I’d have made myself with the organisers if I’d been in Marc’s shoes 🙂

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