Boring Speakers Drone On

It’s not just your imagination, boring speakers drone on. At least according to a small study reported in a letter to Nature:

I investigated this idea at a meeting where speakers were given 12-minute slots. I sat in on 50 talks for which I recorded the start and end time. I decided whether the talk was boring after 4 minutes, long before it became apparent whether the speaker would run overtime. The 34 interesting talks lasted, on average, a punctual 11 minutes and 42 seconds. The 16 boring ones dragged on for 13 minutes and 12 seconds (thereby wasting a statistically significant 1.5 min; t-test, t = 2.91, P = 0.007). For every 70 seconds that a speaker droned on, the odds that their talk had been boring doubled. For the audience, this is exciting news. Boring talks that seem interminable actually do go on for longer.

In my view, the fundamental explanation is that a boring speaker doesn’t think about their audience. A speaker who cares puts herself in the audience’s shoes, thinks in advance about what is important, how much an audience can absorb in one sitting, where a graphic would be helpful and so forth. A good speaker plans and practices and thus ends up being interesting and ending on time.


Yes to practice. And time yourself! Also, there should be a trap door behind every podium that is triggered when a speaker reads a PowerPoint slide.

Reminds me too of what comedian Bill Burr said that as a comedian he’s got an intuitive sense of time. He seems to be able to feel accurately how many minutes passed because of his experience. So I guess not going over also might signal experience as well as planning.

I don't know whether its currently the case, but at least back in the 50s and 60s the RAND Corporation had a drama coach on staff. Whenever someone was scheduled to give an important address they'd get at appointment with the drama coach and rehearse their speech beforehand.

Sounds like Great time to be in America.

Maybe we could Make that happen Again?

Already done. More drama queens than we could ever need these days, starting with the White House.

I saw this and thought it was cute in a couple ways:

"For hunter-gatherers, the day is for working and complaining, the night for telling stories."

Actually it looks like complaining edges out working, sort of like daytime in the MR comment section.

Anyway sure, presentations and storytelling are ancient form. More here:

... boring speakers often have nothing really to say -- and should not be at the podium in the first place

that concept extends to the multitudes of meetings/conferences/forums/lectures/etc that afflict us all. Most of them are unnecessary and serve more as social rituals rather than important communication mechanisms.

(BTW how many boring classes did you endure in grade school, high school & college?)

Alex's post is 100% correct on all counts. Good on him.

I'd be curious about the percentage of speakers that are truly bad. In my experience, it's alarmingly high. Perhaps it's just my field, but I'm amazed how many people can't do a non-awful job of it.

'A good speaker plans and practices and thus ends up being interesting and ending on time.'

Clearly, President Trump disagrees with three of those four points. Which just might explain why he is president.

At least you had the self-awareness not to dump a Wikipedia article on an unrelated topic into these comments.

Just for you, an on topic wikipedia post. Or maybe one that is unrelated to my comment, as one thing Trump can never be accused of is being boring. 'In conventional usage, boredom is an emotional or psychological state experienced when an individual is left without anything in particular to do, is not interested in his or her surroundings, or feels that a day or period is dull or tedious. It is also understood by scholars as a modern phenomenon which has a cultural dimension. "There is no universally accepted definition of boredom. But whatever it is, researchers argue, it is not simply another name for depression or apathy. It seems to be a specific mental state that people find unpleasant—a lack of stimulation that leaves them craving relief, with a host of behavioural, medical and social consequences." According to BBC News, boredom "...can be a dangerous and disruptive state of mind that damages your health"; yet research "...suggest[s] that without boredom we couldn't achieve our creative feats."

In Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity, Elizabeth Goodstein traces the modern discourse on boredom through literary, philosophical, and sociological texts to find that as "a discursively articulated phenomenon...boredom is at once objective and subjective, emotion and intellectualization — not just a response to the modern world but also a historically constituted strategy for coping with its discontents." In both conceptions, boredom has to do fundamentally with an experience of time and problems of meaning.'

Don't encourage him, Tom.

If its only a minute more on the average , it may be a case of much ad(r)o(ne) about nothing.

Paging Rayward.

Every intelligent child should have learnt this at school, in the debating club or drama club. Failing that, every intelligent undergraduate should have learnt the lesson by appraising his lecturers. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that too many dullards go into - for example - academic life.

While we are at it; American introducers of the speaker almost always bang on for far too long.

Bad speakers aren't only bad, they propagate falsehoods they don't even believe in themselves. Last week some speaker told his auditorium that full autonomous driving will be there within 7 years. When I challenged him on this afterward, he wouldn't even bet me $100 on it. Since he's CEO, people do believe his BS!

Go back and watch some of Obama’s snoozefests. “That’s not who we are....zzzzz”

It's pretty amazing how a speaker known for being boring and uninspiring like Obama became president. That was the first thing everyone used to say about him, how terrible a speaker he was, and how little charisma he had. He didn't even have rabid supporters/worshippers like the real presidential orators Jimmy Carter and George Bush I.

Clear enough or should I continue? Come on Rich, don't be that guy.

Man, it sure is interesting watching people announce what team they're on in every single comment thread. I mean, how would I have gotten on in my day without an irrelevant jab at Trump and an irrelevant jab at Obama?

+a whole bunch

Oh man, I live for the day when former President Trump is irrelevant.

Until then, the dude is somewhat active in policy.

I can’t help being truthful. He was deadly boring. I recently went back to check on whether Obama said a particular thing and watched a video of a press conference. I have to admit his technique was very good - he is asked a question, he dodges it and filibusters on an unrelated topic. Consequently, very few questions were able to be asked. He was very good at running out the clock.

Obama had Bush's "have a beer with that guy" charisma plus Clinton's "he's a good listener" vibe minus the scandals, bailouts, and wars. No wonder he's still more wildly popular than "more scandals than all previous presidents combined" Trump.

Obama kept the wars nicely on the simmer though. And added a little one in Libya. He was thwarted in his desire for a conventional attack on Syria so resorted to funding ISIS there instead.

I found him a dull speaker but then I was not his intended audience. The only thing he ever said that I found memorable was his claim that the motor car was an American invention. Oh, and his odd sloppiness about the number of US States - but I imagine he was exhausted when he said that so it's the sort of thing that would only have been held against him if he'd been a Republican.

I agree with the idea that being an interesting speaker correlates with having rehearsed the talk several times (so you know how long it takes and won't run over) and more generally, at skill at public speaking.

IMO, the biggest key to giving a good presentation is rehearsing the talk a lot, and thinking, for every slide, if there is a way to turn all those words into a picture. 40 Powerpoint slides full of words is rarely going to make an interesting talk.

One other question to ask: how does quality of the speaker correlate with quality of the actual result? My sense is that there, it's more uneven. Some very good speakers can make even pretty trivial results seem kinda interesting for a 20 minute talk; some bad speakers can make even a really amazing result seem kinda boring for a 20 minute talk where they start explaining the nitty-gritty details of their proof on slide #2.

This all seems likely, but I would just point out that you never know how much time a speaker had to prepare- something like the "I didn't have time to write a short letter" quote attributed to Twain and Blaise Pascal. A "good" speaker can give a "bad" speech due to circumstances beyond their control.

In my younger days I frequently taught CLE. One in particular I remember. I believe it was late 1970s or early 1980s. Anyway, I was the last speaker on a Friday afternoon, so I decided to awake the poor attendees with a joke. Our moderator was a tall man with a sedentary body, meaning that the body started with a small head and enlarged downward. He introduced me, and I could not help myself. "Thank you Steve. I've known Steve since law school. He is a friend. Not long ago Steve went on a fishing trip for tarpon to Boca Grande. These are large fish, very large fish. Steve's line soon drew a large fish, and he pulled, and he pulled, and soon enough appeared, not a fish, but a mermaid." The mermaid, frightened as it was (and it was an it), pleaded to be released, and offered Steve three wishes if Steve would release the mermaid. Steve, aware of the opportunity, accepted, and asked for three wishes: one, a wife, and not long after Steve married, and second, a career promotion, and not long afterward, Steve was hired by a very good firm, and third, well, not to embarrass Steve or Mr. Kavanaugh, but sex. The mermaid, perplexed, responded that it is a mermaid and is incapable of sex. "That's okay", replied Steve, "how about a little head". I don't know if Steve ever met Mr. Kavanaugh, but they are mermaid brothers.

Soon enough, I was contacted by the president of our state bar association, who told me that jokes like that are not appreciated. I responded: "Are you daft. I am a graduate of a public law school and have been asked to instruct lawyers how to avoid public taxes, do you have no decency, sir?"

Don't quit the day job. :)

Pascal is credited with coming up with "I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time". The same principle applies to talks and lectures: it takes time and effort to craft a tight, concise but complete one.

I'm also reminded of Norman MacLean's story about his father teaching his sons how to write, I think this was in "A River Ones Through It": he'd have them write an essay, and after they'd finished a draft he'd critique it and tell them to make it half as long. And after they'd finished that second draft he'd tell them to make it half as long again. MacLean said he learned how to make his points with minimal froufrou.

The opportunities to try to replicate this are quite common (I hear). Let's see if it does replicate.

Keep in mind that public speaking is one of the most common phobias -- so some people you are forced to listen to are probably scared out of their wits up there. Though maybe some times this makes for a better presentation.

Generally speaking, the job of a speaker should be to encourage curiosity, not to entertain the audience.

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