TCR Grad Blog

Graduate director's blog for the Technical Communication and Rhetoric Program at Texas Tech University

Worst Speaker Ever

Posted by Joyce on November 20, 2010

Maybe it was just one person, but in our post-May-Workshop survey, one of our speakers was trashed for not being interesting, not being short enough, or simply being “the worst speaker I’ve heard in some time.”

I’d first like to say that I hear you and appreciate your criticism. However, I’d like to offer a rebuttal to your claims if you’ll indulge me. At the level of interest, arguments like the following may be answered by saying Yes, I suppose she could have been snappier or could have tried to apply her study to your particular utilitarian expectations, but what she did was scholarly and relevant to the field. As academics, we attend bureaucratic meetings, listen to student presentations, and consider a wide range of work in progress. Considering X flew across the country, invited by us to speak to us about her current work in progress, I think the principle of charity requires that we expand our expectations and empathetically listen and learn from someone who has clearly invested enormous time and intellectual effort.

X wasn’t very engaging/interesting to me (and I’m interested in rhetoric).

Contrary to these claims of irrelevance or interest, I myself found X’s talk to hit squarely in at least three of our stated emphasis areas, visual rhetoric, the rhetoric of science, and technology. I found it fascinating how what we know (epistemology) depends so greatly on tools and techniques of observation and how what’s believable depends on seeing something with enough detail to be visually compelling.

To put it bluntly, X’s talk was horrible; the speech was too long, and the topic was confusing and boring. I stayed for the talk because I thought it would be rude to leave

At least an honest assessment:

I did not find X’s talk particularly engaging. This is less a comment on the value of the outside speakers, which I enjoy, and more a comment on her presentation style.

and this:

X’s talk was surprisingly not useful. I found her talk to be a squashed version of a much longer talk, which she admitted, and her technical terms (gel electrophoresis) were for the scientific community rather than the rhetorical community. Odd. It was interesting, but not really informative, sort of like seeing an animal you cannot identify as mammal, reptile, bird, etc.

On almost any metric that’s relevant to our program, our mission, our stated emphasis areas, I think X was relevant and interesting, and she’s a scholar you are lucky to have seen and met. I certainly do not aim to please any single individual student in the PhD program through these invitations, but rather hope to offer you access to scholars and researchers you have read in your classes. Over your four- or five-year stint with us, you will have met, dined with, and heard influential scholars and theorists who define our field. You cannot simply sit back and say, “well, because my own interests lie solely in Classical Rhetoric, I have no use of hearing professor X talk about Design,” because if you do so, then you’re foregoing an incredibly valuable experience, one that we brought to you while you’re eating lunch. Nothing more than intellectual curiosity is required of you, along with a willingness to engage minds different from your own.

I do not know if this is possible, but I would like to see a more careful screening of speakers. While Y was wonderful, X was absolutely the worst speaker I have heard in some time.

As for this observation, all I can say is that you either haven’t gotten out very much or you’ve been blessed with a statistically unusual exposure to speakers, perhaps TED talks on YouTube or elsewhere. Perhaps you’re seeing only highly polished presentations. Or maybe you’re hearing conventional presentations of survey data. Or maybe you work in a school or industry that has a required stylesheet and presentation style, and thus everything you see has a certain professional sheen attached to it. Maybe you hear only consultants who are paid to deliver pithy and happy maxims to you. I don’t know why X is “absolutely the worst speaker [you] have heard in some time.”

All I can offer by way of rebuttal is the following. I have heard hundreds of academic talks during my time in the Academy, talks covering scores of topics, attempting a number of tight-rope intellectual feats, and aiming at a number of outcomes (research, theory, ideas, history, data, and so on). And I would put the visit by our esteemed visitor X in the top quartile. It was heartfelt, intelligently researched, and highly relevant for the field in general and our program specifically.

Given that the majority of us work, or seek to work, in institutions of scholarship (some of it esoteric and marginal to our own personal interests), I would argue that you need to see more of this type of presentation, not less of it. I myself (and I realize I’m committing the fallacy of the individual taste that I just belittled) would rather see presentations in the ratio of 2 of professor X to 1 of the pithy and entertaining consultant Y. Which is not to say that we won’t continue to invite a wide range of speakers, but rather to say that the world is large (and so is our discipline), and I find it astounding that some of you would be so quick to dismiss one corner of this discipline just because it was too lengthy or didn’t appeal to your particular needs, especially when we brought this expert to you, requiring nothing of you but a willingness to learn about this corner of our discipline.


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