The Golden Age
As with most nostalgic visions of a golden age in the past, the progress of public speakers producing oratory that captured the attention of a rapt audience for hours on end is only partially true.
There is undeniable evidence of the power of great orators. The good: Martin Luther King captured on film in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial speaking to 250,000 people with his “I have a dream” speech. The bad: Adolf Hitler, spreading hatred through his oratory in the 1920s and 1930s, and the short: John Wesley, the Oxford don, just 5 ft 3 inches tall going out to preach to the illiterate miners of Bristol and attracting nearly 8,000 on his first Sunday alone in April 1739. Some of the great oratory of the twentieth century has been captured on film and has been made available on the Internet..
On the other hand, this view belongs to the same golden age where the local bobby cycled around preventing local youths becoming drug barons by a simple clip around the ear. For every great orator, we can remember the occasions when we have been bored to tears. I remember being on a course for new lecturers where we were learning about teaching, and a colleague announced:
“Well the problem is, I have the most boring part of the syllabus to teach!”
This was almost certainly a self fulfilling prophecy! I was glad I wasn't one of his students.
Graphics to accompany talks were either hand written, typed or photographic slides. The overhead projector allowed speakers to illustrate their talks with words and sketches in hideous shades of mauve.
Viewed from the present, much of the activity of even twenty years ago looks hideously old fashioned. There are almost certainly increased expectations on the part of listeners these days. Many people are seeking to communicate with them in very sophisticated ways. Today’s children live in a world of instant high quality media. We are also dealing with a much less deferential society. In many cases, listeners will not sit still to be politely bored: and if they do it once, they will do it no more than once.
As an undergraduate, I was part of a group of 180 students. For the first week of a lecture course, it was normal for about 100 to actually turn up. Over the next few weeks, the numbers either rose to about 120 as good reports spread, or started to drop. There was one professor who was rumoured to have been very close to a Nobel prize. However, his lecturing style was such that by week 5 there were only 11 students left. Two weeks later, he was into single figures, apparently. I cannot speak from this first hand because I had given up by that point.
Some readers may be shocked by this, and feel that more pressure should have been exerted to make attendance compulsory. Apart from the flippant observation that human rights conventions were introduced to stop such abuse, surely the more appropriate response is to seek to improve the quality of communication. There's no point in enforcing attendance if no communication takes place. And students did attend if it was worthwhile.
Another professor had written a book based on his lectures: it was sufficiently close to the lectures that at the end of each session you could agree with colleagues that he had reached the bottom of page X. And yet he achieved very good attendance because his lectures added understanding to the written word on the page.
Characteristic of this era of presentation was a great variation in the quality of public speaking.
The best was wonderful, the worst was truly awful.
Then along came PowerPoint and that made everything better, didn’t it?
Gillies AC (2007) The Art of Presentation: getting it right in the post modern era, Radcliffe Publishing, Abingdon