A question for you: what should I do with my lectures?

By Carl Zimmer | March 10, 2011 5:22 pm

I just got back from San Francisco, where I gave a keynote lecture about how our bodies are like ponds, and why doctors need to think like ecologists. It takes a lot of time for me to put these talks together, and so I like to share them afterwards with more people than those who were physically in the room with me. Sometimes the people who invite me videotape the lectures and put them online. (Example: A talk I gave about science and the media.)

Other times, I make an audio recording and merge it with the slides to create a video. (Example: A talk about Neanderthals.) Still other times, I turn my lecture notes into an essay, illustrated with some of my slides. (Example: a piece on why we get old.) Either way, it takes a fair amount of time and so I want to make sure I’m actually making something people want to watch or read. But it occurred to me that I don’t know audience psychology well enough to know what the best course of action is.

So, if you don’t mind, let me foist this quick little poll on you. I’d really appreciate your answers, which I’ll post in a few days. And I’ll use the results to figure out what to do with my latest talk.

How do you like lectures online?online survey


Comments (18)

  1. A downloadable podcast or essay backed up with slides.
    Please do share your brilliant mind with us!
    Looking forward to hearing more from you.

  2. Alison

    I’m more likely to read a post than watch a video, unless it’s under 5 minutes.
    I can skim a post and search it for key words.
    Thanks for asking!

  3. Video and audio are great. I can listen to it while doing other mind-numbing tasks like washing dishes or exercising.

  4. I rarely watch video or listen to audio that is more than a few minutes. It’s not acceptable at work, so I normally skip it – saving the link for later just gives me a huge backlog I eventually delete unseen. At home, watching a long video on the laptop is asocial in a way that watching TV is not, so I normally avoid it there too.

    And as a non-native speaker I have much more trouble understanding video or audio than text. A written blog or essay I can read at my own pace, and I can skip around double-checking what I read. Speech, on the other hand, happens at the speakers pace, not my own; with the speakers’ dialect and verbal tics; and with audio quality that generally ranges from so-so to incomprehensible. Understanding requires a focused effort that makes it feel like work, not enjoyment. I believe people with hearing disabilities have much the same problem.

    So, illustrated blog post for me. If it’s video or audio I don’t bother.

  5. Frank T.

    Prefer podcasts. I convert your videos to MP3 and listen to them while I exercise.

  6. I would never watch just slides with audio. If it’s a video of the lecture, I might (and have!), but for some reason being able to see the speaker makes it far more engaging that a powerpoint with an audio overlay. If the material is understandable without the slides, I’d definitely listen to it as a podcast, otherwise I think a blogpost is best.

  7. Katja

    I love podcasts. I subscribe to a number of feeds and periodically load them onto my ipod. There they wait for me until I have some time to kill over lunch, on the metro, on a plane, or waiting at a doctor’s office.

  8. Eleanor

    I prefer reading to listening, partially as I can read a heck of a lot faster (and skip back and forth more easily).
    It looks like we might be split 50:50 though!

  9. Aurora

    Like Kevin Bonham, I’m more likely to watch a talk if I can see the speaker. If it’s just audio+slides I end up involuntarily treating it more like a podcast (i.e. I end up not looking at the slides). If images are really necessary/helpful, then a blogpost with the slides as images is probably more likely to keep me engaged.

  10. M Caro

    I prefer blog posts. If you must provide audio in order to reach people, please make it possible to download without video. My connection speed is slow and I can listen on an MP3 player. I especially enjoy audio when you are doing an interview because of the way the connection between two people comes across.

  11. Sajanas

    At work, I can read a blog post, since I have no speakers. At home, I’m reluctant to devote an hour or two hours to a lecture that I could read in 15 minutes. I know a lot of people prefer podcasts though, since they can listen in the car or jogging… so Both might be best.

  12. Simon

    Podcasts would be my top choice too, though this can obviously be challenging if slides form a key component for understanding. So I’d say podcast if we can get away with missing the slides, otherwise video & slides. Much appreciated whichever form it’s presented in though! Thanks.

  13. Rich

    I prefer reading. Something I can do while running code builds or during lunch. Can’t really watch video at work and once I get home my only time is a couple hours after the kids go down – which I set aside for reading & writing.

  14. Daniel J. Andrews

    Given a choice I prefer to read than watch–much quicker. I see others above have said the same thing so ditto from me.

  15. Travis

    A video if it is less than 10 minutes, over 10 minutes usually is a bit intimidating.

  16. gc

    Video if under 10 mins, mp3 if over 10 mins. I listen to the longer stuff while hiking or driving.

  17. Brian Too

    Honestly I don’t know. However this does put me in mind of something I saw recently.

    The current CEO of TED was being interviewed. He made the point that TED has prospered by opening up their material to the public. It’s a not-for-profit anyways, but they thought that the conferences might be hurt by online availability. Not only was that wrong, but the conferences have gone worldwide and exploded in popularity.

    Since the TED model is of a 20 minute presentation, I suspect that you can ask this of an audience for your stuff too. You’ll lose some if it’s not Twitter length but it strikes me that your thinking process is not productively structured that way. Play to your strengths.

    My guess is that slides only, or audio only, will cost you significant audience share. Not enough senses engaged. Specialists and obsessives will watch (or listen) but everyone else will drop away.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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