What’s the Difference between a Speech and a Presentation?

Asked to describe a speech, I think most of us would say, “It’s a guy standing at a lectern on a stage reading from notes, a script, or a teleprompter.”

Asked to describe a presentation, we would say, “It’s somebody standing in front of a room with a screen behind her, where she’s showing visuals to explain something to the audience.”

So what’s the difference?

First, the similarities are pretty obvious.  Both involve one person talking to a group of people.  The people listening are sitting down, facing the speaker, and passively listening.  The person speaking is working hard to say something to the listeners, and has probably worked hard to prepare her thoughts and materials.

The first difference is that we don’t see visuals in a speech.  The speaker strives to paint a picture in the mind of the audience, but he’s doing it with words, not with images on a screen.

The next difference is the degree of formality.  Speeches are more formal than presentations.  They date back to 500 BCE and maybe even further, beyond our historical record.  Great speeches have rocked the world.  They are about (or should be) about big ideas, values, and concerns.

Presentations are more informal than speeches.  We associate them with more technical, mundane circumstances.  They have their roots in education, the military, and the practical trades, such as building and engineering.  They tend to be about facts and figures.

Speeches are given to larger crowds, and therefore must to appeal to the emotions.  The larger the crowd, the less complex the material should be.

Presentations are generally given to smaller groups, and therefore can be more detail-oriented.  The smaller group should always be given a chance to discuss the material, ask questions, and engage with the speaker.  This is not possible when thousands are listening to a speech.

Speeches are made in suits and tuxedos,  presentations in shirtsleeves and slacks.   Speeches require broad vision, whereas presentations often require a deep, narrow focus.

Speeches can be made to persuade or entertain, but not to inform.  Presentations can do all three — inform, persuade, and entertain.  Occasionally, someone gives a presentation that accomplishes all those goals simultaneously.

Just because you’re good at one, it doesn’t mean you’re good at the other.   Speechmaking is a different muscle, requiring development.   Likewise the informality and accessiblity of  presenting can be hard for those accustomed to the lectern and the teleprompter.

CEOs and thought leaders give speeches.  Managers and technical experts give presentations.  Of course this is an oversimplification, but it evokes the distinction I’m making.

Someone once said ( I forget who) that the only reason to give a speech is to change the world.  That’s a tall order, requiring the speaker to ratchet up her degreee of intention.

Presentations require clear thinking and organization, but do not often demand that the speaker light the world on fire–just throw a little light on the subject at hand.


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