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Is There a Difference Between Presentation and a Lecture?

A man standing on the stage giving a presentation

The differences between a presentation and a lecture can be subtle. However, there are a number of important factors to consider in how to approach one or the other, which will impact how you formulate your given talk.

The key difference between a presentation and a lecture is that a lecture is mostly given by authority and is typically formal in nature. It is mostly one-way communication. Whereas, a presentation can have an element of demonstration. It allows for collaboration and usually follows a story arc.

While these slight nuances might be hard to grasp, there are important distinctions you will need to make when it comes to preparing for a public speaking engagement. Let’s understand these in detail.

1. Event Format – Series vs Standalone

One of the most important differences between a lecture and a presentation is the context in which it is given. A lecture will generally form part of a larger body of work. This might, for example, be part of a broader series of lectures of which this talk is just one – given by the same speaker or otherwise.

A lecture may also form a particular means of presenting the findings of a book or research paper to an audience.

In contrast, a presentation is generally more likely to be a standalone piece of work. That is not to say that it cannot serve as the culmination of research for a project, but a presentation is typically a one-off event.

Presentations will normally encapsulate the entirety of a concept, idea or theory; relating to a single event, which will make it possible to listen to and understand in isolation.

2. Authority vs Peer-to-Peer

a group of students sitting in a lecture hall waiting for a lecture to start

To this end, the purpose of either a presentation or a lecture is an essential element in differentiating between the two. Lectures tend to have an educative purpose. They will often be part of a university module, or a conference.

A lecture is intended to help the audience understand the material. After all, the etymology of the word is one which stems from the Latin word ‘Lectura’ or ‘Legere’ – meaning to read. As such, a lecture is intended to come from a position of authority, whereby the speaker is telling the listeners about a topic which they are particularly knowledgeable on.

In contrast, a presentation is typically considered to be more peer to peer. Therefore, it is intended for a more specific audience who might have a more vested interest in the content of the discussed material.

Presentations tend to be given in a professional setting, as opposed to an educative one. You might be pitching a new idea, presenting your quarterly reports, or speaking to your department about the company’s plans for the future.

In a university setting you may find that the difference between lectures and presentations lies in the simple matter of who is giving the talk. If it is a Professor, then it will be labelled as a lecture.

Meanwhile, if students are presenting their work or contributing to a seminar then this will be deemed a presentation.

3. In-depth Learning vs Introduction to a Subject

The intended purpose of the presentation will therefore have an impact on the audience who will be listening. This will also affect what they want to gain from listening to your talk and it may also be a reason to change the structure and content of your talk in order to retain their attention.

A lecture, being given in an educative situation, will be intended to teach the listeners about a given topic. Therefore, a lecture will typically develop a layered understanding of the content contained within it. The audience will typically be there to learn, and the lecturer will be aiming to convey their knowledge to the students in as much detail as possible.

It is likely that those listening will be taking notes, which will have an impact on what you include in your script (if you have one), your slides, and how you deliver them. In particular, you don’t want to speak too quickly, and you want to make it as easy as possible for people to take the notes they need throughout your lecture.

In both cases, it is important that you consider who your audience is when you are giving either a lecture or a presentation. But remember, whichever you are giving, you need to tailor its content to suit their needs and wants, in order to maximise your impact on them.

In both lectures and presentations, you ought to consider the fact that the audience may need to participate. In a lecture, this might be more freeform, with listeners interjecting to ask questions. Although, if you do not want this to happen you should address this when you begin and ask for them to restrain until you have finished speaking.

A presentation will typically not allow for interjections, as it is much more of a demonstration than a lesson. You should allow time for questions at the end so that listeners are able to clarify any issues. After all, there may not be a follow up session and either you or they may have to go elsewhere immediately afterwards.

4. Length of a Lecture vs Presentation

An unknown woman giving a presentation to a group of people

The first thing to consider when formulating any presentation is how long will you take to deliver it. Lectures will generally be slightly longer than a presentation – usually lasting somewhere around an hour in length.

Meanwhile, a presentation is typically shorter because the content contained within it requires less depth and provides more on an overview or insight into a topic, rather than an explanation.

In this regard, it is also again important to consider the role of your audience in the formation of your presentation. After all, if you are expecting your audience to take notes which they will go over at a later date, then you should consider how you help them in their note taking.

If you are using slides to support your lecture, you should make sure to include sources and associated reading, so that those who are listening are able to note this down, in order to pursue any further research themselves.

This may also be important if your audience wish to cite your lecture in their research, because if your lecture isn’t also properly cited then they may have issues in doing so.

You should also highlight the most important points throughout and do your best to signpost your audience through every element of your lecture to make it as easy as possible to digest the content you are giving them.

In a presentation, on the other hand, it helps to me more direct with the content you are giving to the audience. They generally only need to know the main points of what you are saying to them and will not often have the need or ability to go and read around the given subject.

To this end, you should also make sure that your presentation is visually appealing and engaging. While a lecture can go without slides, as the content of the spoken argument and information is more important; a presentation requires you to put across what you are saying in the easiest to comprehend fashion.

5. Tonality – Formal vs Informal

A lecture, typically being part of a wider series of work, will have a very different structure to a presentation. It might start by going over the content discussed in the previous lecture, before going on to outline how the next lecture will follow on from this and fit into the wider series.

In this sense, lectures often take a much more academic approach, whereby they are heavily structured, referenced and researched. Particularly in a University context, this is important as students might be being taught about cutting edge research.

Therefore, lecturers need to be able to demonstrate to their students where the information they are giving is from, so that they too can investigate it further.

In contrast, presentations are generally less formal in this regard. The reason for a presentation is much more immediate than you would associate with a lecture.

That is to say, the presentation does not necessarily need to relate to anything that has gone before it or will come after it. It is needed in order to convey information to the audience for the duration of the time in which they are listening to it.

Therefore, while a lecture might follow the Aristotelian method of ‘say what you are going to say, say it, and then say what you said’, a presentation can generally take a more freeform approach – choosing to settle on the significant pieces of information and arriving at a very specific conclusion.

This is not to say a presentation needs to be any less thorough. In a corporate setting in particular, you will need to make sure it is fully supported by the right data and is well structured and argued. However, it doesn’t necessarily need the same academic rigour as a lecture might in a University setting.