Why Not Walking Talks?

Most people see exercise as healthy, and see walking as a reasonably comfortable form of exercise. Some think that they should spend precious exercise time doing something more athletic, and others just can’t find the time to walk. But most seem to enjoy walking and see it as healthy, if only they could find the time.

I’ve been spending a lot of time giving talks lately, mostly on my book. I’m also back to teaching now that summer is over. Usually, these events all happen in a room, where I stand in front while everyone else sits. Sometimes I teach my class out on the grass instead of in a room. And so I wonder: why can’t we give talks while walking outside?

Yes, you’d have to forego visual aids, unless someone works out some pretty fancy tech. And yes, you’d need to pick a walking route that is quiet enough so that the audience could hear the speaker, and so a full-throated speaker won’t bother others along the route. Sometimes the weather isn’t agreeable. The audience would find it harder to see the speaker’s face, and a bigger group would need a louder speaker and more tolerant neighbors. And those who can’t walk might need someone else to push them in a wheelchair.

But none of these seem insurmountable barriers. We already manage to schedule lots of shared activities outdoors. We already have walking talks when guides take groups through battlefields, museums, and other special places. Is it so hard to have talks not focused on the immediate physical surroundings?

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  • It is a question of distraction.

    • Many lecture halls and churches are full of big picture windows, art, etc.

  • Matt M

    I had tutorials at Oxford walking around the University Parks. However, that was just the tutor and two students in discussion. I don’t think a lecture format would work as well. For group tours you have to stop for each bit of delivery. Walking time is wasted, so efficiency is low.

    That said, I think the changing scenery helps recollection and concentration. Hot, windowless lecturerooms are soporific.

  • Notetaking.

  • Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky often mentioned they went for walks for discussion to work things out. Here’s Richard Thaler talking about it: “My office was near Danny’s and we spent countless hours wandering the hills, brainstorming about what the intersection of our two fields might be. They knew nothing about economics and I knew nothing about psychology, so it was one walk at a time, but we had a lot of fun.”

    I know there are other famous scientists and writers (especially pre-car) who did the same. Mostly I can recall examples of small groups of peers discussing, rather than a larger group with a teacher lecturing.

    In short I think there’s plenty of empirical examples of small groups walking and talking that have worked. So it’s mostly just overcoming norms of the people you want to do it with.

    It’s less clear at what size of group this falls apart. Certainly 5 or 8 people can do it. Certainly 100 (or likely even 50) is too big. Obviously a better speaker with a louder voice helps allow larger sizes. And of course with tour groups, the tour group leader will often have a portable mic headset, and wear a small speaker in a vest. This works surprisingly well if the sound clarity is good! And you’re in a place where people don’t mind. So with that technical workaround, no doubt the max size is quite a bit larger than no mic. Even if the discussion necessarily then becomes mostly 1 to many, rather than back and forth. But most classrooms are like that anyway.

  • Douglas Knight

    It is difficult for a lecturer to face the audience while walking. One option is to just not face them (and use amplification). Campus tour guides walk backwards, but they probably have a lot of practice giving the same speech on the same route. Most tour guides walk to a new location, gather the group, and give a speech. There is certainly something to be said for pausing to let people digest, but it is at odds with the typical conception of the lecture. Also, corralling the group can be time-consuming.

  • davidmanheim

    It occurs to me that there is a fair amount of research about location-triggered memory. This may be both an advantage and disadvantage to this idea; it’s harder for students to recall the ideas due to their location when taking tests, etc., but it may be more accessible generally.
    (I find that if I think of the room I took a class in, I recall the information better – but obviously that’s n=1, with no controls.)

  • Robert Rounthwaite

    #1 — that was a devilishly difficult headline to parse before I read the article.

    #2 — I can see logistical problems with large groups walking around. A question that is harder to understand is: why aren’t more one-on-one meetings or meetings of 3 people held while walking? When I managed a medium-sized team, I had my regular one or ones as walks whenever the weather permitted.

    • #1 — Seriously? I found it trivial, and can’t think of how to misunderstand it.

      • Robert Rounthwaite

        Why “Not Walking” Talks is one of many parses that I saw.

      • That makes no sense.

      • Robert Rounthwaite

        This is often the case when people see things differently — “the dress is obviously blue”, etc. I assumed the article might have been something along these lines, but mainly knew that I didn’t understand what it was going to be about because I didn’t think of “walking” as modifying “talks” — I’ve been in your shoes plenty of times. http://business.time.com/2012/08/31/top-reasons-why-americans-stay-at-their-jobs-and-what-it-means-for-the-presidential-campaign/

      • Sophistic bullshit. This is nothing like the blue dress.

        “I didn’t understand what it was going to be about because I didn’t think of “walking” as modifying “talks””

        In other words, it was simply your own failing, nothing else.

      • It can be hard to understand without being ambiguous, can’t it? (I’d call the title disfluent, which isn’t always bad – http://disputedissues.blogspot.com/2011/09/cognitive-disfluency-simpler-isnt.html )

      • Rounthwaite said it was “devilishly difficult … to parse”. It’s not … “walking” is either a verb or an adjective, and it’s clearly the latter here. And once parsed, it is easily understood, no less so than “Why not ambulatory talks?”

      • Devilish it’s not, but awkward it is. The problem is, as you note, the miscue by “talks,” which (rather than “walking”) is what wants replacement: “Why not walking lectures?”

      • Sure it’s awkward and could have been better written, but that’s not the claim I responded to.

  • Robert Koslover

    Robin, I actually think you came up with several good answers to your own question… and then you just dismissed them! Read them again; they are pretty good objections.

  • Joshua Fox
  • You’ve proposed that education serves to accustom students to hierarchy and subordination. Peripatetic instruction has a more forager ethos than sitdown lectures, which emphasize hierarchy: a prof standing and the students sitting and taking notes.

    • Yes, I’m more puzzled by this absence in non-teaching contexts.

  • Jens Gustafsson

    As for the practical part of students hearing the lecturer, that is easily solved today in modern guide walks where the guide uses a microphone and a radio transmitter, the guided have a receiver with an ear-plug. This means no disturbances, neither to or from the surrounding.. That was one problem solved.. Weather can be trickier, especially in a cold climate as Sweden has 🙂

  • Sebastian Nickel

    The one-way communication from speaker to audience members might work okay, at least if using a mic and ear pieces or somesuch.

    I don’t see question-answering working well, unless one were to devise a fairly fanciful way of coordinating who gets to talk at any given time.

    And if we drop questions along with visuals, it becomes a much more obvious question why the speaker doesn’t just record the talk and allow others to listen to it at their leisure, e.g. while going for a walk.

    So part of the explanation might be that it would be harder to come up with plausible excuses for the “live talk” format that are not related to status games.

    (I also think Robin’s anticipated objections are stronger than he seems to think.)

    • Seems Q&A could work via questioners working their way up to walk next to the speaker, and the speaker repeating the question.

  • blogospheroid

    It’s not exactly what you were talking about, but walk the talk with Shekhar Gupta is a popular indian english interview show. Again, as others have noted, a one on one or one on few format works better with walking than a full lecture.


  • Mr Walker

    Walking does not require geospatial mobility. Put treadmill desks in classrooms for lecturer and listeners. That bypasses all barriers you mentioned. Remaining: treadmill cost, space and noise.

  • Anonymous

    A more general pattern is this: if Y is better than X, but X is always available, people will do X even at times they can do Y.

  • arch1

    Change of pace, get the blood flowing, good exercise – seems very enticing.

    More generally I wonder whether we are insufficiently exploiting human adaptations to long-extant modes of spreading knowledge.

    The university PR folks could call it “paleo learning”:-)

  • Alex Flint

    Everyone would need to move in the same direction, which means they would need to face the same direction, which means the audience wouldn’t much be able to watch the speaker.

  • Ruairí Donnelly

    Some friends and I are doing something similar: at ten minutes notice, everyone joins a conference call in their respective countries and walks for two miles while they discuss three questions together. The organizers of the call prepare the questions, and invite the participants (who often don’t know each other).

    It’s been a really great experience, and I think it parallels walking lectures in several ways.

    By the way, thanks for your great presentation in Berlin this month!

  • vaniver

    Isn’t this how the ancient Greek philosophical schools were organized?

  • hermanubis

    ‘the provision of visual cues … increased the accuracy of speech stimuli identification in both silence and noise’-http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3685792/. Its difficult looking at a speakers face while walking in groups larger than 3-5. We can assume that, like everything, different people have differing skill at audiovisual processing. The traditional speaker-at-front-facing-attendees setup allows people with differing skills to self segregate as needed (the front row is rarely the first to fill up). Most walking tours I’ve taken include stops where most of the talking is done, I don’t believe that’s what you’re referring to here.

  • Instead of asking, just do it and see how it works out.