28 comments on “Style vs substance – what’s your view?

  1. Good point, Jeremy.

    Substance is obviously more important (by a long shot), but substance is much more palatable and enjoyable with a bit of style thrown in. It doesn’t work so well the other way around…

    I hope coursebook producers read this post of yours:

    ‘Stylistically arresting maybe, (and at times, yes, weirdly beautiful)… the substance completely failed to convince (I thought). There was nothing there. The dialogue was awful, the characters were universally unlikeable cardboard cut-outs, the action was unbelievable on so many different levels.’

    They could learn from it!

    – Mr. Raven

    • Hi Mr Raven – Jason,

      I entirely agree that sometimes coursebooks feel a bit like my description of Melancholia! I hope I have never been responsible.

      However, one of my points in the post is that not everyone will agree with me – and this is the same even for coursebooks. What some teachers/students love others sometimes hate!

      Strange world.

      But yes, coursebook writers/publishers do need to try not to fall into the style/substance trap!


  2. Hi Jeremy,

    An interesting reflection, the one you invite us to make. As a conference goer, I have certainly commented on the content/style of sessions I have attended with other teachers during the conference, right after the sessions… But as a conference presenter I had never thought about it like that.

    I agree with Jason that the substance is what matters, but the style makes it more enjoyable. As a graphic designer in my “past life”, the style holds importance to me. Style helps engage the audience, many times it makes the content easier to understand. But style alone has no value. They’re complementary.

    You ask us: “Are we sometimes blinded by the mood music, by the ‘images’, the feel – so that we ignore the (absence of?) substance underneath all that?”. I don’t think so… we may enjoy it, momentarily let us be taken by it, but we leave the session feeling it was just “pretty”. And it soon leaves our memory. There are many “pretty” things around, and we would be quite empty ourselves if we let ourselves be fooled by it.

    As a conference goer I want both. I want content presented in style. As a presenter, I can only hope to deliver that. But rest assured I’ll remember your post the next time I am preparing a presentation.


    • Hi Cecilia,

      thanks for coming along!

      I think your mention of ‘previous life’ graphic design is entirely apposite. Good design helps. of course it does, you are right.

      But there has to be something behind that design, doesn’t there? Otherwise it’s like those font examples with gibberish words!


      • Hi Jeremy,

        I think my reply sounds as if I had focused much in the aesthetics of style – which maybe I do, given the background. But that sure is not all of it. there’s the style of delivery, which is probably what matters most.

        Charismatic people, people who have the gift of speaking in public, have an advantage. (Most times) They engage people whether they have content or not (IMHO). But does it last? I don’t think so…it may be enjoyable while it lasts, but then it’s gone… At the same time, from my experience, those who have the content and lack the charisma also don’t last much.

        A combination is necessary. A little of both. As in most things in life as well – don’t you agree?


  3. Hellooo…

    I’ve been accused of, amongst other things, using ‘too many gags’ in my conference talks, so your point resonates loud & clear. I like to put on a show at conferences and entertain the troops, so I suppose I’m guilty of going for style over substance to a certain extent.

    My defence is that teachers give up a lot to attend weekend conferences, especially if they have children. I want them to remember the
    event with some relish and so I try to up the entertainment value.

    This is why it’s good to have some kind of follow-up workshop session, where people can challenge you a bit more, and you have to show there’s a bit of substance behind the style.

    It’s also good to follow up your talk in a blog, so people who may have been a bit uncertain about challenging you face-to-face can let you know what they really think!

    • Hi ken,

      thanks for leaving a comment here – especially one that resonates with me so much. Because yes, people do expect not only stuff to provoke and inform, but also some sense of an event. But just as with teaching, we ‘big’ ourselves up at the possible expense of the others.


      I like your comments about follow-up workshops etc. Workshops are indeed a different kind of event!


  4. I think when I’m doing a workshop, when i expect there to be not that many people, I try and aim for something of a balance (or at least of trying to make the substance as appetising and engaging as possible). However, I recently did my first genuinely big plenary talk, and I was very conscious of making sure it was full of substance, and shied away from the style (or what passes for style in my case). As a result, while I’m pretty sure it went down well and was actually useful, I’m slightly uncertain as to whether it was “fun” (well I’m sure it wasn’t fun, but I hope it kept people engaged).

    I’m still pondering what’s best. I do know that I prefer talks which tend toward the substance end of the continuum, but I’m not sure if that’s just me.

    • Hi Andy,

      thanks for commenting, and yes, I am sure you are right that workshops demand more of a substance edge than, perhaps, larger ‘public’ events.

      I would love to have heard your plenary! I’m sure it was engaging.

      Like Ken (above) I worry I veer too far to the style end of the continuum. But if people have to hear 4 or 5 plenaries in a day….?


  5. Hi Jeremy,

    My impression is that there’s as many take-away pictures of what was good – and even what was said – as the people in the audience. But mood too is important, I’m alarmed at times of how sheep-like we can become when there’s a noticeable buzz around a speaker or a theme.

    Anyway, what I really wanted to say is that I’ve just posted a link to it on the TeachingEnglish facebook page so that people there can join in the discussion – so you might like to check there for comments.

    And please feel free to post yourself on the page whenever you have anything you’d like to share.



    • Hi Ann,

      well it’s kind of one and the other isn’t it! People react to talks very differently (your first comment) and yet the crowd can sometimes be universally carried away by fame and style.


      I’ll certainly have a look at that facebook page.


  6. I think we live in a world of style. It is what attracts us to new things. Hopefully there are people out there who are combining them both. I recently had a similar thought about style and substance. When designing a blended learning lesson, is the audio, video, web content just for style or is there substance in there. It is something I am questioning more and more. I would like to find a framework for blended learning.
    I read a paper that said extraneous material can interfere with the learning process. I think we have to keep a lot in mind when making a lesson or presentation. We all want substance, but style keeps people interested. Additionally, we have to be careful not to go off topic. Just because it is interesting, it doesn’t mean it is relevant.

    • Hi Simon,

      thanks for coming along – and your mention of technology (blended learning). I think that’s entirely relevant. Teachers have to cut through the ‘bells-and-whistles’ aspects of IT (all that glitters is not gold!) and make sure that we are using whatever it is for a purpose.


  7. Jeremy,

    I think you raise an issue that goes to the bottom of each teacher’s belief system and philosophies of Ed. So many contentious issues could be framed by this “style vs substance” duality. Kind of like the left / right wing dualism in politics.

    For me, style is substance, substance is style. Or to put it better, “the medium can be the message”. It all depends on the audience/learners, the subject/objectives and the presenter/teacher. One should “stylize” the substance in a way that will best allow learning to happen. The ensuing presentation should blend style and substance so that you won’t know where one starts and the other ends. And that’s why I’m a big believer in metaphor – that teaching is the art of the metaphor. All presenters should find the metaphors (those golden nuggets that compresses style/substance into learning) most appropriate for the setting/subject.

    I’m a believer that style is “first among equals” in a public setting. Substance can be learned individually, in a book, a video, online. However, style can send it to the heart and make it your own.

    But alas, to me, there isn’t a clear answer. It’s all situational and that’s why presenting is an art not a science.


    • Hi David,

      thanks for bringing Marshall McLuhan into it!

      You have raised an intriguing line of argument. In public we need style, on our own we don’t!

      Is that what you meant?


  8. I’m not a usual conference goer, but when I get the possibility to attend some, I appreciate both, style and substance.The substance certainly is the most important, but the style is definitely important to capture the audience attention and keep it alive.
    If the style is boring and colorless you get aspleep and miss the substance. I think it’s very important the talker keep attention alive by saying sometime funny sentences or exemples , suggesting the idea that he/she is not simply repeating the same “old story” but is driving and following at the same time his audience.

    • Hi Monica,

      thanks for your comments.

      I remember (always with fondness) my best MA lecturer who regularly injected jokes into his talks as an almost stylistic gimmick. Yet the only time I heard Chomsky lecture it seemed artless – yet the whole auditorium hing on his every single complex word.

      But yes, I am sure that the best lecturers DO think about the ‘how’ of it, not just the ‘what’.


  9. I believe substance is the key issue because it enables us to build up our reference points into morre complex operations, which, in turn, we can adapt to circumstances. While style works like garnish on a well cooked dish. It articulates with substance, but cannot replace it or dominate it.

    Salvina La Cognata

  10. Hi Jeremy,

    I think that people are so much more visually sophisticated than they ever used to be that style is super-important in any situation, especially at a 3 day conference where one may attend 15 (or more) talks. However if the style is not supported by substance the memories soon fade away and I think you’re left with a “lovely presentation, but what was it about again?” feeling of emptiness! On the other hand, if the substance is not supported by a high level of style then you’re left with a “interesting, but what a dull speaker” sense of having been cheated! It’s such a delicate balance and like Ken, I too tend towards a high level of style, perhaps sometimes at the expense of a bit more substance… (thanks for helping me reflect on this today!)

    Interstingly this has been the subject of endless debate on the Colombian National ELT conference committee. My argument has always been that is a world full of multiple competing interests (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and visual sophistication, it is vital that the audience be entertained as well as educated. But the more academically minded people on the committee seem to favour slightly duller, bullet pointed styles full of substance but with a style rating of -7. This may be why attendance is falling and the evaluation forms are reflecting ever more discontent with the conference…


    • Hello Nick,

      really pleased to see you here!

      My experience of your presentations (actually only one so far) is that there was an entirely satisfactory mix of interesting/challenging content and exciting style.

      I have got to the stage (in all the conferences I go to) where a really unstylish talk (people reading boringly, or endless bullet points) actually makes me quite angry (well restless anyway). We are, after all, teachers! Read aloud lectures just don’t fit in our context, I think.

      And yet…we’ve all been watching Steve Job’s ‘commencement’ address at Standford and to be honest it was stylistically a bit rubbish (strange for him), but the content was and is totally riveting….

      I reckon us presenters – us teachers – have to work on getting the balance right all the time. Worries the hell out of me always!


      • I’ve been lurking here for ages, but thought I’d take the plunge and comment today!

        You hit the nail on the head with the Steve Jobs comment – very strange to see him reading his speech from notes, when apparently he practices and polishes his product launches many, many times before getting up on stage. But it was one of of the most inspiring presentations I’ve listened to in some time, in spite of the lack of style. Still, it must be pretty daunting to address a group of Stanford graduates when you’re a college drop-out, even if you do run the most valuable company in the world!

        BTW I love the fact that you’re one of the few bloggers I follow who replies to every comment people add to your fascinating posts!

  11. I’ve been to a few talks and workshops where I’ve felt I would like a bit more substance and less style. I’ve also found myself yearning for more style and less substance. Worst-case scenarios, I’ve found myself wishing for a bit of either!

    That said, I’ve started giving talks and workshops and now have a very keen awareness of how hard it is to get this balance right for most of the people who come to take part. It terrifies me to think of the task I have as a presenter of meeting everyone’s expectations; it terrifies me to know that experienced people whose work I admire are in the audience; it terrifies me that people I don’t know and can’t gauge are in the audience; it terrifies me that people I’ve challenged in less direct forums are in the audience.

    Then I come to terms with it (a few seconds before I start) that I have to live with the fact that I can only go about things in a way that resonates with me – hopefully, this rings true with the audience as well. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

    What I regret is not being able to spend more time getting direct feedback from participants, which is why I think it is priceless for me when an audience member tracks me down immediately after or (at a multi-day conference) days later – or even a whole year later (as happened in Brighton this year) to let me know what they thought of things. How else can we develop?

    Thank you for the post.

  12. hello jeremy,

    i’m a first-timer on blogs and am very interested in what everyone’s saying regarding substance and style. i just wanted to contribute with a thought; thinking about politicians for a sec, i think that (unfortunately) style may well be more effective than substance. indeed, the substance or lack of it in a political speech is almost secondary to the way in which it is presented.

    could it be some kind of law of the jungle? that once you’ve ‘proven yourself’ with style, that people will start to take note of the substance?

  13. Hi Jeremy. Everyone is talking about style, without it being defined. In what I think is a brilliant book, Made to Stick, the authors show how you can get your message to stick – which is what I think most of us think “style” refers to. A memorable talk. Concrete, emotional stories based around a simple, core message is a summary of their thinking, which Ken is famous for. They continually go on about the Curse of Knowledge, how experts presume too much and start talking in abstract terms. But we all like concrete details that we can easily picture. They give a story about a group of conference organisers who after the conference put together a collection of summaries, and chose stories that the presenters had given. The presenters were livid! My in-depth talk, full of years of research, summarised by a story! Yes. Exactly. A memorable story with a central message.

  14. ondacuantica :

    I’ve been lurking here for ages, but thought I’d take the plunge and comment today!

    You hit the nail on the head with the Steve Jobs comment – very strange to see him reading his speech from notes, when apparently he practices and polishes his product launches many, many times before getting up on stage. But it was one of of the most inspiring presentations I’ve listened to in some time, in spite of the lack of style. Still, it must be pretty daunting to address a group of Stanford graduates when you’re a college drop-out, even if you do run the most valuable company in the world!

    BTW I love the fact that you’re one of the few bloggers I follow who replies to every comment people add to your fascinating posts!

    Yes, but well it took me a bit of time to come back to your comment about me commenting!

    In all seriousness I think Steve Jobs did a wonderful job in difficult circumstances (at Standford). It’s not a gig I would have relished!


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