How much should we plan what we say?

A short one, since it’s Easter and all of us should be spending more time with our families (or, at least, less time at work).

Yesterday, I made a day-trip up to Manchester to the Political Studies Association (PSA) annual conference. I was part of a roundtable and we’d agreed before to keep things quite fluid. So I took the approach that I’d see what the others said and then say something different, but related (I was last on the roster).

My colleagues took different approaches. One pulled out a full text and used it to speak to his PowerPoint presentation, while the other also used a PowerPoint, but used them to structure his talk.

After the panel, several people commented that we’d all gone it rather differently and one very good colleague of mine spent much of the train journey back down to London to marvel that I would just stand up and talk, without notes, for 15 minutes in a manner that made sense and spoke to the topic. Indeed, I believe his exact words on this were: “you stood up, with no notes, and I thought – oh no, it’s all going to go wrong.”

We’re still talking, by the way.

However, it does raise the wider point that there is much variation in how we present, be that in conferences or the classroom. My personal tendency has been to cut back ever more what I explicitly prepare (especially in PowerPoint), so that I can work with the people I’m talking to. Yesterday was an extreme example (and probably not one I would have tried at the end of a three-day conference), but it highlights another path we might consider.

At the same time, I am very aware that this is not for everyone, nor for every situation. What ultimately matters is how comfortable we feel about using a particular method: we have to minimise the friction between our intention and our practice, so that those listening/learning can access more readily what we are trying to share.

This notwithstanding, we do also need to remember one of the key lessons of any good pedagogy: it has to work for the listeners. The more we scaffold and fix our output, the less we can tack in the specific environment into which that output is put. In this case, I had an opportunity to work around colleagues whom said more or less what I thought they would, plus it was a subject on which I felt very comfortable (not least because of all the blogging I’ve done, with its emphasis on relatively terse point-making) and the room was amenable to following peoples’ responses.

By contrast, in June I’m off to speak on a roundtable in Montreal on the results of the European elections. It’ll be with people I don’t really know and includes some high-powered names, in a setting that might well number hundreds, rather than tens of people.

Plus it’s in French.

You can bet I’ll have notes for that.

4 Replies to “How much should we plan what we say?”

  1. I was very impressed that you did the same at the Brexit talk at Copenhagen. Then again, I think lecturing has definitely improved my conference presentations by making me less afraid of winging it or of things going wrong. Making a mess of things in front of 150 students and realising that the world doesn’t end certainly puts things into perspective, and makes you happier to take risks. Which can lead to some very positive outcomes!

  2. Holly – I had some words scribbled on a piece of paper for Copenhagen, so not quite fully-unsupported. However, your point is a good one: what we’re comfortable with changes over time, so we need to be prepared to revisit our practice.

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