Thursday, April 18, 2013

On the radio, nobody knows you're an introvert

Here's an interesting experiment: get a randomly selected group of people together to make a short radio program, record it as if live, and then listen to it played back. You might have some expectations about how it'll be. The confident, chatty, extroverted types who love to talk -- surely they'll be naturals at radio, they'll come across great. And the quiet introverted ones, who find this sort of group-work/public-speaking a form of torture -- well, you can imagine...

Recently I was on a science communication course where we did exactly this. An interesting experience in many ways, but for me the most surprising thing was just how badly that 'natural' talkative extroverted style can come across on radio (which ruthlessly shows up all those hesitations, filler words, odd interjections etc that you probably wouldn't notice in face-to-face speech). And how some of the people you'd expect to be awful at this actually sounded quite polished and professional (listening to the recording, you can't tell that they're reading a prepared speech...or that they're maybe literally shaking with fear!).

Maybe the skills and personality types that make for good radio presenters are not the ones you'd think.

Turns out I'm not the first to come to this conclusion. Several people have observed how the same thing happens with public speaking and presentations -- the usual reasoning being that if you're shy and lacking confidence about such things, you tend to prepare better.

But I think it goes a little deeper. Because as an introverted type, everything you say is a performance. Almost everything you ever say is scripted and rehearsed, even if it's only in your head in the milliseconds before you speak. That's pretty much the definition of an introvert: you think before you speak -- unlike extroverts, for whom speaking is essentially the same thing as thinking.

You probably also tend to be an observer of, always aware of how you look and sound from an outside perspective. That's probably why introverts are more likely to be shy or socially anxious. But it also means you're consciously thinking about the technical details of your speech, like pacing and intonation. This is likely why social interactions are so tiring for an introvert: but it can give you a head-start in public speaking. Those who are not naturals at social interaction also spend a lot of time observing others, analysing and mimicking (or avoiding in some cases!) the way they speak and behave.

Apparently many professional actors are self-described introverts.I don't think that's surprising at all.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

New story: And Though Worms Destroy

My latest story And Though Worms Destroy is up at Every Day Fiction.  They publish a new flash fiction piece every day: ideal for when you have a spare few minutes during the day!

This story was another idea I had around Christmas-time, inspired by snippets of Handel's Messiah which were playing over and over in my head, and all that related apocalyptic imagery.

I was also wondering about these female archetypes -- the sinful temptress and the pure virgin mother, both defined entirely by patriarchal religion and set up in opposition to each other -- and what they'd actually have to say to each other if it was up to them.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

More on lectures

Previous post: Sliding towards a conclusion

So a lot of lectures and presentations are done badly. Overuse of slides and visual aids is part of that. The fact that often people who are good at academic work and research are often not so good at the performance aspect of public speaking is part of it too. But what if the problem is more fundamental than that? Maybe the lecture itself is an archaic and inefficient way of transferring knowledge.

It's difficult to concentrate on a monologue for a full hour. How often do you do that in your everyday life? It's difficult to concentrate on a monologue for two minutes, as you know if you've ever been stuck in conversation with the sort of person who's prone to them.

It's difficult to take in new information in real-time like that, since most people need to reflect on difficult concepts in order to understand and absorb them - but in a lecture if you stop paying attention for a moment you miss something. Sometimes you miss something that means it's impossible to catch up and you don't understand anything that's said for the rest of the hour. Unless you record it - but then why not just have the recording and skip the live performances?
In my personal experience, lectures were the least efficient way of learning I could have imagined. I often left knowing no more than I did at the start.

What was useful for me was studying the handouts and textbooks afterwards, when I had the space and time to think without having to listen to someone talking at the same time (surely that's a challenge to anyone's multi-tasking abilities?). What was also very useful occasionally was going to see the lecturer during office hours to ask for clarification on any point I couldn't fully understand on my own. Tutorials and problem classes were good too.

But the lecture itself seemed irrelevant, a waste of everyone's time. Judging by the amount of sleeping, reading,whispering, texting etc going on, I wasn't the only one to feel that way.For many students, the lecture seemed almost a form of religious observance, as though attendance was what counted, as though knowledge (or credit) would be magically absorbed just by being physically there.

An alternative model could look like this: lecturers provide or recommend materials for students to study in their own time (could be online courses, might be a chapter from a textbook for first-year undergraduates learning the basics, maybe some relevant papers or review articles for more advanced years or postgrads). This would be followed by small-group tutorials for questions, discussion, detailed explanations. All of which would mean more when everyone present was familiar with the material.

This might even help us move towards real learning, instead of the current exam-driven model where the lecturer reads stuff out, the students write it down, memorise it, and write it all over again in the exam.

It's not just undergraduate teaching though. The lecture in some form can be found in research-group meetings and journal clubs, and at academic conferences as well. It even exists in industry and business, where often the standard format for meetings is someone delivering a presentation (usually accompanied by the dreaded slides). It's such an established way of doing things that it's difficult to imagine these occasions without someone standing up and delivering a lecture. But is it the best way?

My experience of these meetings is that the most productive time is the ten or so minutes at the end for questions and discussion, especially in smaller groups. Where people actually interact with each other, where real engagement and understanding take place. Imagine if the full hour could be like that.