Friday, September 25, 2015

Being More Effective as a Scholar or Bureaucrat

My job is to make your stronger and more effective. 

This is mainly for graduate students, but I believe many others will benefit.

1. Prepare a suite of short memos about your researchin red below. The word "brief" is deliberate. One paragraph, maybe half a page, double spaced. Someone may well read just that paragraph, but, if you must, add more for your own benefit.

1.       The brief statement of the subject of your proposed research.
2.       The brief statement of how you are going to go about it.
3.       The papers you think are exemplary, either for topic or method. About five of these
4.       The roughest Table of Contents of your dissertation
5.       Your two brief statements of your field (You can get the bibliography together a bit later).

2. When reading a paper it may be useful to summarize the paper in that one brief paragraph, and prepare one really good question that will help the author do a better job.

3. As for your giving talks. Typically you have 15 minutes to present at a meeting, 45 minutes in a job talk. 

A. Always go less than your allotted time. In the case of job talks, you will likely be interrupted well before your talk is over, so be sure to get in the main points, including the findings!, in the first ten minutes--and you can say to questioners that you need ten minutes and then  you will welcome their questions. At all times, keep in mind that many people in the audience would rather be elsewhere, that they may be sleepy or hungry or..., and that what they most want to do is talk themselves. If you don't know the answer, say so, and tell the questioner you want to speak with them afterwards.

B. Bottom Line Up Front=BLUF. That is, tell people the main point or points in the first page, the first five minutes. The rest is commentary and support.

C. Give them something to go home with. A one-page summary, chart, table, ..., with your name and email etc. They might well read it than listen to you--terrific. If you are at a meeting, have copies of the paper for anyone who asks for it. If you are seeking a job, prepare your one-minute account of your current research AND where you plan to go next, and carry sufficient copies of your CV/resume with you.

D. You want to have no more than 3 or 4 main points, and you have previewed them in the first minutes, BLUF.

E. Practice your talk. The first time will be awful, at least for me. At least one more time. Don't ever tell people you put the talk together on the plane to the meeting--be polished and well rehearsed. If you did put the talk together on the plane, practice in the hotel room, find a copying service to prepare the handout. 

F. If your spoken English is not clear--you speak too softly, English is not your native language and your skills are limited, you can make up for it. Microphones help, but you might learn to project your voice (as do stage actors and opera singers, but I don't know the tricks). Powerpoint slides that list what you will say also help. In general, you want two or three slides for a brief presentation, and most of what is on the slides should be on your handout. For a 45 minute talk, a dozen slides will impress people by your concision. (When theatrical executives present, as in Steve Jobs, Zuckerberg, ..., their slide presentations are a product of major professional effort.) You may need more slides to show off your data or to have images, but be sure that those whose eyesight reflects aging will be able to read it. Big font, not too busy charts, clear plots.

I am not against complex arguments, careful treatments of data and theory and method, etc. But, initially, you've got to convince people that it is worth learning all that. I have no idea if this sort of advice is useful for love letters, condolences, or novels.

4. In talking with some of our students who have had experience in intelligence, a point I have made here earlier kept coming up as the essence of their practice--and I learned it 15 years ago from a student who worked in military intelligence.

Bottom Line Up Front. 
Namely, in the first sentence and the first paragraph, give away everything that matters. What you put in the conclusion, conventionally, should be here. And it should be possible for the reader or listener to understand that point immediately.

A second feature sounds to me like what I have been told that legal writing exhibits: 

Fractal Organization:
At every level, each point and its support is fully whole. If you drill down, that drilled down part makes sense as it is. The reader, if they "get" the first level, need not drill down more. If not, do so until you are satisfied. You NEVER have to drag through parts you already understand. In effect, this is what was once called hyper-text. 

This may not be the way to write term papers or love letters, or I believe this is much to recommend in this strategy even in that context. But in writing for busy people, or in presenting to busy people, it is the preferred way. You never want to drag people through stuff just because you worked hard on it, and you surely want them to understand what you are saying immediately (or if they ask a question, the answer is right there).

In effect, you give away all of your jewels immediately.

There is one other point. The title of your paper, your talk, your memo subject, should in effect give it all away. No cute titles, no teasers. If you have subheads, they too should give away the content of that section, so a reader might skip over it if they wanted to.

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