Saturday, June 27, 2015

Seeing Isn't Static

Garr Reynolds is my favourite 'Presentation Guru'. He had a little rant on Facebook the other day about an article entitled 'why universities should get rid of Powerpoint and why they don't'. The rant was about the gaping holes and datedness in the article. Used properly, multimedia tools can add dramatically to our ability to get a message across. Understanding how memory works and how to make things resonate is the job of a great teacher. Used poorly, it goes without saying that damage can be done. Death by powerpoint is a painful reality in many classrooms, boardrooms and conferences. This isn't the fault of the tools.

One of the reasons overhead Projectors can be more effective is because the teachers actually had to think about putting the sheets together. Then they were able to outsource this to professionals who could design slides that would be projected. Powerpoint democratised the tools but not the skills. Unfortunately most of us think about communication as an afterthought. The 'curse of knowledge' makes us forget how hard it is to actually pick something up. We forget what it was like to not know. Reynolds' blog Presentation Zen is a treasure chest of research, clips, books, photos and discussions on how to get ideas across. We really are learning a lot about how people take in ideas.

Two issues I have been mulling over connect here. There should be some responsibility on people getting involved in a discussion to do some homework. I arguably shouldn't really ask a question till I have 'googled it first'. This is just a form of respect. It shows the 'guru' the interest isn't just casual and engaging with me isn't a waste of their time. 

At the same time, I can't be expected to know everything in every field in order to have a conversation. A layperson should still be able to talk to a psychologist about psychology, to a lawyer about law, to a doctor about medicine. Being a Lawyer doesn't make you (1) an expert in every area of law, (2) right about the area of law you are an expert in. The people at the edge are by definition veering into areas they don't understand and will almost definitely be shown to be wrong in lots of areas at a later stage. Progress is foggy and messy. If you are not at the edge, you can get off your high horse. You are just sharing someone else's ideas which were once shared with you.

It would be annoying and would get in the way of communication if everything we said came with caveats. 'I have only read the first paragraph of this book, but....'. 'I only heard this in a conversation with someone but,.... '. 'I wrote the textbook on this subject, but that was twenty years ago, but...'. Emotionally we also respond to ideas better when there is some confidence in the way it is stated. Karl Popper argued that we should speak confidently, but then be our own biggest critics.

Confidence can be frustrating without homework. It may be powerpoint and someone not being aware of the leaders in the field. It may be anti-vaxxers quoting a very old, fully discredited bad science paper linking autism to MMR vaccines. Being an Anti-vaxxer is incredibly dangerous for everyone else. It indicates a lack of homework. Even if some homework has been done, you can't stop. The best arguments can become redundant. You can't point to a research paper and say see, then keep your eyes closed. Seeing isn't static.

Everyone is a little Jon Snow. Everyone doesn't know. So everyone should be patient and try communicate clearly. But we also need to do our homework if we want to engage in useful conversation.
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