Core competencies


I would rather listen to tapes of myself having sex
But I am not that dangerous
And the C.I.A. is not that creative

Steve Gregoropoulous/W.A.C.O.
(from the album Darling Clementine)

These old song lyrics come to mind every time I’m signing the waiver form giving permission for a conference session I’m part of to be recorded or livestreamed. “Record away!” I think, “Just as long as I never, ever, ever have to watch it myself.” And yet…how else can we ever know what we really look like when we’re talking about our work? How much better could we get at standing up and speaking to the topics we feel most invested in and most passionate about if we put focused effort into improving these skills? It’s one thing to feel embarrassed about cell-phone footage from that live punk rock karaoke night (where you may or may not have ABSOLUTELY KILLED your rendition of the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb”) making it onto Facebook, but it’s another thing to avoid self-study when it comes to your professional presentations. Search for public speaking tips, and nearly every book, web site, article, or listicle you find will tell you that recording yourself and studying that recording is key to improving your skills and comfort level. Some of them even claim that if you’re an especially anxious speaker, watching recordings of yourself can “give you a tremendous confidence boost,” because the video just shows how you look and sound to others, not how you feel on the inside.

I’ve been ruminating on the subject of self-scrutiny more than usual lately for a couple of reasons: first, because a few months ago I sat down and watched a recording of a keynote speech I gave in 2012 at the annual meeting of the New England Archivists, and found to my surprise that I felt quite proud of how I’d done. I barely squirmed at all, in fact! The other reason is that I’m once again teaching our Professional Development & Portfolio Design class this quarter. We’re devoting a certain amount of class time to addressing the understandable anxieties that arise in connection with high-stakes presentation–in this case, as part of our MLIS students’ culminating requirements in the spring.

In a program that is distinguished among iSchools for our focus on social justice, it makes sense for our curriculum to emphasize advocacy and the ability to communicate effectively and powerfully about issues of importance to the communities we serve and represent. This won’t always take the form of standing up and talking directly to an audience; writing and publishing in various forms, curation and exhibition, and our collecting activities are among the many other ways we can express and communicate those values. Nevertheless, a big chunk of our professional discourse still takes place at conferences and symposia, where people get up and talk about their ideas. We would be doing our students a disservice if we didn’t push them to develop some significant competencies in this area, and make an explicit connection between the portfolio presentation and other professional activities they might engage in throughout their careers.

One way I’m addressing these anxieties and building those competencies in the classroom is to begin most of our meetings with an arrival exercise–usually very brief, comprising some form of breath work and mindfulness–to help everyone set aside whatever’s led up to our class time and focus on the work at hand. I’ve talked about the body as an instrument for communication, and how awareness of your breathing, posture, and even where you’re holding your hands or the expression on your face can affect how you deliver your message verbally. We’ve looked at TED talks and broken them down into beats, to better understand how visual and conceptual and verbal components of a presentation all work together to support the communication of complex ideas. I discuss with students how specific aspects of their issue papers might lend themselves especially well to presentation, whether that’s in the form of data visualizations, punchy opening lines, compelling analogies, or links with timely events. And, of course, we practice: the final two class meetings are entirely devoted to student presentations, and everyone provides constructive feedback on their peers’ performance.

This time around, I’m experimenting with additional ways to draw students’ attention to underlying aspects of presentations, like their structure and the interplay of visuals and spoken elements. I’ll either do Presentation Bingo, or perhaps have everyone vote on categories like Best Opening Line or Clearest Explanation of Something Complicated (with prizes, naturally). We’ll be videotaping these presentations, too, and I’ll recommend that students watch their own talks at least once before their final portfolio reviews come around in May.

Now that I’m teaching on the subject, I pay even more attention than formerly to what other people do when they’re presenting–I borrow the tricks and techniques I like, and try to catch and eliminate the bad habits I see in others. And, yes, I have started to watch the video recordings of my own presentations (sooner rather than later) and making further adjustments based on what I see and hear there.  My latest presentation, which also happens to be related to core competencies and issues of self-representation for information professionals, was livestreamed along with several other AMIA conference offerings in New Orleans, LA this year:

(My talk starts just about at the 40-minute mark. Slides are a bit hard to see because of the camera angle, but I’ve posted them here if you want to follow along with the talk in another window.)

It only took me three days to work up the gumption to watch myself this time. If I ever get that dangerous, or the CIA ever gets that creative, I think I’ll be ready.

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