Knowledge versus Experience

One of the things that is always said about teaching is that it shows you what you do or don’t know. You can’t flannel an explanation to a student who keeps asking probing questions though you may manage to do it to yourself. They may be questions that approach a topic in some way you had never considered before but rapidly realise is illuminating – possibly even challenging – and so they can aid your own understanding. Sometimes writing a talk is rather like that too.

I have a list of talks coming up that aren’t on particularly familiar territory, starting with one on communication for a group of postdocs. I have never previously sat down and thought about my style of speaking, or what I feel the necessary ingredients of a good talk are beyond clarity and coherence. And keeping to time. And that the slides are visible from the back of the lecture theatre. And that you’re audible. And….You will see why I realised as I started putting my presentation together for this talk, that actually there were a lot of things I felt quite strongly about. I may not have been used to articulating them but nevertheless I ‘knew’ at some level what I thought was important (though in fact most of the talk won’t be about giving talks).

I have presumably been asked to give this talk because someone thinks I know something about communication, whereas in fact it is more a case of having got on with the job, experimented with different styles, media (as with this blog but also newspapers and radio), topics and audiences. For each of the multiple combinations you can construct out of those four ingredients, there is probably a different set of ‘rules’ one is implicitly obeying. But this does not mean that I have ever sat down and constructed a matrix of how to construct ‘communication strategies’ appropriate to each of the different combinations.

Experience is a wonderful thing because it enables you to ‘learn’ without noticing. The first time of doing anything will always be daunting and things may easily go belly up. But, to use that apparently trite cliché, one learns from one’s mistakes. And one does. So, after years of hiccoughs, trials and tribulations you slowly find out how not to fall over quite so painfully. (If you want to hear about the ‘lumpy custard’ debacle when attempting to discuss the somewhat unfamiliar topic of colloids with the media many years ago, I refer you to Desert Island Discs. Believe you me, that first major interaction with the media after an ill-considered press release was painful. It put me off talking to the media, in any shape or form for about 15 years. In fact until shortly before Desert Island Discs invited me along and, out of the blue, they sprung the question about the lumpy custard saga….)

Experience is in fact often just knowledge which hasn’t been put explicitly into words – I guess it’s ‘unknown knowns’ to rework Donald Rumsfeld. When someone asks you to articulate how you do something, a little reflection enables you to realise what strategy you’ve unconsciously been putting into practice. However, on that first occasion when you have neither experience nor internal knowledge you do have to rely on others to stiffen your spine and to pass on their tips and advice. So, I guess talking about communication may help others to start identifying some of the strands they personally will need to pull together and to consider what the options are and which ones personally appeal.

Last year I was asked to talk about leadership. Rereading what I wrote at the time, it seems to apply almost as well to communication as to leadership (in the case of this paragraph I was specifically referring to committee work):

Whatever, I am who I am and my style has to be what works for me and I guess the same is true for everyone. Worry about the content first and foremost; make sure you’re articulate, coherent and audible as well as factually well-prepared and aware of other people’s sticking points.

This idea that one has to be true to oneself was very much the advice I gave a young colleague recently who was facing his first after-dinner speech. I told him

If you’re not good at telling jokes (I’m not), then don’t for instance. Are you trying to give any particular message? It’s often best if you can ‘talk from the heart’ i.e. be quite personal without being self-centred. But personal anecdotes by way of illustration of some point – something you’ve learned for instance, something you wish you had known but didn’t and so messed up – tend to work well.

I haven’t included the art of after-dinner speaking in my talk on communication – I am after all talking to scientists not Toastmasters. Perhaps I should cover it too, but it is such a particularly peculiar format, and so very British, that it doesn’t feel as if it would fit in. Of course in my own College when I have to speak I always have the option of peppering my words with some appropriate Churchillian bon mot, although on the whole I don’t. I certainly still feel I am learning ‘what works’ for a relaxed and mellow audience in after-dinner speeches, and how to manipulate notes, microphones, toasts (with requisite full glasses of wine) and remember all the well-deserved thanks, interweaving the one with the other without the notes descending to the floor in fluttery chaos as they are prone to do.

Unfortunately this talk on communication is not the only unusual topic I have agreed to do over the next month. Looking at my diary I see I am also supposed to be giving a Keynote to PhD students on the topic of ‘Understanding Service’, although I’m convinced that was not what the original invitation highlighted. I am sure, as I put that talk together, I will likewise be teasing out ideas that lurk in my head without necessarily having been previously put into words. But, it won’t take the reader of this blog long to know I believe service to the community is hugely important and a task that too few senior professors are willing to engage with wholeheartedly. Shortly after that I’m supposed to be giving a talk on ‘transitioning to independence’ for aspiring PIs. This transition is a key stage that I’ve obviously been through but I wonder if I can reflect sufficiently coherently on what I did, well or badly, at that critical juncture to be any use to a new generation.

So, a series of talks to groups at different stages, on different aspects of ‘making it work’ as you progress. I hope, as I tease out some strands of what I did and what in hindsight I wish I had done, I can be of some use. Service, as I’ll be discussing in that middle talk, takes many forms, but assisting those who are setting out should be something all of us nearer the top of the greasy pole need to embrace. I hope I’ll be doing my bit this month.

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