Wednesday, 13 May 2015

How to Make Every Session useful

Picture the scene.

You're at a mandatory training session. Or a conference session that isn't in your area. Or a research seminar. 
You sit down. You get ready to take notes. Your speaker[s] welcome everyone. And they start. And maybe after 10 minutes, maybe after 15, you think 'oh god: this session is irrelevant....and I'm stuck here until it finishes.'

It happens. It may be that the session doesn't match your interests. Or that you don't gel with the speaker's presentation style. Or maybe you're already familiar with the topic. In any case, you can't really leave. As I see it, you've got three options:

1) Sit there, silently fuming at this poor speaker, and hating anyone who asks a question because they're prolonging the agony.
2) Ignore the speaker. Browse the internet, check twitter, send emails. Try not to feel guilty when the speaker catches your eye.
3) Focus on making the session useful for you.

So, before I adopt 1) or 2) and make the speaker very uncomfortable, I try 3). Here's how.

Wait Before you Check-Out
If a session starts off with information you already know, or on a topic you aren't that interested in, it's tempting to disengage and save yourself the trouble. But, if you've given papers, or delivered sessions yourself, ask yourself some questions. Do you always introduce your key points at the start of every session? Every time? Do you sometimes take a while to warm up when you start a session? Perhaps days where you don't feel up for it? Do you sometimes remember a relevant point when you're in mid-flow and add it in?

From experience, I know that the best part of session I've delivered are very seldom the first 5-10 minutes. I know that I'm guilty of all of the above. Because of this, I try to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt. And very often, there is at least one nugget of useful, thought-provking information somewhere in there. 

Take Part!
This is particularly useful for sessions where you already have quite a lot of knowledge in the area. Retention rates are highest when individuals are asked to teach someone else what they've learned. If the session invites small group discussion, don't hang back. Share your knowledge with the people you're talking with, ask them questions.

A while back, I went on a mandatory training session which replicated training I'd had elsewhere. Although I went in sceptical, when we got to group discussions, the people in group actually challenged me on something. And I realised I didn't know the answer. Apart from being humbled by this, it challenged me to go and read up on that particular area, and fill the gaps in my knowledge.

Don't Focus on What They're Saying...
...focus on how they're saying it. If you're a PhD student, the odds are you'll one day be giving a conference paper, or delivering a lecture, or a seminar. Every example of public speaking is one you can learn from, and this session is no exemption. Is the speaker [over]using power point? How do they introduce their points? Do they look and sound confident? Why? How are they providing the right background without boring those in the know? Are they using notes? Flashcards? Are they winging it?

At my first ever conference, I went to a session that was completely irrelevant to my research. But the person giving it had the most natural, authentic and knowledgeable manner I'd ever seen. I spent the entire 20 minutes taking notes on how they did it. I still refer back to my notes if I'm presenting a lot of complex information. 

Not every session you ever go to is going to be relevant. But since I started trying to engage with every session I attend, I spend a lot less time feeling grumpy and resentful. 

How about you: have you been to any sessions that turned out to be surprisingly useful?

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