Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stay hungry, stay foolish

The term has almost come to an end. A mere two weeks remain on the schedule. In these two weeks though, your student teams will be very busy with many assignments and tests, and in our professional communication course, preparing for and then presenting your project proposals for change in some area of the NUS curriculum. 

As you know (but I mention for visitors), the project aim is for each student team to follow up the needs analysis research you have done on those communication skills required in a particular workplace and the current communication skill offerings in a related degree program area at NUS and to suggest a plan of action that might assist a specific faculty (school) or department to better prepare its undergraduates for their future. In your 20-minute presentation, you need to convince the (fictitious) NUS Excellence Unit of the soundness of your ideas, explaining why a change is needed and how it might benefit various stakeholders at the university, justifying any of your claims with your secondary and original research findings.

In our most recent tutorial session we discussed presentation preparation tips from the Presentation Zen website created by former Apple employee Garr Reynolds. Hopefully, our review of those tips will aid you in your work for the coming weeks.

With this presentation assignment (and maybe our discussion of Apple) in mind, Deenise, a student in Group 2, posted a free blog post that shares the speech that Apple founder Steve Jobs gave at a recent Stanford University commencement ceremony. In that speech, Jobs recalls three stories from his own life. One of these demonstrates how the choices a person makes each and every day can impact unforeseen future outcomes. What's especially wonderful about the speech is that it also highlights Jobs' own success on a path less taken, as a college drop out. 

I find this inspirational because it shows that it's not just hard work and a commitment to one's values that are important, but also a certain daring. In fact, Jobs ends his speech with a related phrase taken from the back of the last volume of The Whole Earth Catalogone of the hippie bibles from the 1960s and 70s that in its content and ambition was symbolic of "out of the box thinking."  The phrase Jobs quotes is this: "stay hungry, stay foolish."

Stay hungry. Stay foolish. How might these imperatives serve students at Stanford University, and at the National University of Singapore? In my view, "stay hungry" means you don't necessarily have to settle for what satiates you first, for what comes easiest. By staying hungry, you keep alert and always on the move, eyes and ears open for something new, for knowledge, for opportunity. 

"Stay foolish" implies that you should keep your child-like nature, stay in awe. Don't be afraid to amble. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Don't be afraid to reach for the stars. There's also a hint in this phrase of the idea that you shouldn't lose sight that since you're on earth for a very short time, you should make your best effort each day in doing what you enjoy. If you can make what you enjoy your life's work, so much the better. 

How might these words of wisdom connect to the last couple weeks of the semester and the work ahead?  I'd say you (we) should look at what remains as an opportunity, a chance for further growth, another couple enjoyable lessons in the school of life, and a chance for our unique groups to share what we have found, a common cause, clear shared goals and certain camaraderie.  What do you think?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Talkin' 'Bout Writing: How to Discuss a Colleague's Writing While Preserving Your Working Relationship and Career

by James Bell

Picture this: You're eating lunch at your desk and a head pokes into your doorway. It's a colleague asking you to take a look at a report he's written before he turns it in to the boss. You know he wants constructive criticism to help him improve the document, but you don't know exactly how to give it to him. You don't want to risk offending him if he doesn't like your suggestions, but you can't refuse to look over the report either.

Chances are you've been in that situation, whether you're someone colleagues trust for feedback or a manager reviewing your staff's work. The question is, how do you respond in a way that helps the person develop as a writer and preserves your working relationship?

Although there isn't one best way to critique someone's writing, there are some general guidelines. Here's how to offer effective feedback without stepping too hard on the writer's toes.

Clarify the goal. A request to review writing can come in many forms. Some examples: Would you take a look at this? What should I put in this section? Is this what you wanted? Before you offer feedback, you must determine your purpose. In all cases, you probably want the writing to communicate effectively, adhere to company standards, and uphold a positive image of the company. But which goal do you want to emphasize: editing the text or improving the writer?

If you focus on correcting the text, the document will improve but the writer probably won't. He may not understand the corrections, be overwhelmed by the number and variety of errors, and learn, above all else, that you're a good writer and should do all future editing. If, however, your objective is to help the person become a better writer, then you have a much more interesting but difficult job to do. We'll assume the latter purpose.

Meet. Meet with the writer at least briefly. Written comments are impersonal, open to misunderstanding, and leave little opportunity for the writer to clarify her meaning. You can request the document before you meet, or, if it's short, read it on the spot.

Try to lessen the writer's anxiety. He may fear harsh criticism and worry about looking incompetent, especially if you're his manager. Here are some tips to lower the anxiety.

* Put the writer in charge. Ask, What's the main thing you'd like me to look at? That emphasizes a crucial writing skill: self-evaluation. It also conveys that the writer is responsible for the document and shouldn't expect you to clean it up. If the writer replies, "Look for everything," say, "I can't read for everything at once. Do you think I should focus on content, organization, sentence structure, grammar and mechanics, or something else?" That list offers the writer a useful hierarchy of concerns. For instance, there's no point fixing grammar or punctuation errors in a paragraph that will be deleted when the writer reconsiders content.

* Agree on what will happen. State the objective for the meeting and how you'll both achieve it. For example, "I'll read to see whether you have enough support for the purchase requests. If I agree that there might not be enough support, we can brainstorm more ideas." At the same time, you may want to say what you won't do. For example, "I know you have the company style manual, so I won't look for formatting problems. You can catch those."

* Talk less about what's right and wrong and more about what's appropriate, acceptable, or inappropriate. For example, in this sentence, After the latest changes, we have less assembly-line problems, less should be fewer because problems are countable. However, it will be more useful for the writer if you discuss how the sentence may be acceptable in an email message between two crew bosses but inappropriate for the company's annual report.

* Give reader-type responses rather than expert judgments. Instead of saying, "You should move this sentence from the bottom of the paragraph up to the top because it's your main idea," say, "When I was reading this paragraph, I didn't know where it was going until the last sentence, which I think is the main idea." The first comment invokes either acquiescence or argument from the writer. The second comment invites discussion and, ultimately, leaves the decision with the writer.

* Focus on just a few things each pass. Resist the temptation to dry-clean the paper and make it come out exactly the way you want. Correcting every technical and stylistic error will overwhelm the writer and put you in the position of editor. Instead, teach your writers to edit their own work.

* Try to point out something positive about the writing, making your praise as long and detailed as your most in-depth criticism. The employee will likely repeat that element in his or her next writing project.

* Dispel the myth that people either can write or can't write, and if they can write, then they can write anything. Competent writing can be learned and is a process of gradual improvement. Ensure that your writers know that even professional writers must keep sharpening their skills.

* Create a climate in which sharing writing is natural. Asking other managers or staff for feedback on your writing speaks louder than words.

Structure the meeting for success.

The following steps facilitate productive talk about writing.

* Step 1: Ask the writer what to focus on and what questions she or he has.

* Step 2: Read silently.

* Step 3: Briefly answer the writer's questions. Suggest an objective--not what you'll do but what the writer will be able to do by the end of the meeting. Then, state how the two of you might accomplish the objective and ask whether the writer agrees. Although that process may sound cumbersome, it needn't take long. Here's an example: "I agree that there's not enough support for the purchase request if it's going to the vice president. One way we could address that is by brainstorming. Does that sound like a good approach to you?"

Rather than collaborating on brainstorming, some writers may prefer to revise based on a model that you create. Others might want you to ask questions to help them generate ideas. You can tailor your approach according to the writer's preference.

* Step 4: Now that you've focused on the writer's chief concern, address one area you consider crucial. The typical hierarchy of concerns stipulates that once the content is sound, you can address organization; once that's logical, you can address sentence structure; and once sentences are in shape, you can address grammar, mechanics, and punctuation.

* Step 5: Conclude by asking what the writer will do next. That checks her understanding and clarifies the progress of the document. If the writing has to be perfect technically, you can ask to see it a final time.

Although you may be a more experienced writer than the person asking you to review, you don't need to rewrite even a small part. Use these steps to create better writers--which will serve your and the writer's purposes better in the long run.

James Bell is sole proprietor of Bell Education and Consulting in Brtish Columbia, Canada;

Questia Media America, Inc.

Publication Information: Article Title: Talkin' 'Bout Writing: How to Discuss a Colleague's Writing While Preserving Your Working Relationship and Career. Contributors: James Bell - author. Magazine Title: T&D. Volume: 56. Issue: 12. Publication Date: December 2002. Page Number: 57+. COPYRIGHT 2002 American Society for Training & Development, Inc.; COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Mock Interview

What sort of jobs have I interviewed for? Here's a partial list:

U.S. National Security Agency country/regional analyst
People Airlines (now defunct) flight attendant
retail store assistant manager

Those are jobs that I applied for, got interviewed for, and was not hired for. (Thank god!) During my university studies, I never even heard of a course such as the one I now teach, a communication skills course in which a segment is dedicated to assisting/familiarizing students with resume and application letter writing, and then with preparing for and performing at a job interview. If I'd had such a course, who knows where I would be today....

Where was I today? In class facilitating mock interviews. In each class there were four team. Each team of three or four students read and evaluated the application materials that another team's individual members had prepared, peer reviewed and revised in advance. The evaluating team, much like a hiring committee or HR group, would rank those individuals from the other team based on the quality of the materials in relation to a specific job, internship or graduate program application and then begin the interview process.

The interview process entailed setting up the room in office-like quadrants, with one team per corner behind a row of desks. In their respective stations each team created their first set of interview questions, set for the peer they'd ranked #1. During a point in the question preparation process, each team then lost one of its members, that being the person who was ranked as having the best set of materials. She or he, along with the top ranked person from each of the other teams, was directed into the corridor, there to wait until being called upon by the peer team for an interview of approximately 10-15 minutes.

Back in the classroom, each team crafted its questions, and each individual adopted a particular stance, whether friendly and smiling HR person, impatient and brusque interrogator or something in between. A request was made for Academy Award worthy performances, both from the interviewers and the interviewees. No matter what the demeanor of each interviewer was set to be, all sessions had a principle interviewer and a note-taker, the person whose main task was to reflect on the verbal and nonverbal behavior of the applicant. When the first round of interviews finished, the process was repeated in a second round then in a third, and then in a fourth. In this way, every student had an opportunity to be an interviewer multiple times, and to be interviewed once.

After all the rounds were completed, a debriefing session was held where students were encouraged to share something about their experience.

This is another opportunity for such a debriefing. How do the students view the process and these interviews? That's exactly what this bog post is all about.

Students, please add your thoughts. Innocent bystanders, please see the commentary below.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Peer Teaching

“Teaching depends on what other people (as in the students) think,” says Deborah Ball, dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan, “not what you (as the teacher) think.”

Team peer teaching in the professional communication module I teach is coming to a close for this semester. Over the course of the past six weeks teams of students have taught their classmates 30-minutes lessons on performing effectively at job interviews, creating good resumes and application letters, using wikis and other collaborative workspaces, writing effective business correspondences, and designing effective survey questionnaires. These are all content topics that the "student teachers" had to learn themselves (with a list of websites at their disposal) then teach.

As I've mentioned, the most amazing thing for me about the peer teaching is that for many students, it's the first time they have stood in front of a class. It's also the first time they have created a lesson plan, managed a classroom, delivered a content-based lecture, and directed teaching/learning activities. Amazingly, they have done so while not receiving any instruction on teaching. They've had to learn and teach simply by doing.

What then makes this possible, or plausible? A simple mix, really, of three attributes: Intellect. Courage. Heart. Add to that a good portion of hard work, e voila!

In the lessons I've attended, I've seen a good number of natural-born future teachers, and quite a few peer teachers that are diamonds in the rough.

What makes teaching so special? And what might contribute to a person becoming an effective teacher? See the article "Building a Better Teacher" by Elizabeth Green in the New York Times for an overview.

I'd like to hear your reactions, in a couple paragraphs or less, to the experience you had teaching (and learning as a peer teacher and a peer student) this term.