March 31, 2009

Agricultural communication: the lost art

Agriculture, communication, information transfer, Powerpoint limitations, practical advice

By Dr Clive Dalton

The Leeds lectern
On the lectern in the main lecture room at Leeds University where I started to face my first class of students as an Assistant Lecturer in Agriculture, I well remember some wise graffiti, obviously carved with great feeling on the lectern that said - 'Remember the poor sods who have to listen to you'!
 University of Leeds Department of Agriculture, May 1961
Assistant lecturer Dalton - (standing) fourth from left

Memorial lecture
This came to mind in a memorial lecture I attended to be given in a number of venues across the land by a noted University academic. We met in the very Mecca of NZ Agricultural Communication – the McMeekan Communication Centre at the Ruakura Research Centre and here I'm sorry to say I suffered the very worst of the craft.

Here I stand behind the lectern in the famous 'Ruakura McMeekan Communication Centre', from which many famous people have spoken - some to be remembered and many forgotten!

The hall was packed with the local intelligentsia on the topic, all with what I could guarantee, were interesting and valued comments to make. There were some well-known stirrers in the audience so it was going to be fun - so I thought. The subject was “looking ahead in dairying” which was vitally important to the country.

We started at 4pm prompt and were told by the Chairman how great the speaker was on his subject (very true), and how the standing room only turn-out acknowledged this. The programme was to be the talk, then questions, followed by discussion, drinks & nibbles and fellowship. All over by 6.30 he said, so lets get started.

How's my time going?
Well, we did – on the first of what must have been 100 PowerPoint “slides” – all crammed with words, and all of which he read to us! This went on – and on, and after about an hour, the speaker did remember 'time' and asked the chairman how his time was going.

He was told he was going 'well - OK'! A good chairman would have told him to stop right there as his time was up! But they always seem to choose nice blokes for chairmen don't they who don't want to appear rude.

I tell you what - in the next PowerPoint presentation like this, a group of us are going to read the words on the slide out aloud along with the speaker, who in any case is just using them as a memory jogger.

So it went on and on, through stuff everyone in the hall knew well. We were all waiting for his ‘vision of the future’, and time to discuss it. After a few folk started leaving, the chairman must have looked at his watch and found that it was 6.30pm, so panic ensued. His on-the-hoof rescue plan was to suggest we all just “mix and mingle” with the speaker over a drink!

In his thanks to the speaker, the chairman commented that we should all note the large amount of work the speaker had put into his talk. He could have presented 50% less which would have had 100% more effect! Most of us went home saying ‘very interesting’ to the speaker on the way out the door.

A wasted opportunity
What a wasted opportunity. After over 30 years of lecturing, and hopefully owning a watch, you would have thought "that _ _ _ _ _ _ _!". Another great opportunity wasted by not remembering the words on the old lectern at Leeds.

A wonderful contrast
In contrast, I and other members of our Waikato Ag Journalists and Communicators group (WACO) were invited to lunch and listen to Frank Torley, talking to the Waikato Institute of Technology (WINTEC) Journalist students’ about his work on New Zealand’s longest running TV programme ‘Country Calendar’.

It was BRILLIANT! He restoreth my soul, and I saw a master at work. He illustrated all the principles of ‘effective communication’ that pioneers like Geoff Moss tried to instill into us MAF boffins 30 years ago – basically by simply ‘remembering your audience’.

KBPPA movement
Frank didn’t have PowerPoint, and he has signed up to join my ‘Kill Blardy Power Point' movement (KBPP). He didn’t move far from the lectern and stood at the side so we could see his whole body language, he was relaxed so made us feel relaxed, he used body language, facial gestures, the pregnant pause.

He used varying voice tones with some fantastic mimicry of his colleagues (well, they were his colleagues before his talk!). He used eye contact – self-depreciation. Oh praise be, it was a wonderful example of how ‘communication’ can be so effective and entertaining, if you get a few basic things right. It’s not too difficult if you have eyes and ears and can remember the sensations in your backside when seated on a hard chair for over an hour.

'HE' was the visual aid
Frank didn’t need visual aids – HE was the visual aid! He spoke for about 20 mins (well it felt like 20 mins but was actually 40+); he knew how we were all feeling, and he ended with a clear motivating message for the students. He invited and dealt with the questions with warmth and respect. He left us all wanting more!

Further information
How PowerPoint sank NASA's finest.

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