The importance of being prepared

Yesterday, a young friend of mine met with a well-regarded academic in her field. He has been teaching for over 2 decades. When she went to see him, he was preparing feverishly for a one-hour lecture he was about to give to an audience of young undergraduates, who wouldn’t know better if he sneaked in minor inaccuracies.

And yet he was preparing.

She was floored.

“Shefaly, he was preparing so hard when he knows so much already!”, she said. Of course he was, I said. It reminded me of when I had started teaching undergraduates and used to spend 4-5 hours preparing for my 90 minute class. I teach Socratically, so it isn’t like I was going to control all the content anyway. A dab hand had, in fact, helpfully advised me that with our experience, we could probably teach with 15-20 minutes of preparation, something I just could not accept.

But we had clearly articulated learning objectives in the session. As the facilitator/ teacher, my job included steering the discussion, keeping it productive, managing attempts at deliberate or unforeseeable derailment, concluding in time, and keeping the students engaged and interested all the time. All that needs intensive preparation — and being focused and centered mentally all the time in the classroom.

Then another friend of mine was invited to speak at an event. “I bet you will be the most engaging and fun speaker on the panel”, I said to her. She said, “There is no panel, there is an open floor whatever that means”. I was surprised. “You mean there is no speaker briefing other than the headline topic?”, I asked her. She said there wasn’t.

This is the same situation but from the other side. Because she has no brief, she cannot prepare. Like her, the other invited speakers will be speaking ex tempore.

Just as a minuscule proportion of people are actually good speakers, an even tinier percent of them are good ex tempore speakers.

In fact, good ex tempore speaking takes even more preparation. One does not just need to be focused and centered mentally at the lectern or stage. One also needs good self awareness, an ability to abstract one’s life experiences, and tell the story in a way that others can take with them and consider before accepting or rejecting. One is also required to be engaging, while not sounding like one is reading off a script, never mind it is one’s own life script. This works not just for autobiographical topics but also for technical or specialty topics. I can speak ex tempore on decision making, design thinking, the cusp of strategy and culture and a host of other things but I prefer not to. Even after 20 years or more of professional immersion in these things.

In his biography of CK Prahalad, the late management thinker, teacher and writer, Benedict Paramanand writes about his obsessive and meticulous preparation, whether speaking with Thinkers 50 or 10000 high school kids in Chennai, or teaching. His wife discusses how he threw away his notes and started afresh every time he taught his course.

Speaks for itself, I think.

Preparing and giving someone enough notice and time to prepare are both hallmarks of respect — for oneself, for one’s profession or specialisation, for one’s audience.

Not doing either doesn’t say much for anyone involved. The audience is being treated with derision and condescension by a soi disant “expert”. The organisers or coordinators of such events are merely interested in ticking boxes. The speaker should not even agree to be there, if he or she has an iota of self-respect.

If we know ahead, this is a situation none of us would wish to find ourselves in.

To understand the things that are at our door,” wrote Hypatia, “is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.

Isn’t that the whole point of all teaching and speaking? To be able to understand — and deal with, may be — what lies beyond?

How do we expect to do it without preparation?

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