Going Through The Motions

Have you ever attended a presentation, sat through a class or lecture or possibly watched a music performance and afterwards felt that the speaker, instructor or performer simply sleepwalked through the whole thing? I’m sure all of us have at one time or another. It can be a real challenge to constantly motivate yourself to get excited to the level of delivering your best – whatever it is you are doing. It could be answering a question at your reference desk, teaching an instruction session or leading your colleagues through a meeting. Are you giving it your best and trying to make it as engaging as possible for the other person or are you simply going through the motions in order to get it done? Are you reminding yourself that even though you’ve done this a thousand times it may be the first time for the other person?

Earlier this fall I traveled to Georgia to give a keynote talk and a breakout session at a library conference. The breakout session was scheduled for 9:00 am the morning after the talk. After picking up the computer projector and speakers I needed (this was a set-it-up-yourself situtation) I proceeded to my designated room. With about 30 minutes to go before my talk I figured I’d relax in the back of the room, and then have 10 minutes at the end of the current session to get set up for my breakout. What I found there was unlike any presentation I’d come across at a library conference.

It was like stepping into the children’s department at my local library. Mr. Science had transformed a convention center room into his personal discovery center. Who was Mr. Science? Imagine a man dressed up in a lab coat with a crazy fright wig and some clown accoutrements; sort of like a kid’s mad scientist. With an elaborate backdrop, loads of props and books galore, I simply asked myself, “How on earth will I get set up for my session if he ends at 8:50 and I start at 9:00?” It looked like it had taken the better part of an hour for him to get his gear together and I guessed it might take half as long to break it down. But I decided not to fret about it and just relaxed and tried to pass the time. But an odd thing happened. I found myself really engaged with Mr. Science.

Now it could it be that I have the attention span of a child, and thus was perfectly suited to short skits with bad puns with eye-catching, magic-like tricks and illusions. Each one ended with a plug for a book which is a nice touch. But I think what grabbed my attention is that Mr. Science was putting everything he had into every moment of his program. I don’t doubt he’d done these corny tricks and told those bad jokes a thousand times before, but I could easily imagine a K-6 child seeing and hearing this all for the first time and being completely engaged and wowed by the experience. Even the big finale – yes – the old pull a rabbit out of a box trick – (anyone but a child could easily see where the rabbit really came from) – was performed with incredible enthusiasm. Then it was all over. Despite my satisfaction with Mr. Science I told him, no, he could not leave his stuff there while I ran my breakout session.

So what can we learn from Mr. Science? I can only imagine how tough it must be to deliver a presentation to an audience of children. Sure, we academic librarians must contend with some students who are distracted by their texting and web surfing, but what if they just got up and left or started acting out if you failed to keep them engaged. Most college students will just stay politely bored with you. Since we can’t pull rabbits out of hats we need to get the students engaged in their own learning. But beyond that each librarian educator must make a commitment to avoid simply going through the motions. If Mr. Science is a good example then bringing all of your enthusiasm to each meeting with students and faculty opens up the opportunity to create passionate users. Is this an easy thing to do? Not at all. It’s hard work. So how do you bring your A-game to every instruction session and presentation? That sounds like a future post, but if you have some tips to share please leave a comment.

4 thoughts on “Going Through The Motions”

  1. Steven, I was there and saw both your keynote and the breakout. You were just as engaging with us as I’m sure Mr. Science is with kids. I’m glad I got to see your presentation and meet you.

  2. At a string quartet master class, I heard the master teacher ask a quartet after their piece, “Were you thinking of your performance during that, or were you thinking of the music?” They admitted to thinking more about their performance, and the teacher said, “Play it again, and this time, think only of the music.” They did, and the difference was deeply satisfying.

    I remembered this at the Intentional Teacher program last week [big plug: it was FANTASTIC!!!!] while in the midst of a discussion of a “stuck” place in my teaching, and realized how I could apply it. Don’t worry about what the students think of *me*; find the music of what I’m showing them and focus on that. If I’m bored with it, or dismissive of it, why shouldn’t they be as well?

  3. If I’m going through the motions with a student (even though I’m delivering competent reference or instruction), I remind myself that I’m empowering the student and that the experience is indeed fresh for them. I also remind myself of the larger goals of our profession and feel somewhat refreshed and engaged even in the face of the worse end of the day burnout.

    I also keep in mind that I’m always learning new ways to instruct and deliver reference services. From time to time, I challenge myself to do better with each type or subject-area of reference, etc. in the course of a reference desk or virtual reference shift. I also experiment with adding new resources and techniques to my repertoire often after being inspired by a good article. It’s good to realize when you start treating all your users the same or sling out rote scripts that you should enjoy and engage users personally. I remind myself that each interaction, information need, etc. is unique and that you are effecting and improving someone’s individual life and goals. A laugh or smile are great rewards in our profession.

    I agree that we can “create passionate users”, and that the initial apathetic, bored, or impatient read you get from a student (or other customer) can soon turn to engagement and confidence, if you infuse the interaction with your own energy, confidence, and respect. I find that an initially apathetic or impatient user is hindered by the negative assumption that the solution to their need (etc.) will be a “drag” or that the librarian won’t understand how to help. This anxiety and uncertainty (and even burnout) is alleviated only when I bring BOTH a solution to a need (logically speaking) and an engaged and positive delivery to the table. I’ve experienced when I cogently answer a reference question or instruct in sleepwalking mode and get a blasé or monotone “Thanks”. Body language and delivery really close the deal and instill confidence and engagement in our users.

  4. I used to be a middle school Latin teacher, now in library school, possibly ending up in academic libraries, and I have to admit, part of what I’m looking forward to is an easier audience.

    How did I make it work in middle school…

    Partly, I’m just invigorated by being on a stage. I have my public-speaker persona and it’s more energetic and quicker on the uptake than my normal persona.

    Partly it was relationship-driven — they weren’t just an audience, they were the kids I knew. I was planning and delivering lessons with an eye toward specific people’s needs and reactions, which made it different every time. That doesn’t work for one-shot presentations, although you might be able to draw on it for repeated presentations in front of similar audiences (“there’s always this one kid who…”).

    Partly I like Latin. A lot. I am genuinely and always excited about how awesome participles are.

    Partly it was pacing. You can’t plan many activities that last more than 10ish minutes with a room full of middle school boys, so I was always switching gears, which meant I was always a bit adrenalin-fueled. It’s easy, I think, to lose steam if you’re giving a straight-up talk for 45 minutes (I wouldn’t know because you never get to do that in middle school!). But if you’re doing different things, involving the audience, there’s always some freshness there, if only the sheer terror that you might forget what you meant to do next, or have to ad lib around some forgotten prop. 😉

    And partly, yes, involving the audience. If you’re a performer your energy has to be partly their energy, so give them ways to show it…(Not a problem in middle school. Actually the opposite was more likely to be a problem. But once I learned to surf the chaos, to try to work with it rather than fight it, I felt better.)

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