Monday, May 24, 2010

Wax On, Wax Off

When it comes to teaching the unteachable, I'm a big fan of rudiments. Rudiments are the basic components of any skill or subject.

When learning to play the drums, you spend a lot of time learning to play rudiments, basic rhythm patterns that can be later combined to form complex music. When learning mathematics, before performing complex operations, one learns addition, subtraction, multiplication and division tables. Before the Karate Kid learned to kick ass, he learned how to apply and remove automobile wax.

Rudiments are the foundational building blocks or any subject or skill. To work, you must learn them so well that they become second nature. When you do, advanced concepts and skills come easily. When you don't, they come with greater difficulty, or not at all.

How Are Your Rudiments?

Over the years, I've worked with many people with advanced degrees who still couldn't write a decent paper, create an effective PowerPoint presentation or communicate an advanced concept to a lay audience. Rather than ferreting out the specific missing rudiments for each person, I developed a set of exercises and rules of thumb that by virtue of their implementation force acquisition of the rudiments. The following represent a few of them.

1. If you want to be interesting and engaging, ask a question.
Have you ever encountered someone who seemed almost desperate for someone to sit down and talk with him. Every once in a while, someone will actually engage him in conversation, usually for the last time. I've seen regulars at coffee shops or bars whom other regulars either quickly dismiss and move on, or, avoid altogether.

It seems that the more the desperate person tries to engage others (the more he talks and shares), the more he is avoided.

If you want to be interesting and engaging to someone other than yourself, ask a question.

2. For #1 to work, listen to and be interested in the answer.
Of course, there are folks with whom I've shared #1 who immediately proceed to ask a question and then either don't wait for or listen to your answer, or, answer the question themselves. Some will pause and bide their time while you speak, then non-sequitur themselves into whatever it is that they wanted to talk about.

Listen and be interested.

3. Create Effective PowerPoint Presentations
One of the greatest tools in the world is Microsoft's PowerPoint. With PowerPoint almost anyone can become a prolific purveyor of beautiful presentations that are absolutely terrible. Over the years, I've refined a set of rules that has never failed to dramatically improve the presentations of people who work for me.
  • Presentations must be ten pages or fewer including cover and summary
  • No fonts smaller than 18pt may be used
  • Only Times-Roman or Arial fonts may be used (pick one)
  • No colors other than black and white
  • No pictures (photos)
  • No words with more than three syllables
  • The 18pt and color rules apply to charts, graphs and graphics
The above are the wax-on, wax-off guidelines, the rudiments. Once they have been mastered, we move on to things like colors and images. But not before.

If you have the opportunity to run meetings in which PowerPoint presentations are used, try this out and let me know how it goes.

4. Write Documents that People Read and Understand
One of the things that I've learned in business is that being able to write effectively can take you really far: certainly much further than having the same skill set and not being able to write effectively. Here are a couple of rules of thumb that can help you improve your writing rudiments.
  • Use absolutely no adverbs: adverbs are the greatest enemy of vocabulary. By banning them, you'll create an environment in which your vocabulary will flourish.
  • Limit yourself to two adjectives per paragraph: adjectives are second only to adverbs in their vocabulary-limiting effect.
  • Use only active voice.
  • Limit sentences to twenty words.
  • Use only words that are three or fewer syllables in length.
  • However long your first draft is, rewrite it using half as many words.
  • Check everything for consistent verb tense, and then recheck it.
  • Blindly obey the word processing program's grammar corrections. If words or phrases are highlighted as being improper grammar, then rewrite them until they are accepted.
5. Effectively Present Complex Topics
When I first started working as a clerk at Bell Laboratories, I would often ask the engineers to explain mathematical, software, and electrical engineering concepts to me. I can remember talking with my dad (who was an electrical engineer) about what I was learning at work.

Convinced that I simply wasn't ready to understand the answers to the questions I'd asked, I would say something like, "Dad, some of these concepts are so advanced that it's going to be a long time before I can understand them. Even the guys from Standford and MIT can't explain them to me!"

My dad would matter-of-fact-ly answer, "That's because they don't understand them."

If you really want to know your topic and present it well, practice your presentation with your mom or your six-year-old: someone who will listen intently and who has no clue about what you're presenting.

If you can effectively present a complex topic to your six-year-old (including satisfactorily answering all her questions), then you'll understand it. If you understand it, you can present it.

6. Teach in a Way that Students Learn
Here's a quick rule of thumb that can dramatically improve your teaching skills. It directly applies to teaching someone how to use a computer, but can be extended to other disciplines.
If you are typing, then they ain't learnin'
Pretty simple, huh? Yet, amazingly useful.

Whether you're teaching computer skills or rock climbing or piano or math, if you're doing the work, you undermine the efficacy of your teaching. So, whether teaching piano or computer, have the student sit at the keyboard, not you. Verbally instructing versus demonstrating will force an improvement in your understanding of what you want to teach. Having students implement your instructions will improve their understanding.

This can be applied to pretty much anything, e.g., asking a student write on the whiteboard or blackboard as you introduce a new math topic, or, having a student demonstrate how to bunny-hop on a mountain bike.

7. Balance Your Brain
To work around the carpal-tunnel and tendonitis in my right hand and arm, I decided to go lefty. I began writing and mousing left-handed. It was challenging. Yet by refusing to go righty, it came quicker than I'd anticipated.

Beyond the obvious skill differences, my experience writing left-handed was completely different. Whereas writing with my right hand was goal-oriented and utilitarian, writing with my left was process-oriented and fun.

Long story short, I started to mimic my left hand with my right and my tendonitis and carpal-tunnel disappeared.

Pick something that you are right- or left-side dominated, and do it with the other side for a month.

Have Fun
As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, Order in the Classroom, we often struggle with advanced skills and concepts because we've skipped some of the basics. When we unearth the basics we've skipped and learn them, everything else comes together.

The exercises I've outlined above are essentially shortcuts to recovering basics or rudiments. By following the guidelines, you'll pick up all the basics without needing to formally discover what's there and what's not.

If you have cause to write papers, or create PowerPoint slides, or present to others, I invite you to try some of the above exercises and see how you do. If it comes easily, then you've probably got your rudiments covered. If not, it won't be long until you do.

Have a great, rudimentary Monday!

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