words are power

Words are power

I was in the library last week and an older gentleman came in and demanded that the librarian (a young women) look on the reserve shelf to see if his books were there.

The reserve shelf is right in the middle of the library so that patrons can easily look for themselves so I wanted to say “why don’t you look yourself, you lazy bastard” but I was conscious that he might have disability that prevented him leaning over (unlikely) or he was blind (equally unlikely given that we were in a library, but they do have talking books). After it was established that he did have a book waiting for him he said, “check it out for me”. No please or thank you, which I thought was a little rude, but I guess he was just getting to the point very quickly. On the other hand, good manners cost nothing, as my mother used to say.

It made me think about how frequently we use modifiers in our everyday speech. Modifiers are words that dilute declarative statements and include softeners like “sort of”, “kind of” and “a little bit”. Instead of saying, “I’m hungry” we say “I’m a little bit hungry” or “I’m kind of hungry”. It weakens our language.

In the workplace we rarely we hear women make declarative statements unless they are members of the Executive and I suspect that’s because women on the fast track have done a course called something like Women in Leadership and have been told to be bold and forthright. The rest of us say things like “if that makes sense?” at the end of our sentences or “I’m no expert, but…” at the beginning of our sentences. We think we are being polite, but often we just end up sounding uncertain. It’s not just women who do this, but the fact is that I mostly hear women talking like this which is kind of weird in this day and age.

I work with some brilliant woman who constantly deflect any praise they receive. This is sad because they really deserve to be recognised. Instead they say “it was nothing” (not true it WAS something) or “I couldn’t have done it without my team” when really the team couldn’t have done it without their leadership.

I’m also conscious that people with an academic background are prone to using modifiers. After all, you can lose marks in an essay by neglecting to say “the research says” or “it seems that” before you make an assertion of fact.

For many of us, it’s hard to work out how to sound assertive without being rude and without sounding like a pompous ass.

One suggestion is to be on the look-out for unnecessarily apologetic language. Being simple and clear is helpful. For example, if you are writing an email to someone you don’t know very well, don’t start your sentence with “I’m sorry to bother you”. Just explain who you are and what you want. Don’t waste their time fawning or telling them your life story, just make your writing simple and direct and don’t forget your manners. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

My reading year

It’s my favourite time of the year. It’s not the Christmas festivities that thrill me although I do love catching up with family and friends and of course I love eating left-over Christmas pudding with lots of custard AND ice-cream.

No, what I really hang out for is reading about people’s favourite books. I love finding out what everyone else has been reading – there’s always a chance that there’s a little gem that I’ve missed.

A lot of people think that I read all the time but that’s not true. Like most people, I’ve got other responsibilities but to be honest, reading is probably my favourite activity.

This year I read about 28 books, mostly fiction and mainly written by women. I think this is more than last year but perhaps I just kept better records this year. So here are my top picks for 2019.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I was a bit reluctant to read this book because the review said that it was a reworking of the play Antigone by Sophocles. Not having a classical education, I had no idea what this meant so I thought it might be too sophisticated for me. Apparently the play is about a teenage girl who is forced to choose between obeying the law of the land and religious laws but I’m happy to say that it doesn’t matter one whit if you aren’t familiar with the storyline, it’s a great book. Lots to think about and beautifully written. It’s written by a Pakistani writer and covers many themes around family, loyalty and love.

Ask again, yes by Mary Beth Keane.

This book gets my award for the weirdest title. It’s very hard to recommend a book with a weird title, don’t you think? Having said that, this was a great multi-generational read about love, redemption and messy families. If you like Celeste Ng you will probably enjoy this book which is set in New York. This review describes it as a gripping and compassionate family drama and I think that’s a pretty accurate description.

The Children's House by Alice Nelson
The Children’s House by Alice Nelson

The Children’s House was recommended to me by one my sisters. Both are keen readers and a great source of reading recommendations. Lots of people in my family read a lot, so I’m lucky there. It’s written by an Australian author and tells the story of a woman in New York who befriends a refugee with a small child. It’s a beautifully written book that would be a great choice for book groups. Lots of themes around belonging, motherhood and what it means to be part of a community.

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves
The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

I finished reading this one about 10 minutes ago. Couldn’t put it down, so it’s just as well I’m on holiday! Well plotted, fast-moving and an all round great read. Really enjoyed the descriptions of Devon and can’t wait for the next book in the series. This is a new series for Ann Cleeves, famous for the Shetland and Vera books (which I haven’t actually read although I’ve watched and enjoyed both of these as TV shows). She introduces a new detective called Matthew Venn who is both slightly troubled but principled in the time-worn tradition.

If you’re after something for a holiday or a plane trip and you enjoy mysteries, I really don’t think you can go past this one. It’s a satisfying read.

So there’s my round up of top picks for the year. I also enjoyed the much lauded “Where the Crawdad Sings” which didn’t disappoint.

I would love to know what you read during the year and what you would recommend? Do share…

Work-life balance

During the week I stepped into the lift at work and heard one man say to his colleague “how are you today?”.

“Wednesday” his co-worker replied. 

I’m assuming that this meant the he was glad that it was Wednesday and that he’d made it that far through the week. It was shorthand for thank goodness we’ve arrived at Wednesday but I’ll be a lot more cheerful when it’s Friday. Bring it on!

It made me think about an article I read ages ago about IT help desks. The guy said that when they re-set people’s passwords they always used the day of the week as a temporary password unless it was Wednesday. They never used Wednesday because people invariably couldn’t spell it and they would keep ringing them back to complain that their password re-set hadn’t worked. That made me laugh.

Anyway back to work. Things are a little bit difficult at work at the moment. We’re in a state of suspended animation whilst we are in the throes of a re-structure and I think quite a few people are pondering their future and what work means to them.

Like many older workers I’m in the happy position of having choices. I appreciate that is not the case for everyone and sometimes I feel a bit guilty about the fact that I can choose what work to do and how long I want to work for. But then I remember that I’ve been working for about 45 years now (not always being paid, but working nevertheless) so I’m allowed to slow down, make time for my hobbies and creative pursuits and just enjoy life.

Today I’ve had a sleep in, been for a swim and finished reading a novel I’ve been trying to get through for ages (it was really good). I’m feeling very relaxed and happy but I’m trying not to sound smug. 

My neighbour came over for a visit earlier. She’s a busy mum with a full time job and two small children, one of whom is a 16 month old ball of energy. She said she’d love to have time to read or just have a little time to herself. I remember feeling like that when I had small children. I was studying part-time at Uni when my children were small and most of my course notes were consumed in the brief interlude when they were glued to the morning television shows.

God bless you Humphrey B Bear. I would never have gained an Arts degree without your help!

My neighbour said that her job is very demanding and that she often works at night to keep up with the workload. It seemed wrong to me until I thought about how many times I came home from work, cooked the dinner, bathed the kids, read stories and then sat down at my computer to finish assignments or mark essays. My husband would see the light on in my study in the wee small hours and wander in to enquire if I was ever coming to bed. 

So I guess we all do the hard yards to make a career for ourselves and look after our families, but in hindsight I sometimes wish I’d made more time for my family and for myself. As the old saying goes… No-one ever lies on their deathbed thinking “I wish I’d stayed longer at work”. 

These are a few of my favourite things

I’ve just returned from a fantastic trip to New York with my lovely daughter. A highlight of the trip was a visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) which re-opened the day we arrived after having been closed for six months for a refurb.

MOMA is huge (five floors of art and sculpture), so you need to be selective about how you spend your time there. We spent five hours there and had to stop to refuel twice. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

There are so many famous works it’s tempting to photograph everything you see, but after a while you realise that no-one is going to be that interested in seeing your slightly crooked photo of Monet’s Hydrangeas, so I tried to take photos of art that I found interesting, quirky or powerful.

I was amused to see that all of my favourites featured people, many of them looking into the distance. I’m still puzzled about why I am drawn to these particular images but perhaps they have an air of mystery or wistfulness about them that I find appealing. I don’t suppose it really matters why you like something, just that it evokes some kind of response in your mind or in your heart.

Here are a few of my favourite pieces. I think they all share a certain simplicity.

The Moon by Tarsila do Amaral 1928
Dyke by Catherine Opie 1993
Graciela Iturbide (self portrait) 1979

I’m not an expert and I’ve never been one to buy artwork but I recently purchased a print by Holly Harper, an Australian artist. It took many hours of looking before I chose this print which is located in our bedroom so that I see it first thing in the morning. It never fails to make me happy.

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red by Holly Harper

The perfect book

I’m lucky enough to be going to on trip to New York with my daughter in a week’s time and it goes without saying that I can’t wait. The list of things to see and do is already quite long and new things get added every day.

Any trip away requires planning, although in my case it’s not really what to wear that takes up most of my attention, but rather what book to take on the plane. The decisions about what clothes to take are relatively easy as I don’t really have that many clothes, but the decision about what book to take is more difficult because there are just so many choices.

It’s important to get your book choices just right when you are flying long distances.

I remember going on a trip to New Zealand a few years ago. It’s only a three and a half hour flight from Sydney but it seemed endless because I’d chosen the wrong book. I really hated the book I’d taken and spent the whole trip trying to read Harry Potter over the shoulder of the woman sitting next to me. I’m sure she thought I was a bit weird.

I know you are probably thinking that I should just take a whole bunch of different books on my iPad but sometimes your eyes get quite irritated on a long flight and I find an actual books to be more soothing.

This leads me to the first thing on the list of plane reading requirements (after being interesting and engaging) which is that that the print can’t be tiny. I can no longer read really tiny print at the best of times, and certainly not when I’ve been awake for more than 20 hours.

Secondly, the book needs to be not too heavy both in terms of storyline and physical weight. No gut-wrenching memoirs for me thank you. But on the other hand I don’t like reading anything dry (no biographies) and I don’t really reading like out and out rubbish, but I’m sure there is a sweet spot of books that are page turners but also well written. I quite like hopeful books and I like psychological thrillers but I’m not a fan of too many gruesome details.

A couple of books on my list of possibilities are Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. This book sounds interesting, if a little confronting, so perhaps not the thing for a long plane trip. My sister has also recommended The Seal Woman’s Gift which sounds interesting and extraordinary. If it doesn’t make it on the plane, it’s definitely on my TBR.

Some other books on the list are How to be Happy by Eva Woods and Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson, which sounds pretty thrilling.

If you have any suggestions I would love to hear them. If they don’t make it onto the plane, I’ll definitely check them out so please share your favourite recent reads.

Where’s the evidence?

The media has been gleefully reporting a story about the “I Quit Sugar” author Sarah Wilson saying that she no longer thinks that abstaining from sugar is a good idea or necessary for optimal health. She said that she now eats cake and drinks wine every day. (Good on her, I’m all for that). One article quotes Sarah as saying that she never advocated that people should give up sugar (a strange claim, given the title of her book) but also highlights the fact that it’s really the readers of her book who might be feeling a little foolish now. They swallowed her ideas without ever considering the evidence or the veracity of her claims.

I know plenty of women (yes, it’s nearly always women) who advocate giving up all sugar, including fruit, in an effort to lose weight/be healthy and in truth, I can’t argue with them because no sugar diets do, in fact, work. All restrictive diets work in the narrow sense that if you eat a very small range of foods, you will lose weight. The question should really be about whether this is good for you in the long run.

It’s a bit like doing an evaluation of a social experiment (perhaps something like cashless card for people in remote communities). You can see that although something might “work” in the narrow sense, it could equally have a very negative impact on the wider community. It could damage the self-esteem of people in the community and make them feel more stigmatised and this in turn could lead to a range of other social issues. My point is that if you focus your evaluation just on “what works” you might very well miss evaluating the broader impacts of a program.

In Sarah Wilson’s case, she might have helped people lose a lot of weight, but their lives might have been infinitely sadder and more desperate after they gave up on cake, wine and fruit!

I must admit that in the past I’ve been guilty of thinking that if I promoted an idea with the right amount of enthusiasm, I might convince people that I was right. It’s taken me a long time to understand that what people really want is some kind of evidence so that their hearts can align with their brains.

Here’s a practical example…

As long time readers would know, I’m an advocate of simple slides. This is mainly because I’ve been in too many meetings where the slides were so complex that they just confused the issue. The messages weren’t clear and the overall impact was lost. In my view, it’s much better to have some strong clear messages.

But one thing I didn’t realise was that me being passionate about simple slides simply wasn’t cutting the mustard. People thought that simple slides were only good if you had a simple message. They thought that they weren’t appropriate for grand ideas or complicated concepts. It wasn’t until I started to talk about cognitive overload that people realised that confusing people with complex slides was a real thing.

Your audience really can’t take in more than a few key messages no matter how passionate or eloquent you are. People want to believe you (especially if you are passionate)but they also want facts. They need a logical reason to believe that what you say is true so give it to them, but get your facts right.

Don’t be like the popular authors who rely on vague science, get your ducks in a row.

I’m sorry if you can’t read this

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was going to be doing a short presentation at the Australian Evaluation Conference in Sydney.

So this week I fronted up (very nervously) and gave my five minute talk on getting past the imposter syndrome. You can watch it here. The sound is a little iffy at the beginning, but you’ll hopefully get the general idea.

I was very anxious about the whole thing so I’m glad it’s over.

But I wanted to talk more generally about the presentations and the communication styles of other presenters at the conference. I’m not suggesting that I’m good at public speaking (far from it – see above for evidence of this) but one thing that did surprise me was that the keynote speakers often seemed to have far too much content for their time-slots. I’m not sure if they were using a generic slide deck or whether they just think they will speak more quickly than they actually do, but in general lots of people ran out of time about half way through. I suppose that it didn’t matter because they were just so fascinating we were eager to hear anything they had to share, but nevertheless it surprised me a bit.

It sometimes felt as though they hadn’t really had time to think about their key messages.

There were a couple of really outstanding presentations. I was particularly impressed with a presentation by ARTD (an evaluation consultancy) who had clearly designed their presentation with the exact amount of information for the allotted time-slot. It was really interesting and really well done. They even had the key messages on a slide at the beginning of the presentation in case people had to leave to go to another session.

A notable thing at the conference was the big variations in slide decks.

The conference organisers had sent out a lot of guidance material about not putting too much details on the slides, but nevertheless some presenters couldn’t resist cramming their slides with a lot of very small text. I don’t think that I’m going to see this change in my lifetime but I would love to think that I’ll never have to hear anyone say “I’m sorry you can’t read this” again.

So there you have it. Overall it was a fantastic conference. I’m so glad I was fortunate enough to attend. Now I just need to go back to work and implement some of these great ideas.