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.

Post #3168: One-sentence reviews for the first half of 2019

Thought I’d reblog this list for all of my readerly friends as I know how much you all love reading suggestions. There are some interesting titles on the list, some are already on my TBR, but others are new to me. I’m looking forward to reading “How to be a person in the world” by Heather Havrilesky as well as Curtis Sittenfeld’s collection of essays.

Red Cedar

Reads and reactions in brief since January 1st, 2019.

How to be Alone – Lane Moore
Essays. Lane Moore is youngish, funny, and figuring out her life. These essays are part of her process.

This House is Haunted – John Boyne
Novel. Forgettable. In other words, I read this in January and can’t remember anything about it.

How to be a Person in the World – Heather Havrilesky
Letters. Havrilesky is Ask Polly and this is a selection of her responses to people who write in asking for help. Compassionate and wise, with lots of tidbits to take away for those of us reading along.

Practical Magic – Alice Hoffman
Novel. Classic chick lit about the witches among us and their deeds committed in the name of love and escape. A quick read, fluffy.  

and also sharks – Jessica Westhead
Short stories. Loved these. Quirky and poignant. Would read…

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The emperor’s new hat

I’m currently on holiday in beautiful sunny Darwin. Last Saturday we have a fun time pretending to be toffs at the Derby Day race meeting. Apart from graceful racehorses, there were also many wonderful outfits to look at and a vast array of headgear on display.

This got me wondering why women wear fascinators (as opposed to hats) especially since so many of them are just downright hilarious. Don’t get me wrong, some of these creations are beautiful, but most just make me laugh.

A small amount of research revealed that fascinators have been around since the 1600s with the first versions being a type of lace shawl with a fastener (hence the name). According to this article, they become newly popular in the 1950s as a cousin to those small pillbox hats made famous by Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy. My mother wore a beautiful pillbox hat with a small veil at her wedding in the early 1960s.

Fascinators have made a resurgence since Princess Beatrice wore her famous “pretzel” fascinator at the Royal Wedding. Apparently this fascinator became so famous it has its own FaceBook page.

We are going to another big horse race in October and several friends have offered to lend me a fascinator but I think I’ll pass. I might be persuaded to wear a proper hat (maybe not my gardening hat), but I can’t imagine wearing feathers and lace fastened atop my head. Each to her own, but it’s just not me really.

Who are you really?

I had to write a short bio for an evaluation conference that I’m presenting at in September. I’m actually only speaking for five minutes, but it was on my bucket list to speak at a conference one day, so at least I’ll be able to tick that one off.

I did some research about how to write a bio and the recommendation was to make it relevant to the audience and make it short. This seemed like good advice. I’m a big fan of simplicity, so I generally like things to be short and to the point.

The audience will be other evaluators and my short presentation is about building evaluation capacity when you aren’t an expert, so I decided to just write a couple of sentences about my role and the fact that I like to work collaboratively with people.

I was pretty happy with my efforts until I read some of the other presenters’ bios. By comparison, mine was way too short and simple, so I panicked.

They were mostly written in the third person and there were a whole lot of qualifications being cited all over the joint. The other presenters sound very, very impressive!

You may find it amusing that I panicked given that the title of my talk is “Getting over the imposter syndrome”.

It reminded me of a meeting I went to when I was teaching at the local TAFE. It was the start of semester so we did a ‘go-around’ so that everyone could introduce themselves. I sat there getting more and more anxious (I hate go-arounds) whilst my colleagues cited their extensive academic qualifications and their very important titles. When it came to my turn I said “my name’s Margaret Moon and I’m a person”. I wasn’t trying to be especially funny or rude. It just seemed that this was the best way I could think of to describe myself. There seemed to be a lack of humanity and perhaps humility, in the room.

Back to my bio. In the end I did add a few details. I didn’t want to sound too pompous but I thought that people might want to know a little bit about my background and what kinds of things I find interesting. That list could be quite long if I got carried away, so I just talked about how much I enjoy solving problems and working alongside people. I didn’t talk about how much I love reading and drinking nice wine! That might be a discussion for another time.

I’m hoping that if I sound friendly enough some of the other attendees might come up and say hello. That would be nice.

One thing leads to another

Many years ago I started volunteering at a local counselling service. My children were quite small and I remember some people in my family being puzzled about why I would give up my time to volunteer at a not-for-profit welfare agency.

To be honest, I mainly wanted to get out of the house, but I was also interested in learning new skills. They offered an excellent training course with some top notch professionals and it was an offer too good to refuse. On top of that I could choose how many hours I worked and days that suited me. I could also take my toddler with me and she loved playing with the toys and being the centre of attention. All the staff loved her and I thrived in that environment.

One day I saw an ad for a diploma course at the local technical college. I briefly considered enrolling in the course until I realised that since I was already three quarters of the way through a degree in sociology, I was probably qualified enough to teach on the course. I’m still not sure if I was delusional, but I went home and sent off a letter (yes a letter, it was the olden days remember) telling the head teacher that I was available to teach a class at any time! How bold of me!

I heard nothing for six months. Then the head of studies rang and asked me if I could teach a class in social theory starting on the next Tuesday.

Could I? Not sure really, but I said I could. I was probably wildly over-confident and my first lessons were less than fantastic.

That was the start of my teaching career which lasted for ten years. I enjoyed it immensely and when it stopped being fun I left and started a new job. I missed my colleagues who were awesome but it was time for me to explore new territory. More things to learn, more opportunities to expand my horizons.

I often wonder what path my life would have taken if I hadn’t signed up for that volunteer role. I’m pretty certain that I would have missed out on quite a few wonderful opportunities and many great friendships.

So you’re wondering if you should volunteer, just do it. It may lead to something else, or just be a way to give back to the community or meet new people. All of these are good reasons. You won’t regret it.