Sunday, 21 October 2012

Getting sustainability messages across (or not)

I've spent the last week learning about issues and connecting with key players in the concepts of eco-cities and sustainability. The public organisation where I work and other organisations  organised a three-day international workshop on Eco-cities of the Future. It was an opportunity to reconnect with folks I'd met in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Grand Valley State University MI, the college in the US and others I'd been wanting to meet like Jos Eussen from Regional Centre of Expertise Rhine-Meuse in the Netherlands and Fran├žoise Laveuve from RCE candidate in Brittany, France. I met many other interesting people from other European countries as well as China. Many of them were in academia, a few were from the applied worlds of business and lifelong education.

There were some presentations I enjoyed immensely and others that never gave a thought to effective communication or consideration of their audience. As an experienced Toastmaster (public presentations) I felt the gulf between the good presenters and the rest was huge. I don't understand why most (though not all) French academic and even business presenters think that presenting to an audience requires you to be a talking head sitting behind a big desk with or without an example of why powerpoint can be such a turnoff. They sit there and drone on and on, indulging themselves it seems, unaware that the audience maybe can't even hear them properly, or can't sense any passion from the presenter. Some presenters don't even face their audience - they simply gabble to their laptops and rarely lift their eyes to their listeners. This is insulting and particularly bad when the audience is international with many people trying to understand a foreign language. In my opinion it's gross incompetence and impolite to be on a stage with an audience that has to be there or who has paid a lot of money to attend and to behave like that.

Even some of the most 'experienced' speakers were among the most ineffective. They'd be very surprised at what a Toastmaster's honest evaluation of their efforts would reveal. Many need a course in effective communication and presentations- probably running for  12 weeks. The University doesn't offer this and seems to have few staff capable of running one. It's disappointing because professors and students may have great scientific information or experiences to share but the audience is left to sit there politely struggling, or sleeping, or working on tablets and laptops or checking emails on smartphones. They are not really THERE. Wasted money and time. And I'd encourage non-native speakers to have a native check their English text on their slides. Glaring grammatical errors are not a good look for anyone involved in higher education in the international arena. I was gobsmacked to watch one presenter waiting his turn by brazenly and probably unthinkingly working on his laptop throughout the proceedings instead of listening to his fellow presenters on the stage. What a message that sends.

I'm sure everyone there would agree that the best presenter was George Heartwell, Mayor of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He moved, he stood, he used body language, he projected his voice, he physically illustrated what he was trying to say and his slides weren't a reproduction of a research thesis or text book. He pleaded, persuaded and inspired. I feel that if we are in the field of sustainability we need to be passionate and effective communicators of messages because the world needs to sit up and take notice. Even the professor from China, for whom English is a second language was more effective than most of the French. Jos Eussen from the Netherlands had a very provocative style as well as content, made to get people questioning the status quo and their own ideas. Everyone could hear him, he connected with his audience and he wasn't boring even if they might not all have agreed with him.

Ah, you say, but it's another culture. Yes, I totally agree but there are basic qualities to making an effective presentation that can fit within any culture. It's not about culture, it's about getting your message across, and this was an international event. So hat's off to those who used powerpoint as it should be, or who used their own words effectively without powerpoint. Hat's off to those who could be heard with or without a microphone. Hat's off to those who connected with their audiences and related material to them instead of reading from notes on a laptop. Hat's off to those who, knowing they were all being videoed, put some life into their presentations.

One of my responsibilities was to chair a Round Table (for the first time). The other was to produce around 15 videos covering each session over the three days. I enjoyed working with the production team and will spend next week polishing off material and post-production for each of these future teaching resources. Each video will eventually be available online. I also seem to be responsible for making sure students write reports on each session in English and in French so those can be posted online too. Last week I was a guest lecturer to two groups of Masters students to explain what was required. I enjoyed being  back in the classroom on an ad hoc basis.

Sustainability messages: integrated, linked, relevant, topical, bundled with rich media for future exploration and learning, communicating what's important for an audience. It's too important to be left to chance or ineffective presentations.

Waitakere City Council was very successful at getting its sustainability messages across. I asked permission from ex Mayor Bob Harvey to use a 'comic' produced towards the end of the city's existence in the Auckland region, to illustrate how an eco-city can be envisioned, implemented, its struggles, it's successes.

How a city created its own identity to international acclaim in only 20 years. A green, sustainability identity, an example to the rest of NZ and the world. Auckland City provided me with a pdf and so copies of a NZ success story have found their way into European, Asian and US hands.

First to receive a copy was Mayor Heartwell [see left] who is instrumental in moulding his city as an eco-city. He enjoyed reading about The Journey, in fact he read it from cover to cover. Those of us who were part of the reality of that journey to create a city based on the principles of sustainability enjoyed being part of something that made a difference. The city identity and governance has been destroyed by politicians but the spirit of the people and their messages last and can still be influential on others around the world who are passionate about encouraging sustainable living.


Suzanne Powers said...

I've enjoyed immensely reading your trials and tribulations (and good times) relocating to France. I have to admit with all the glamor of Paris and it's beautiful countryside it would be nice if it were more functional, hats off to you for making a go of it! It makes me appreciate where I live.

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