Answer the questions or question the answers?

Sometimes I drive my students mad. And I do it on purpose too. You see, instead of giving them answers to their questions, I give them more questions. I’ll give you an example.wrong_question_header

Student: “Please, Bob, should this trade-off table be included in the text or should I move it to the appendix?”

Bob: “Well, that depends. Who do you suppose will be reading it?”

Student: “Why, you are, I guess! I don’t know.”

Bob: “Would you agree maybe, that I am unlikely to read the professional technical reports that you will be writing after your graduation? Would you also agree then, that there must be somebody else who will be reading them, and that it would be wise to figure out who they are?”

Student: “Yeah but you are reading this one and there must be a proper place to put this table. Can’t you just tell us where it is?”

Bob: “Let me put it this way. Why did you make this table in the first place? What do you want your readers to do with it?

Student: “Well, we want them to be able to check whether the argumentation represented in the trade-off table is valid, so that they will understand and accept our choice for the best concept.” (I admit they don’t usually put it quite like this.)

Bob: “Okay. That accounts for its wonderful level of detail. And who would that be doing this checking?”

Student: “That’s easy. Engineers of course!”

Bob: “Excellent! Remind me, what kind of report are you writing again?”

Student: “A management report.”

Bob: “Ah. And do you maybe remember what we discussed during last week’s lesson on presentation skills?”

Student: “Yes, we discussed how there are several different ways to present scores in an oral presentation.”

Bob: “For example?”

Student: “You can give the actual scores, you can use symbols, like pluses and minuses. And colour codes, like red is bad and green is good.”

Bob: “And what might be the reason for the differences between these presentations?”

Student: “That way you can vary the amount of detail depending on your audience’s expertise and needs.”

Bob: “And?”

Student: “You can give them your interpretation of the scores this way.”
questions roadsign

Bob: “Brilliant! So how do you think this strategy might be applied in our present situation, considering that you are writing mainly for a manager who just wants to know the outcome of your trade-off and present this to her team?”

Student: “Ah! You mean that we might put this highly detailed version in the appendix for specialists, so they can check our results, and present a low-tech version for the project managers in the body of the report?”

Bob: “Wow!”

Student: “Why did you not just tell us what you wanted?”

Bob: “What would you have learned?”

Gesprekken oefenen maakt je een betere schrijver

Als Brugman

Overtuigend schrijven is voor veel studenten niet gemakkelijk; het is lastig om te bedenken wat je tegenstander zou kunnen zeggen. Je denken is begrensd.
Nu is uit eerder onderzoek gebleken dat discussie-opdrachten voor studenten onderling, studenten kan helpen om die grenzen te slechten, maar nu heeft Columbia University  aangetoond dat het bedenken van conflicterende meningen zorgt voor een beter onderzoek van het probleem dat je moet oplossen.

60 studenten werkten aan een opdracht. Het moest gaan over de twee burgemeesterskandidaten.Van te voren hadden ze allemaal een  lijst van problemen gekregen in de stad en een lijst van oplossingen die de kandidaten hadden voorgesteld. Sommigen van hen moesten een dialoog beschrijven tussen TV-commentatoren en sommige van de studenten werden kregen dezelfde informatie, maar moesten een overtuigend essay schrijven over de kandidaten.
En wat bleek? De dialoog-schrijvers bleken beter in het direct vergelijken van de twee kandidaten en het beschrijven van de…

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How Eeyore can help you become a better speaker

Most useful bits of wisdom come from Winnie the Pooh and so they do too. Many of my students, when they are trying to sound convincing in a presentation, sound like they have just had some seriously bad news. As this rather harms their persuasiveness, I feel something must be done. So here is a simple and enjoyable remedy against sounding like you are selling monotony and gloom:

Read Winnie the Pooh.

Out loud I mean. And do the voices. Not only is this excellent voice practice, it is also hilarious. Especially when you have an audience. You can read to your children, your neighbours’ children, your spouse (excellent foreplay, trust me) or your fellow presenter(s). Think about what kind of voice every animal should have (it is ok to disagree about this. Ask the children if you don’t know). When my kids were young, my Roo would sound baby-like, rabbit sounded sensible, Owl superior to posh. Tigger, of course, is and sounds bouncy. My Tigger was famous in my kids’ schoolyard.

eeyoreMy personal favourite is Eeyore, although I realize that his is exactly the kind of voice I don’t want you to use in your presentations, because he sounds thoroughly depressed. Think about the scene when he comes floating downstream on his back in the river, and he spots his friends on a bridge. “Don’t mind me”, he says, “No-one ever does”. I mean, think of the utter fatalism you must put in your voice to make that work!

Go ahead and give the voices a try. Do this about 15 minutes before your presentation starts. I promise the results will be amazing. And don’t think you’re too cool or important to do this; no one is.

Oh, and one more thing: promise me you won’t make Pooh bear sound stupid. He isn’t. It is an understandable mistake to make, as he is indeed, by his own admission, a bear of little brain, but Pooh is also very wise and a true Zen master, who comes up with little gems like this one aimed at technologists like you:

“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?”

Pronouncing English properly is impossible.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation, DON’T READ THIS, IT WILL DRIVE YOU MAD!

My dad, now 86 years old, used to force-recite this poem/pronunciation exercise/mental torture to me relentlessly 40 or 50 years ago. It was therefore both a shock of panic and of fond recognition to find that it is still alive and kicking today. I will just give you the first couple of stanzas here, the rest can be found on many places on the internet. If you get the whole thing right (you won’t), try an Irish accent. Or Jamaican.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.

Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say-said, pay-paid, laid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
Woven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.

Oh dear, that reminds me. Does anyone have the story of Arthur the rat, who’d never take the trouble to make up his mind? I remember students crying in the office next door, trying to get it right.

“Pass the parcel” writing exercise

It has been a long time since I wrote something about writing. This will not do. Here is a lovely creative writing exercise I did with my technical report-writing group last week.

  1. Make groups of four or five; tell everyone to find a pen and a sheet of paper (no laptops or books or anything like that, just a sheet of paper).
  2. Give them half a sentence to write. I gave them “This morning, when I was coming to class …”, but it could be anything you like of course.
  3. Tell them they get thee minutes to write as fast as they can, continuing from the half-sentence you gave them. Don’t let them think, make them write! “Punch those keys!” (from the movie Finding Forrester, which is about an aspiring writer, co-starring Sean Connery).
  4. When the three minutes are up, tell your students to stop – don’t let them finish their sentences – and to pass their writing product to the next person in the subgroup, so that everybody gets somebody else’s product. Give them 10 seconds to read and then ask them to continue the story, again for three minutes.
  5. Keep doing this until each student gets their own story  (i.e. the one they started) back, and give them two minutes to wrap it up. Don’t give them more than 10 seconds to read during the changeovers.

To make it more difficult – and a lot more fun – you can add small assignments like: your next sentence contains an elephant or the next paragraph contains a five-syllable word. I usually make these up on the spot, but if you are a better organized language teacher than I am, and chances are that you are, you can make them use the passive voice only, or the gerund, or the idioms they were supposed to have studied (one per sentence), whatever floats your boat. But don’t overdo this, it will kill the fun.

It is important that you put the pressure on. Don’t give them time to think, they have to write as fast as they can.

Every time I do this exercise with my students, the room buzzes with energy and the results are invariably hilarious. But have they learned anything? Well, if it’s only that they perform better under pressure than they thought, that would be enough. But also …

  • Writing can be fun.
  • Writing does not have to be difficult and you can do it anywhere. I used this game once to resuscitate a birthday party that was on the brink of death.
  • Anyone can write. And that includes technologists like my students, not only linguists.
  • You don’t have to leave the writing of your group assignments to someone else.

Paul Kuijer was the teacher at “d’Witte Leli” who  taught me this exercise back in 1982. I still have it somewhere in my archive. Thank you, Paul.