Sunday, April 22, 2012

Accustomed as I am...

To York last week for the always enjoyable Housing Studies Association conference, at which as usual I gave a paper, this year co-presented with a colleague.

My job involves two types of presentation: the 20-minute conference slot and the 50-minute lecture. It’s important not to confuse the two, although trying to cram 50 minutes worth of information into a 20-minute conference presentation, which stretches to 30 and makes your session chair hate you for ever, is commonplace. I couldn’t possible comment on the frequency with which some lecturers make 20 minutes of material last for longer.

So I was thinking about the process of structuring and delivering a talk. There’s the old saying ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and then tell them what you’ve told them’, which is very useful. But as I was winding up The governance of change: the procurement of social housing in Northern Ireland, I had a flash of inspiration for a different approach, based on a flight plan. Accordingly, here’s a new five-point model for you to follow.

Taking off: Introductions. Who you are, summary of what you’re going to talk about, brief stories about what happened to you on the way to the venue, at the conference dinner or on Twitter – all best kept to a minimum. And absolutely no football references, please.

Rising above the clouds (may include turbulence): This is when you introduce the background to your material. The turbulence comes from two issues. First, it’s easy to spend too long on this section – in my case I’d be talking about the context of my study, usually including some kind of introduction to Northern Ireland, which can definitely run on. After all, you’re starting to get comfortable. The energy burst from taking off has subsided, and you’re settling in. A particular problem if you’ve only got 20 minutes. The second issue might be that this is when you begin to see that either your audience is not with you (boredom, hangovers, response to obscure material) or you see the flaws in your own presentation and start to panic. Or both. In any case, do absolutely anything you have to do to make the presentation work - except jokes.

In the cruise: Here, you make your most substantial and original contribution, for example in my case research findings. Leave enough time to do it properly – you should get to it at the very latest halfway through your time allocation – and do your very best to engage with the audience. Try to imagine what it’s like to be hearing about your work for the first time. Do not recite from slides, and if confident enough depart as far as possible from the Powerpoint. This is the section for (relevant) anecdotes, if you have time, which you probably won’t because again it’s common to have too much to say in this section.

Commencing descent: Start to wrap up by summarising your factual material and setting out a short analysis, for example in my case I would link the findings to theory here. Keep up your listeners’ interest and indicate in a subtle way that you’re nearly done. This is when you’re most likely to be prompted if you have run over time, in which case be prepared to move quickly on to....

Coming in to land: I find it can be quite difficult to conclude a presentation. Of course most of us will have Powerpoint to rely on, but by the time you get here you may very well want to add a few comments and even get a bit rhetorical about your subject. But bear in mind that this is the last thing your audience want. Either they want you to shut up because they have questions, or they want their lunch, or they are really looking forward to the next speaker, or for some other reason they just couldn’t care less. Wrap it up concisely and within your time limit. Don’t say ‘thank you for listening’ – it’s faux humble. And your contribution is not over until the end of any questions - stay alert long enough to give reasonably coherent answers.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Impressions of Titanic Belfast

Yesterday, East Belfast Diary could not have been anywhere else but at the opening of TitanicBelfast. Tickets for the first morning had been bought a long time ago and there was much anticipation in the EBD/ nickhereandnow household as we set off to catch the bus.

Atrium from the 4th floor
Ah, the bus. The start of a day that would have been much shorter had we taken the car. We decided not to because (i) we assumed we’d be charged a fortune to park it (ii) we were trying to be green (iii) it was a lovely day and we were looking forward to the walk from Queen’s Bridge. But we left home at a quarter to 11 and arrived to see Peter Robinson in the distance, cutting the ribbon, at mid-day. The experience makes the point that getting to Titanic Belfast requires some planning. There is now a bus from the city centre to the Belfast Metropolitan College (a lovely building, by the way, as is the stunning Public Records Office nearby) and one service that goes to the Science Park, but the latter does not run at weekends. There is also a train station, recently renamed Titanic Quarter, a short walk away. But if you want to combine a trip to Titanic Belfast with the Pump House and Thompson Graving Dock, at the weekend, then you need to be aware that there’s a lot of walking involved. Connectivity is still a problem for Titanic Quarter, but hopefully with both the College and Titanic Belfast operational, the transport options will improve – as will the options for coffee or lunch, which are currently dire.

A second aspect of planning the day involves Titanic Belfast itself. Entry charges are steep for Belfast (see their web site) but you get a lot for your money. It took us two and a half hours to get around it all, and we didn’t look closely at absolutely everything. Seats are provided (although not as many toilets as I would have expected), however again if you have people with you who have restricted mobility you need to think about how to approach the trip. We booked online and had our printout taken from us without anything being returned to show we had paid, so I think it would be difficult to leave the displays for a coffee and then return. Certainly I saw fewer children than expected, but now I would advise parents to think very carefully before taking younger children.

This all sounds very discouraging, so now for the good bits. The first has to be the building from the outside, which is absolutely stunning. It’s a shame that the final plans for the Titanic Quarter development include a bank of apartments between it and the river. I also think it’s too close to the old Harland and Wolff building. However it really is a ‘signature building’ and an asset for Belfast. Then, on entering the building, the atrium is amazing. Lovely metallic walls, a mosaic on the floor, lots of bustle, with cafe and gift shop prominent but not offensively so.

Within the exhibition, for me the most impressive features were the Shipyard Ride, which involves climbing into an open pod which moves around a model of a ship being built and talks about how it was done; and the approach to the sinking of the Titanic through presenting the texts of telegrams sent (example shown). The sinking was not sensationalised at all and, along with a planned memorial on the slipway outside, I don’t think anyone could feel that the story has been exploited. Finally, I enjoyed the account of the ship’s fitting out and the models of the cabins, and didn’t feel that the lack of original artefacts detracted from that at all. It was disappointing not to see the replica of the famous staircase, which everyone should be aware is not included in the exhibition but is only accessible to those who hire the Banqueting Suite.

However, inevitably there were some niggles. The first floor story of ‘Boomtown Belfast’ was a very traditional ‘museum’ type of approach with  a lot of information presented on display panels and not many videos. It reminded me of the old ‘Made in Belfast’ gallery in the Ulster Museum before its refurbishment. The problem I had with it was that the linear approach to presentation meant that on the one hand it was superficial and on the other, important aspects were omitted. The shipyards section focused on Harland and Wolff with a very small amount about Workman Clark and nothing on MacIlwaine and Lewis/ McColl, the shipyard with a connection to CS Lewis and also the one that built the first Belfast-made ship called ‘Titanic’ in 1888. Worse from my point of view was the small amount about trade unions, and about sectarianism in the shipyards. History is most definitely written by the winners.

We also encountered logistical problems with access to the Shipyard Ride, which I can’t see how they are going to solve. The pods take six people each and I think there are about ten of them. We estimated that the ride and disembarking took around 15 minutes. This would mean 240 people an hour, max. There was a long queue by the time we arrived, which was quite early, and my impression was that crowds will back up quite considerably.

My final niggle was that there’s just too much of it – by the time we got to the impressive cinema at the end, showing films of the submerged wreck, we’d both had enough and so didn’t give it the attention it deserved. Having said this, there is a need to include a bit more about Belfast between 1912 and 2012 other than a Harland and Wolff timeline and a panel about innovation in the city today.

So, full marks for the design and qualified praise for the content. Titanic Belfast is definitely worth a visit, but I suspect that it will become more of a tourist destination than a place for locals.