Friday, 3 May 2013

Smart practice involves four steps: here is the second

A study of young violinists attending a musical conservatoire found that those that developed their playing skills most effectively did not necessarily practise more than anybody else; they practised smart.

They were deliberate in their approach, focusing carefully and systematically upon the aspects of their playing they needed to enhance. They also did more high quality practice, maintaining high levels of energy and concentration over shorter rather than longer sessions. They also took plenty of breaks.
More than any other aspect, this smart, deliberate approach to practice marked the difference between those violinists that achieved the best playing results and those that did not. Quality rather than quantity of practice was what counted the most.

Step 2. Engage in deliberate and concentrated practice to develop the skills you need

As well as consolidating and continuing to develop your strengths it is vitally important to identify weaknesses and the additional skills you will need to develop to overcome them. The process for doing this is very much like that one you used for identifying strengths. The key questions to ask are:

  • What weaknesses do you feel you have exhibited and how do you know they are weaknesses? What evidence do you have that confirms they are weaknesses?
  • What feedback have you gained from others about you weaknesses and areas for development? 
  • Have you tested that your apparent weaknesses are in fact weaknesses? Sometimes unique approaches can be interpreted as weaknesses when in fact they are potential strengths and advantages. Have you analysed the consequences of your apparent weaknesses to confirm that they are having a negative rather than positive impact? 
  • Have you made a note of the areas you need to develop and what you wish to achieve by doing so?
For example, if you wish to address any current weaknesses in your presentational approach you could review your performance during presentations and analyse any feedback obtained. What comments indicate a pattern of weaker performance and in what specific areas does this take place? In addition, what personal feedback have you obtained from specific audience members, co-presenters, colleagues or managers to confirm these areas of weakness?

Once you have identified feedback about apparent weaknesses in your current presentational approach you are than able to test the impact of their consequences. For example, you may be perceived as overly challenging and confrontational in your presentation style, or you may be thought of as overcomplicated in your delivery, concentrating too much upon details at the expense of the bigger picture.

On the face of it these are definitely weaknesses, and in many cases they obviously are. However, there are situations when a challenging and confrontational style is exactly what is needed. Similarly, there are occasions when the devil of the detail must be dealt with, however dry and unpleasant this may feel.

On these occasions those on the receiving end or observing can attribute their discomfort with the confrontational message or the difficult demanding detail to shortcomings in the presenter’s style, when in fact, because of the nature of the presentation and the context within which it is delivered, their discomfort was unavoidable and perhaps even necessary.
In these situations the true consequences of an apparent weakness are not what they at first seem. Yes, you may have received some negative feedback about your style, but if the key messages had not been forcefully made or the detail not made absolutely plain, perhaps the consequences would have been much worse. In these cases, despite the negative personal feedback from various sources, your ability to be challenging and confrontational, or careful about the detail, can be viewed as definite strengths rather than weaknesses.

On other occasions, however, the consequences of a challenging presentational style or one that is overly attracted to detail can be very damaging. If this is found to be the case then you will need to take steps to deal with it. You can make a point of softening your approach from time to time, or you can remind your audience (and yourself), of the bigger picture once in a while.

This process of getting to know what your real weaknesses are and being clear about the actual consequences of them is a corner stone of effective personal development. It ensures that any steps taken to improve performance are targeted at the right areas and will achieve the desired effects.

Once, with the help of others, you have clarity about the true nature of your weaknesses you can take steps to address them effectively. This needs to be done in a deliberate, focused and repetitive way. The key questions to ask are:

  • What specific aspects of my performance do I need to address and how am I going to do it?
  • What do I need to start doing differently? What are the specific steps I need to take and what do I need to practise doing differently?
  • How am I going to structure my time so that I give myself sufficient space and opportunity to develop my new skills?
  • What opportunities am I going to give myself to use and build upon my new skills?
  • What is the ultimate benefit to me and others of addressing my weaker areas? What rewards will I gain and how can I ensure that I gain and enjoy them?
  • How will I know I have improved my performance?
For example, when delivering presentations you may experience the tendency to ‘worship the PowerPoint’. Rather than looking at the audience or the notes you have prepared, you may find yourself, in a mistaken attempt at gaining a sense of security, avoiding eye contact with the audience and looking at the PowerPoint, almost reading the prompts it provides word for word, mentally checking each point off as you go, leading to a nodding effect in the direction of the slide, thus the ‘worshipping’ effect. In the worst of cases this can lead to you developing the habit of almost completely turning your back upon your audience, which is obviously not the best approach to take.

Having identified this weakness the next step is for you to decide, specifically, what you will start doing differently. This is not merely a matter of telling yourself to look at your audience. You will need to think about the precise steps you are going to take to change your behaviour and then you need to start doing it.
In this case you have several options. You can use the touch, turn, talk technique when presenting. This entails touching the remote or computer to reveal the slide, turning purposefully to the audience, making eye contact with them and then speaking. This simple behavioural technique, if consistently practised, can replace the habitual worshipping behaviour with more open and engaging behaviour.

You can also practise preparing and using your presentation notes so that they become an aid rather than a hindrance to engaging with your audience. For example, you can prepare notes pages that use telegraph sentences and key words, so that you are not inclined to look down towards your feet and present as if reading from a script. You can also put your notes on the top two thirds of the page, keeping the bottom third clear. This will encourage you to keep your eyes up and look over the top of your notes towards your audience.
Next, having decided what skills you are going to develop you need to create time and opportunity to practise using them. You need to allocate sufficient time for the preparation of your notes and then find opportunities to present to an audience, so that you can practise the touch, turn and talk technique and the use of your ‘top two thirds’ presentation notes.

Notice that the practice is focused upon a couple of specific areas. Also, remember that for it to be highly effective it needs to be concentrated within short sessions separated by short breaks.

Having done this you then need to check your progress and whether or not you have successfully converted yourself away from ‘worshipping’ PowerPoint. You can do this by asking for feedback from your audiences.

Lastly, you need to be clear about the advantages and rewards you have gained as a result of changing your behaviour and developing your new skills. You may gain in terms of personal credibility and prestige or in terms of greater influence with key stakeholders, etc. You may also begin to enjoy making presentations, so adding a feeling of fun to a significant aspect of your work. This sense of gaining some sort of reward is important because it motivates you to continue seeking opportunities to develop new skills and build upon your strengths.

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