Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Story from a Past Existence

When I worked for Rolls-Royce, one of my jobs used to be one of the 'suits' that went to one of the the universities to find out how these lazy academics were spending our precious research budget. It was a bit disorienting at first. I used to be one of those long-haired hippy types myself. I would arrive at the lab at mid-day, follow my nose, leave at midnight and not care about plans too much. Now I had become a tidy-haired 'suit' who wanted to know about milestones, spend profiles and, maybe if there was time, results of the research.

This was met with two kinds of response. The senior staff, who realised that they need money from somewhere, had learned to schmooze a bit. Only occasionally would the veneer crack and tough words were exchanged. But mostly schmoozing was the order of the day. There were never any 'problems' (my word), only 'opportunities' (their word). I became bilingual.

The other response to my visits came from the young students. They did most of the research donkey work. They enjoyed it. It was great fun, climbing around rigs, playing with high tech kit, using fast computers. As part of their training, they also got to present their findings at our 'suit' meetings, usually with long hair and wearing some ill-matching old tie.

Now, the trouble is that after lunch (which was a real schmooze-fest) I really wanted presentations that were punchy, to the point, quick. Otherwise, the insides of my eyelids became much more interesting to look at.

Roll up the student. "How long have I got?".

"Twenty minutes."

"OK. I've only got about 30 slides."

Quick mental calculation: using R-R rule of thumb of 4 minutes per slide means 2 hour presentation coming up.

After about half an hour one/I had to start asking pointy questions to get the student to get to the point and get it over with.

The problem was a simple one. The student had spent hours poring over his hundreds of wiggly voltage traces trying to work out the meaning of each blip. With each one he had formed a personal bond of love and friendship. So choosing which wiggly line to present to the 'suits' was heart wrenching - like choosing which few children of your many should be taken on an outing this month. Because the student loved them all he wanted to bring them all.

The problem for me was the student lost sight of the main point and often couldn't tell me what I needed to hear. As I result I was bored and irritated.

Now, what's the point of this ramble? Well, in the best tradition of isn't-that-just-like-life boring (now that I think about it) illustration, this all sounds like sermon preparation and delivery. Some preachers are schmoozers telling people what they want to hear to keep them happy. Others are like inexperienced students telling congregations everything they have found out. But neither have a clear idea of the message that must be told.

You can tell I have finished all my essays, can't you?

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