Be better at what you do — a short guide

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Yesterday I was invited to participate in the EMMYs of British Television Journalism. I’m using the “Emmys” as a trigger so US readers and internationalists can picture the comparison. In Britain, the Royal Television Society Awards sits on Everest. To get there means you’re on top of your game.

For the last years I have been requested to act as a juror. Of course it’s a huge honour and privilege; I’m not from television stock. I’d call myself your average joe whom over the years fantasised, after a Chemistry and Maths degree, working in the media.

Yeah right! But many Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and some later, and I’m still totting up the mileage, in recent years I’ve had invitations to engage in a number of peer-reviewed or presentational activities e.g. BBC, SXSW and World Association of Newspaper.

Walking home y’day, I was in reflective mood. The judging was a feat in being critical about the critical. In my next article, I’m going to talk about what makes great storytelling in journalism based on the patterning of the entrants. Like many awards the voting debate is kept out of the public domain and so with respect to other jurors and the RTS I won’t be revealing the conversational flow, but I hope nonetheless you might find some of my own observations interesting.

A couple of years ago, presenting in the picturesque medieval town of Perugia, Italy, I was caught up by the label “best” applied to speakers et al. Come listen to the best of this… or that person is the best of that…

Those thoughts came back yesterday. Best, for me implies an ultimatum. It stops there. Where do you go after ‘best’? Exemplary? And after that? So I rather like the idea of ‘better’ — bettering oneself, acknowledging the boundaries even at ‘best’ or ‘exemplary’ is a false limit and requires breaking.

So here’s my brief reflective-mode home guide to getting better.

1. Learn from the exemplars.

In any field there are a few, relative to the field’s participants, who have shaped the discipline. In mine which is media, it’s Robert Drew, pioneer of Cinema Verite; Gilles Deleuze and Dziga Vertov. Learn all you can about your exemplars. Often embedded in their histories you’ll discover their motives and the ‘secret’ that made them.

Robert Drew, who worked in photography at Life Magazine was tired of seeing television pictures that could not get close or track its subjects, so he took the principles of photography to create a new mobile camera and as such a new language, Cinema Verite. I had the enormous privilege of speaking to him a year before he passed away. Illuminating!

2. Even giants, have masters.

Your exemplars have their own idols, so its worth tracking back again. Deleuze’s ideas for understanding cinema emerged from Henri Bergson. This process of ‘ping backs’ could go on and on.

There are few times when an original idea emerges from thin air. Everyone is influenced by something. You can decide if you want to stop at your ‘ping back’ or go back further. I usually go back one more step and then focus on my exemplar in detail.

Have you also considered departing from the Western canon of knowledge and philosophy? Given that the West is just a fraction, albeit important one of human knowledge, but appears because of its support and documentation to have greatly influenced our thinking.

3. The conditions, what are the conditions?

Ideas are rarely universal. They are constructs from the society and culture you inhabit. For that reason, those ten point guides may be apt for the territory you live in (West), but not the elsewhere e.g. East.

Looking at the conditions in China, our pitch revolved around socials e.g. Saki, Karaoke and foot massages. In the West this could be construed as play. The translation of fresh ideas, and their success at germinating, in part depends on the host’s reception. The impressionists learned from Japanese wood painters, but renaissance painters felt there was nothing new to learn.

In television, a sizeable number of countries adopted the Western model of television news making, because it was deigned as the best. In modern times, that’s not necessarily so. Television, like so many things e.g. cooking food is a human construct, and as such carries with it a legacy suited to a time and place. The BBC is guided by regulations of impartiality, interpreted by editors. Fox TV, is not legally bound by impartiality rules, as the FCC ditched the fairness doctrine in 1987. Fox TV says it’s impartial, but there’s no external body to oversee this.

4. Be respectful, but not too deferential.

Your exemplar set a standard during a time, a period and place. History writes her or him up as a pioneer, but as times change, so do the conditions and society. Was Drew a pioneer? Yes! Was he correct for his time? Most likely! Is he right now? Possibly no! Is he still relevant? Yes.

Drew’s premise was don’t interrupt the filming process. His French counterpart Rouch believed you should, that is you should be allowed to ask a question, to prod the filming process.

In Drew’s filming, if your subject says they’ve just committed a crime, you’re not allowed to intervene and ask what it is. Who’s right then? Neither and both. It all depends on the conditions, the environment and the audience. In my thesis on cinema journalism, I explain what this means. [The link is not the actual dense Phd thesis language, but accessible articles on perception].

5. The audience, the audience.

Conditions are shaped by the audience. The audience is the litmus test. The disparate collection of people aggregate into that thing which frames society and culture. Yes, technology too shapes the audience. Gustave Le Bon, a 19th century French polymath knew a thing or two about audiences. Get the alphas on your side and you potentially can turn a gathering to your liking. Politicians From Trump to Caesar know this.

In 2006 I presented in Sweden on Television of the Future. The host had booked me on the strength of my online reputation. I had two presentations. One at 4.0'clock to about 200 people and another at 6.00 to more than a 1000.

During my 3. 0'clock presentation, a few people started walking out. By the end, the producer was tearing her hair out. ‘David it’s not that they didn’t like you, but that they did not understand some of the things you were saying’, she said. Some months earlier I had presented at ONA New York, where it went really well. ‘Right!’ I said to my host, Amy, ‘in the time between 5 0’clock and 6 0'clock we’re going to rewrite this. If you don’t understand it, then I’ll take that as a guideline that the audiences won’t’.

We changed it. At the end of the 6.0'clock session, I got the biggest bear-hug from Amy and a welcoming audience. It worked. Two key take-aways from this. No matter how good we think we are, we’d do well to put ourselves into the hands of the producer. She/he should know their audience better than you should. Nowadays, I always go earlier to the conference room and ‘mark’ it out, by asking questions from audience members, who perhaps may not know I am about to present. They don’t have to be polite then.

6. Prep, prep, prep.

Steve Jobs was renowned for his preparation. Prep so it looks effortless. Winging it might work, but at some point you’ll get caught. There’s one area in public engagement where prep work reveals itself at its starkest.

In the West, we often stick to short, snappy power words on slides to provoke thought and catalyse our presentations. In Middle Eastern, African and countries like China, powerpoint slides are equivalent to notes, so the clients more often than not request comprehensive data on power point slides to present to delegates. Then there are those that present without either. I recently memorised a 14-minute talk and it was a strange experience. Prepping involves wrestling with the texts at some point. If it’s too easy to start off, then you’re not pushing your limits.

7. Humility.

Knowledge is not exclusively age-related, though wisdom generally, but not necessarily comes with age. These boundaries are not fixed.

Humility means you’re willing to take on board new experiences. The better practitioner is prepared to listen. She or he also tends to critique, rather than criticise. They are different processes. The one who critiques finds logical reasons to explain. It is also a rhetorical process built on evidence. They also understand the need to praise good work and again offering cogent reasons for this.

The one who critiques provide routes for understanding, without believing theirs is the best. They learn to collapse joint ideas, and re-synthesis, crediting where due. What I am writing here comes out of me, but is a combination of experience and many others’ advice.

8. It’s not personal.

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In my career I have worked for some of the BBC and Channel 4’s top shows e.g. Newsnight. I never once got a job through human resources. I could never get past the letter phase. Some how I was always ‘found’ and invited to join a team.

That ‘found’ came from persevering and sometimes being in the right place. Being rejected, I have learned should not be taken personally. That’s not to say you won’t or shouldn’t care, but rejection in a paradoxically way becomes a catalyst for me to drive past originally intended ambitions. Many of today’s successful people fought many battles to get to where they are.

9. Surround yourself with friends and family.

Friends come in various guises. School friends who are loyal and aren’t afraid to critique you. Friends at work, some of whom might tell you you’re the best. School friends might do the same too.

In any case, you want those who will weigh you up, to help you by being candid. Perfection is a utopian ideal we strive towards. Accept the critique and if you have humility, you’ll grow. I had a driving instructor who was critical. A previous instructor treated my sessions as a joy ride. I know who I preferred.

10. Challenge yourself and recognise your limits.

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Disperse those ideas, so you’re forced to think of new ones. Empty the tank, so you can fill it anew. Each time though, push against previous limits. I have just come back from a 6K run.

It was 3k a couple of weeks ago. It hurts, but I recognise that the run, the payoff with endorphins and the lasting effects spill over into all sorts of other disciplines.

Da Daah! Happy getting better!


Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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