Next week I’ll be part of an interview committee for a principal position in our division. Part of our process is the inclusion of multiple stakeholders who provide me with feedback on each potential candidate. Before we begin, I always provide the committee with a reminder to listen carefully to the answers and don’t get lost in the style of those being interviewed. “Did the candidate provide an answer to the question asked or did the candidate side step the question?” “Did the candidate provide concrete examples of actions taken or simply state what he/she would do if given the opportunity.” I’m looking for evidence not platitude, because often the best predictor of future performance is past performance. With that mentality, I’m hoping that committee members, including myself can see through the “style guy!”
But what about when attending conferences and listening to keynote or other presentations? Does the same thinking apply? I would like to believe that intelligent conference attenders (we all believe we are) would be able to recognize the difference between rhetoric and research. However, after just returning from an international conference, I’m not sure we all get the style vs. substance paradigm simply based on the level of applause given or not!
Since our paths just crossed in the airport today, I’ll give you a personal example. The first time I listened to Canadian education guru, Michael Fullan, his presentation was dry. But his message was so powerful. He rocked me with the topic and in many ways he was instrumental the re-engagement of my own learning journey. Had I just focused on his style, I may have missed his critical messaging, the true substance of his talk. I’ve continued to follow Dr. Fullan throughout my career and have had the good fortune to hear him speak many times now. The “wow” factor doesn’t come from his style, which has improved steadily but rather in the content of his presentation.
I do understand the allure of the charismatic presenters. They typically say what we want to hear and use emotions with great ease. It is hard not to “fall in love” with the message because most often, they are tugging at our heart-strings. They make us laugh one moment and cry the next and most importantly they make us feel good about ourselves. They are simply affirming because they say exactly what we want to hear. But if we desire to be on an improvement journey, that keynote needs to push us beyond just feeling good about ourselves.
This is where substance has to come into play. This is where no matter how good we are feeling from the speaker’s talk, there needs to be that little push to go beyond what we’ve always done. I’m all for being affirmed at conferences on practices that are known to be tried and true. That affirmation tells me how far I, or my organization has come to this point. But that, is only one part of a true reflective evaluation. You must also be aware of how much farther you need to go along the journey and that will only occur if there are some challenges provided from the stylish and substance filled speaker.
It is not necessarily commonplace to find many high style and deep substance speakers at a conference because that ability is quite rare! But when you do, you should be walking out of the presentation feeling pretty good but also feeling challenged to take your practice up another notch. Default to substance if you have to choose because superficial talks will only promote false beliefs and when it comes to improvement, deep learning and serious reflection are required.