Sunday, August 03, 2014

Be better at what you do - a short guide

On the morning after a presentation at the International Journalism Festival, I went for a run. I was so taken with the architecture of Perugia, that I came back to the hotel at 5.30, On the morning after a presentation at the International Journalism Festival, I went for a run. I was so taken with the architecture of Perugia, that I came back to the hotel at 5.30, grabbed my equipment and made this
A strategist would have suggested the term 'best' would have been more appropriate. In the eyes of mortals, Lionel Messi, Jordan, Ali, they were the best, but they all believed the could do better.
Best implies an ultimatum. It stops there. Whereas we never stop learning. We'd like to be better. There are individual philosophies in all these, which Linkedin members/ and others can guide us to. So here's a general 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 them. 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. Below is a short interview from an hour interview I had with him.

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.

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 East.
Look at the conditions. In China, our pitch really did revolve around socials e.g. Saki, Karaoke and foot massages. In the West this could be construed as play. The translation of fresh ideas into new territories tends to work when the hosts are receptive to receiving new ideas.
In television, a sizeable number of countries adopted the Western model of television news making, because it was deigned the best. In modern times, that's not necessarily so. Television, like so many things e.g. cooking food is a human construct.
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? 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.
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 videojournalism-as-cinema, 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. Audience are society, a focused group from society and culture. Yes, technology too shapes the audience. Ask the audience.
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 a bit concerned. '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. [see video]
'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.
Yes, I could and do send my slides over to producers - all part of the presentation. Interestingly enough. 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.
But being better at what you do involves successions of preparation. The first attempt; the changes; the reflective look; more changes; more reflective; and then tweeking; leave alone; come back and do it again.
The process I describe above is allegorical and not the absolute direct steps for the process. It essentially means ideas are palimpsestic. They often require refinement.
Once in a while I'll come across a Masters student who has fixed ideas and doesn't want to go through this process, believing their version is perfect.
It is their prerogative. But it does make me think 'Why?'. Learning to prepare is a self-critical skill. How do you know what you know? What will be required of you? 

It is a painful, enjoyable, but a necessary process knowing that you could do better.

7. Humility.
Knowledge is not exclusively age-related, though wisdom general, 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 offer cogent reasons for this.
The one who critiques provide routes for understanding, without believing there's 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.

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, but 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 can't. Some use this to better themselves. But don't get wound up. Move on and find the next challenge.

9. Surround yourself with friends.
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.
Disperse those ideas, so you're forced to think of new ones. Share them too. Each time though, push against 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!

David Dunkley Gyimah is a multiples international award-winning inovator in videojournalism and the web e.g. Knight Batten Awards. His recently completed PhD examines videojournalism debunking several myths as well as charting a course for the future. It includes an interview with the father of Cinema Verite Robert Drew. David isa senior lecturer at the University of Westminster, artist in residence at the Southbank Centre and chair of jurors at the RTS Broadcast Innovations Awards. You can see his work on and