As a college administrator for several years, I endured too many boring meetings and presentations. You have, too, regardless of your profession. You know the drill: while presenters read from text-heavy or chart-laden slides, people tune out, nod off. Often, they discuss poorly written and argued reports. (I’ll even admit that my own reports too frequently fell into that category!) What to do?
Grow a cerebral spine! Our teachers once urged us to listen or read actively. In today’s jargon, they were telling us to think critically. But we’ve forgotten (or never really knew) what that means. Let’s learn something useful from students in the Middle Ages!
Students in medieval university classrooms engaged in disputation. The process was simple and effective. The faculty “master” (magister) assigned students to research one side of a controversial issue or or its contrary. Assignments ignored students’ beliefs or inclinations. Students developed arguments in support of positions they often did not hold. Upon completion of the research, a public disputation occurred. Some students argued in favor of an assigned proposition, while others tried to refute it. Argument vs. counterargument.
At the conclusion, the magister (one who had earned a master’s degree) would deliver a lecture that would incorporate the strongest points of all sides and would then proceed to resolve the disputed question. (Today’s professorial lecture that so many university students find boring is a mere vestige of the lively exchanges that characterized medieval education.)
We should revive the practice of disputation, at least in our own heads. Healthy skepticism can be useful anywhere, not just in academic or technical situations.
A few years ago, I observed a corporate sales meeting for a large home furnishings company. The point of the meeting was to roll out a new merchandising strategy to increase mattress sales. The vice presidents for sales, bedding, and interior design together delivered a 90-minute slide presentation featuring detailed sales statistics by major brand and type. About 30 minutes into this mind-numbing recital, I noticed people beginning to glaze over, except for one woman in the front row who scribbled furiously on her handout.
During the perfunctory 15 minutes allotted for Q&A, she raised her hand.
“Excuse me,” she began, “but I have a question. You recommend that we arrange our in-store displays by brand, with the highest selling brands positioned up front. Any evidence that will work?”
The VP for sales stood, buttoned his $2,000-suit jacket, and replied, “Of course it’ll work. By directing customers to the brand or brands that we know sell the most, we’ll reduce their confusion and shorten their decision time. Win-win all around.”
Undeterred, the woman replied, “I’m sorry, but my experience on the floor doesn’t match what you’re saying. My customers typically make bedding decisions as a compromise between comfort and price. I work hard at helping them bring those two things together as closely as possible. Doing that gets the sale.”
With a knowing smirk, the VP asked, “And just how should that influence store displays?”
“Well, forget about brand grouping. Arrange displays by mattress type and price. Coil mattresses together, foam mattresses together, alternative types together—each type lined up by price, low to high. After a couple of leading questions, I’d know how to start guiding the customer to an appropriate decision.”
What’s going on here? First, the sales associate did not simply sit there and gulp the corporate Kool-Aid. She internally engaged the presentation. Second, she respectfully asked for evidence, but didn’t get it. Third, she offered her own sales experience as unconsidered, real-world evidence. And fourth, she suggested a practical alternative that would take her know-how into account. In the end, her suggestion resulted in corporate approval of a modest experiment to test its effectiveness.
Two advantages flow from crafting our own disputation: (1) we won’t fall asleep, and (2) we might improve the subsequent discussion. Presenters often welcome comments or questions from those who take a presentation seriously (provided that counterarguments are offered respectfully). Creating our own disputation amounts to active listening/reading, to critical thinking, but with an edge—one that improve’s our own writing, presentations, and performance.