Thursday, September 18, 2014

You're Not That Dumb: Why I refuse to slow down and dumb down my presentations

In the past month, I have spoken at two events. Both connected to the world of English, the West, as well as some of the ideals that often accompany the language and region. On August 30, alongside three other Indonesian U.S. alums, I was a panelist at Indonesia Mengglobal's Seminar (IMSeminar), which was hosted by @America. Liberal arts studies was the core of my presentation. And since I thought the subject was well ingrained in me, I might have been rather complacent, rather quick and rather inconsiderate to the audience. My parents, two people who have consistently delivered constructive, albeit harsh criticism regarding my many performances, felt that my speech required a speeding ticket. According to them, I ran the risk of excluding certain audience members and preventing others from fully understanding the topic. Of course, in comparison to other speakers at the forum including Sophia Blake, the wife of American Ambassador to Indonesia, or the folks from Kaplan, I sounded much like a CNN news-anchor's morning deliverance.

Expect A Challenge, Even When You're Peeing

Yesterday, I hosted a knowledge sharing session at a laboratory located on the outskirts of Jakarta. The director of the lab and a member of his strategic planning team gave me the opportunity to introduce ways to write in English to their scientists. I am not an instructor, let alone an expert in English. In college, all of my classes were in English, but none of the fell under the English department. Unlike many non-native English speakers, I hardly know what tenses, verbs, and nouns are. I learned by listening, singing-along, reading, and practicing my English with those around me. I'd like to believe that this unique upbringing convinced the lab's director to hire me for the day. But, then again, I could have missed the mark entirely.

Whatever the underlying reason was, I still took my place in front of the projector and provided my views on how to write in English to a room of scientists, all of whom were older and certainly more experienced than me. Unlike the first speaking gig, this time I presented my ideas in Bahasa Indonesia, after a short discussion with members of the strategic team.

For the first twenty minutes, my mouth spat out the lines and my hand gestured at the screen. However, my mind was elsewhere, as my eyes scanned the room for responses. Much like a comedian at an open mic, I was looking for a way in, for some signal to slow down or speed up. Was I going way too fast? Or was I boring them? Only one or two people seemed interested in the talk. When it came to the first exercise session, which entailed the participants to write a 150-300 word essay in thirty minutes, I sat down and took a deep breath. Most took out their pens and began writing, a few made their way back to get some coffee. Was my paranoia speaking when I questioned their sudden rush of enthusiasm for obedience? Not once did I wonder about their understanding or lack thereof.

I brushed off my doubts and continued on with the program. When it came time for the questions and answers, only one person lifted his hand. Honestly, I was crushed. What did this mean? Maybe they did not need this session after all. After answering his question, I sat back down and sighed, "Payah!" to a member of the strategic planning team next to me. Payah is one of many Indonesian words that refuses to be translated to English. In some contexts it can mean crappy or suck, for instance "iPhone gua payah nih, masa sudah habis batere?" that means, "My iPhone is crappy, the battery is already empty?" Yesterday, I used the word to comment the lack of questions proposed. In return, the member of the strategic planning team explained how perilous enquiring is. One's question runs the risk of being deemed stupid or useless to the rest of the audience. Hence, many avoid doing so to save face. Though the comment pissed me off, it quickly morphed into a huge, giant question mark, one which I would ponder for hours to come.

Back in the car, on our way back to Jakarta, I asked my mother for her input. Once again, she said that I spoke far too quickly, which I disagreed with, citing the lack of questions as evidence that the participants were fully capable of writing in English. Then she repeated another comment that I am much too tired of hearing. "Expect the audience member to have zero knowledge about the topic that you are presenting," she said. Of course, this advise was taken more easily when I presented about an obscure subject, such as the Bugis tribe's recognition of five genders, a research paper that I wrote in junior year of college, at the Eastern Psychological Association annual meeting last March. However, writing in English is not an obscure matter. These are scientists that make a living from writing papers and publications. Though the crowd at IMSeminar was easier to forgive, they too should have had some knowledge about studying in the U.S. to have attended the session.

As usual, I readied myself for a debate. I geared some preliminary arguments in my head, before suddenly noticing what appears to be flaws in the very essence of her statement. I sat back and thought about it before drifting to sleep. Disappointment had certainly drained the life out of me. By nighttime, I cracked the code to this bout of calamity. Ever since I began talking and writing publicly, I have always instinctually refused to underestimate my audience and readers, whether it was sharing my adventure at the Baduy village to the Indonesia's Minister of Trade at the time or blogging about ways to find inspiration.

Me Too!

I hate dumbing down ideas, because it means that I perceived the audience to be dumb and needed to stay dumb. Maybe this is due to my personal pet peeve of being treated as a child who knows little or nothing at all, who knows! The problem is, I can't see how one can grow without a slight challenge. The challenge may not be perceived as a challenge at all. For instance, being raised in a family that watches CNN, Channel News Asia and the BBC meant that if I wanted to be involved I had to learn how to listen to English being delivered at high speed. I did not see it as a chore because it wasn't posed as one. Instead, watching these news channels has been a consistent part of our lifestyle, allowing me to acclimate slowly and effortlessly.

Dumbing down ideas puts audience members and the speaker at risk. Why? First, eventually the public will take comfort in slow deliverance. On one side they may expect similar treatment in the future. On the other hand, they may not be challenged to pay attention. And lastly they may sense the condescension that underlies the presentation. Second, speakers will also adapt to such a pace. Similarly, they may not be able to provide a meaningful explanation concisely. Many end up talking hours on end, lecturing aimlessly, still believing that no one understands and/or has the capacity to understand. If we continue dumbing down our deliverance, aren't we at risk of dumbing down ourselves and our audience further and further?

At the end of the day, we end up with a disparity between speakers and listeners, experts and laymen. Speakers are in charge of the messages that society spreads. While, listeners just receive, unable to step up to the plate and raise their own voice.

Ironically, this might just be the very idea that colonizers, such as the Dutch and Japanese, planned to convey to the colonized, such as us Indonesians. Continuing the tradition of asking for the audience to provide less and less, be it attention, interaction, reaction, participation, and even argumentation, might as well be a direct act to keep the colonized in their place, a position without power, liberty and independence to question, debate, disagree, and decide.

Unlike most colonizers, I believe that members of the audience are smarter than they themselves would like to think. Just because they are on the other side of the auditorium does not mean that they are inherently less capable, nor do they need to be handheld throughout the entire session.

Long story short, I strive to speak and write to the best of my abilities as an attempt to elevate the standard, to question common expectations of others, and to provoke a reaction from the many empty eyes I have met during similar sessions. Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but maybe someone will meet the challenge and accept it.

*All photos are provided by the author