Take Five

with apologies to Dave Brubeck

Here’s an exercise I gave to my students (in two different classes) last week. It takes fifteen minutes in all (plus time to explain it and debrief it) and it requires your class to have reached a stage where the students can be asked to call both an object and a set of concepts to mind, they must be able to easily imagine a body of empirical fact and put it in a familiar theoretical perspective. (In one class — an undergraduate management class — the students had been listening to a podcast each week about a different innovation and reading various innovation theories; in the other — a professional master’s class — the students were working on an analysis of their own organizational practice applying an organizational discourse approach.) The exercise contains both an individual component and some work to be done in pairs. (In the case of an odd number of students, there will be one group of three.)

In the first part of the exercise, students are given five minutes to prepare an oral presentation for one of their fellow students. In five minutes, they have to pick an object that they are familiar with from the class — a product or a process, an action or an event — to focus on; they also have to pick a theoretical perspective that will give them “categories of observation” (concepts) with which to analyze it; and they have to plan out a presentation following the standard outline:

  1. Introduction
  2. Theory
  3. Analysis
  4. Discussion
  5. Conclusion

The presentation is to take five minutes. They are to imagine a presentation that devotes roughly one minute to each task, keeping them relatively pure. That is, the first minute will introduce the object, the theory, and their thesis, telling the listener something about why this interests the speaker. The second minute will focus on the theory, presenting the concepts that will be used in the analysis, but not yet doing the analysis itself. The third minute will present the analysis, taking the concepts for granted, and interpreting the facts based on observations. The fourth minute will present implications for theory or practice and the fifth minute will summarize, conclude, and round things off.

In the second part of the exercise, one student presents what they come up with for a partner. (If there is a group of three, this person has an audience of two.) Before they begin, I remind them that they have a minute to get through each part and that silence is very acceptable. If they can’t think of any more to say by way of introduction, they should just sit there and think about how to talk about theory for the remaining seconds; when they run out of things to say about theory, they should silently consider what they’ll say about their analysis. Importantly, except for minor reactions (nodding, smiling, laughing, groaning) the listener is not to contribute; it’s not the listeners task to break a silence. As every minute passes I simply announce that it is time to move on.

In the third part, the other student presents in the same way. (If there was a group of three, one person will present to the teacher, the other will present to the previous presenter.) This time, before starting the clock, I remind them of what they are about to do. The second speaker has a much better sense of what is possible because they’ve just heard someone else do it. Also, I remind them that it’s fine to be tentative and informal in the presentation; they don’t have to present a finished idea, but could just present a hunch or hypothesis. The important thing is to move through the five moments: introduction, theory, analysis, discussion, conclusion. You’re not trying to impress anyone or win an argument; you’re trying to see what you have to say. Some of the students discovered that the last minute could actually include a question or two from the listener: the speaker provides a quick summary and adds, “Any questions?”

At the end, I point out that five minutes isn’t a very long time. But it is in fact the time it would take the ideal reader to read the ideal five-paragraph essay. Such an essay would take, again ideally, two and half hours to write. So we can imagine spending two and half hours preparing the same presentation. How much better would that go? I also suggest they try framing it very formally. Make five slides to present, book a group study room, maybe invite a few more students to watch, and dress professionally for the occasion. Now do a five-minute pitch. All of this is simply to show them that putting deliberate effort into presenting their ideas in a finite amount of time is a worthwhile thing to do. And then there’s that essay they have to write for the exam anyway (both classes are working towards a 5-page, 9-11-paragraph final). I’ve just given them 15 minutes to experience how ready they are. They can give themselves that experience again any time they want. And two and half hours is plenty of time to write five actual paragraphs. They can try just doing that to prepare the presentation.

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