The pace of work

Late last year I attended a conference that offered a typical mix of presentation types. There were a few keynote talks, a larger number of 12-minute oral presentations and a mix of lightning lectures and posters. The lightning lectures gave poster presenters one minute and one slide to lure attendees to their poster.

One of my collaborators gave a high energy, fast-paced tour of her latest research. Well-known in our discipline for her irrepressible enthusiasm, Alex’s* presentation was captivating. It was her in presentation format – open, energetic, fast but sharp. I was speed tweeting throughout the meeting and her lecture was a simply encapsulated by a picture of a hummingbird in flight.

Other researchers have very different personalities and a very different style. I’m at a conference again this week and enjoyed a talk yesterday that was vastly different, from the Hummingbird, both in format and style. Yesterday’s talk was slow, meandering and methodical. Analytical puzzle pieces were carefully picked out, showed to the audience and put down in place before the next was picked up. The delivery was far slower and matched the speaker’s own style.

The contrast brought to mind a mismatch in working styles that I had with an old supervisor from a previous research role. Like the climate hummingbird, I am impatient, energetic, and frenetic. I live tightly bound by time and have little tolerance for what I feel is wasting time. I rush from one thing to the next or tackle multiple tasks at once. I get frustrated easily, talk quickly and fidget chronically.

Meanwhile, my previous supervisor was a measured person. Miriam would pause for long periods of time while thinking, would speak slowly and thoughtfully, and preferred to finish all her discussion points in meetings before I spoke. She preferred to work on one thing at once and with one person at once.

Obviously, our styles jarred. She would tell me to relax, to slow down and I would fidget my way through meetings, wishing I could tell her to hurry up. While Alex and I would furiously bounce ideas around, talking rapidly at the same time, Miriam found this style erratic, chaotic and stressful. It didn’t allow her time to think and contribute. Meanwhile, I found her work style impossibly slow and frustrating and equally felt that I couldn’t participate.

In conferences and workshops, it seems that both paces of work (and anything in between) are quite common. Such differences in pace are difficult to overcome. Fundamentally, Miriam and I annoyed each other. We had very different personalities and very different relationships with time.

While I enjoy working with and listening to the Hummingbird, other researchers with a slower approach could find this style inaccessible. Similarly, while I find slow science difficult to focus on, of course, other researchers find this p them to follow along and think alongside the presenter.

Differences between people are a challenge and delight of both life and work. It’s unsurprising that Miriam and I didn’t share a productive working relationship, we couldn’t communicate effectively or harness our differences. This remains a big challenge for me – Is it possible for me to relax my love of deadlines, lists, and timeframes? Can you slow down or speed up for someone else’s comfort?

While I love juggling multiple tasks at once, answering emails, tweeting, writing papers and ordering groceries all at once, I shouldn’t expect someone else to work my way. Similarly, someone like Miriam who prefers to read a new article in depth over a period of time, shouldn’t expect a Hummingbird to engage with work the same way.

Producing shared outcomes with someone very different is exceptionally difficult. However, appreciating different presentation styles shouldn’t be. A slow delivery doesn’t reflect a slow mind, and a high-speed lightening lecture doesn’t reflect unsystematic science.

In future workshops and conferences, I’m going to work hard to engage with differently paced presentations. If you can understand the presenter’s delivery then the pacing should be flexible. Just as I wouldn’t find a speaker’s accent or nervousness as difficult to embrace, I shouldn’t consider a slower, more measured approach as something the speaker can or should change.

* Names not factually correct, nor necessarily referring to one specific person.

2 thoughts on “The pace of work

  1. A very insightful commentary, Sophie. Do you think there is also an extrovert/introvert divide here? I think there might be in some cases, but not all. Also reminds me of Berlin’s hedgehogs and foxes analogy. Again some overlap with your fast/slow distinction, but perhaps not exactly the same.

    • Hmmm, I’m not sure. I guess I’m a little bit sceptical of intro/extro designations because I feel like both. I think there is some generational component to the multitasking. But that is very (!) ancedotal

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