Category Archives: Teaching

How One Tiny Text Tweak Helped Me Meet My Wife

After dating random friends of friends for a year, I decided to get serious.

How can I increase the chances of finding someone I really like?

Time to try internet dating. Guardian Soulmates.

Spent a couple of hours looking all sorts of profiles (girls and boys) to see how people used the site, and what stood out.

Found that 80% of guys wrote essentially the same thing:

I like going out with friends, but I also like staying in with a DVD and a bottle of wine. I like going to gigs and playing [sport]. I like going on holiday to exotic places. My friends tell me I have a good sense of humour. I enjoy [hobby] in my spare time.

Around that time I watched a Peep Show episode in which Mark is mocking bland dating profiles:

I enjoy breathing air and turning protein into muscle energy.

One thing that stood out in several profiles was when some humour showed through. So I decided to write a spoof of all the boring profiles by combining the generic spiel with the Peep Show joke:

I like going out with friends, but I also like staying in with a DVD and a bottle of wine. I like going to gigs and playing tennis. I like going on holiday to exotic places. My friends tell me I have a good sense of humour. I enjoy playing guitar in my spare time. I enjoy breathing air and turning protein into muscle energy.

Then – once my prospective ladyfriend had been seduced by my witty spoof first paragraph, I would hit them with the real sizzle – something more unique and interesting. I can’t recall the whole thing but at the time I was working in TV, so at least I had a cool first line:

I make up games and gameshows for a living, but…

A celebratory sip of beer, then put the profile live and wait to be covered in messages…

Still waiting one week later…

No messages.

I went back to the site and scrolled through the list of suggested matches. Hmm, hard to get to know them when there’s not much text in the search results…

Ah. I had hidden the unique, personal stuff behind a generic first paragraph. The search results view showed so little text that even my Peep Show joke was not visible. I counted characters and worked out that the text I appeared with in anyone’s search results would be:

I like going out with friends, but I also like staying in with a DVD and a bottle of wine. I like going to gigs and…

Doh!

So I cut the whole first paragraph and started off with the games and gameshows instead. One small text tweak.

A few days later, I had met my wife-to-be.

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Why is academia so slow?

In short: academics don’t care. 

Why should they?

Incentives are powerful and for academics, speed is not incentivised.

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I worked on an academic paper for 18 months with my co-author, then we submitted it to a journal and it took three months to get a reply, then we took one month to make some fixes, then it was published two months later. Two years in total!

How can academic publishing possibly be so slow? And how can it afford to be slow in fields like the one I’m interested in – media/tech – which changes three times a day and shifts substantially several times a year?

I wanted to know, so I asked.

Five media academics gave me the same answer (‘That’s just the way it is’), but the sixth told me something different:

Academics don’t care about publishing fast. We aren’t trying to get products to market, unlike you guys in industry. We’re working to a different timescale – identifying long-term changes is the aim, and getting published is the key to success. Yes, academic publishing is slow. But so what? Academics don’t need to be first, so we don’t need to be fast. So in a sense we just don’t care.

So long as the academic reward system is tied to publishing through traditional channels, there’s little incentive for academics to change. Mystery solved. But a deeper problem remains.

In media/tech, the field in which I work and in which I was researching, academia has almost no voice.

Academics typically have access to less information, less context and less expertise than the practitioners about whom they write. And the world turns fast, so much of what they do produce is either hard to apply or out of date.

This is a terrible shame. Some of the brilliant academics I have worked with wield powerful models and frameworks, can draw connections across multiple disciplines, and can identify and explore patterns hidden to the fast-paced industrial worker bees. 

So the near-absence of academic work in much of the media/tech industry is a great loss. 

The challenge is not just one of speed. Relationships, distribution, access to information, and many other obstacles remain. But the result is a painful distance between academia and industry. 

John Sutherland wrote a great editorial on this in The Computer Games Journal. The title sums it up:

Yes, you did it, I read it, but does it *mean* anything?

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Slides: How Data Can Make You More Creative

Slides from a talk I gave to the 3rd-year media students at Regent’s University in London a few days ago. Lots of examples from TV and from my own experience.

Aim is to offer advice to anyone who is working in / wants to work in a creative industry.

In short, data is important.

Here’s what I learnt from my first teaching job

“Yeah ok, why not?”

I was in the middle of the Canadian woods when I got the call. With those inauspicious words I began my teaching career, and two weeks later I was teaching my first class.

Those poor kids were paying £13k a year (ok, maybe not so poor) and I don’t think it took long for them to realise that I hadn’t done any teaching before.

But we stuck at it – them as much as me – and it worked out well in the end. I’m happy to say I had the best feedback of all the new lecturers, though since one of them sounds like a total deadbeat and the other had a petition raised against her by the class, there wasn’t much competition.

On the day of the first lesson, I was terrified. I really felt doubt in myself – that black hole emptiness, like your stomach is being sucked back in on itself. I was sweating, ugh. I rehearsed my first words over and over, like I was going to ask someone out on a date (thirteen 20-year-olds in this case).

I was teaching a course on how to make web projects – everyone started from scratch and in the first lesson we all built websites (based on WordPress, like this blog), then in each lesson after that we looked at a different way of trying to attract people to our sites – e.g. how to run Facebook ads or find customers through Twitter. There were projects on everything from movie food recipes to unusual furniture designs, Oriental beauty tips and ‘Living on the Edge‘ (mine was more prosaic, Advice for Media Students).

I’m not sure that all of them quite understood everything, but they did get the hang of posting stuff that would prompt a response.

At the end of the course I asked the students to write a report on how their own project had turned out, what went well, what went wrong, etc.

The last question was ‘What was the most interesting thing you learned during this project?’.

Here’s what one of them answered.

Funnily enough, that’s exactly what I learned too.

 

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So I applied to be an astronaut

My life’s ambition is to go into space, so a few years ago I applied to be an astronaut.

At the time anyone could apply to ESA (the European Space Agency), so I went to the doc and to the hospital, had a bunch of tests done, filled out the application form and sent it off.

There was little chance I would succeed. But it made perfect logical sense to try.

There are two ways of getting into space: (1) become a billionaire, or (2) get hired as a professional astronaut. Maybe one day I’ll be a billionaire but I don’t want to count on it. So I just applied.

Actually, all my best decisions are made when I ignore the chances of failure and just do it.

  • Want to learn how to code? Ok, build a website.
  • Want to try building a business? Ok, start one now.
  • Want to find out if teaching would be a good career move? Ok, do it part-time and see whether it’s fun.
  • Like that girl a lot? Ok, ask her out.

These simple decisions are the best.

A) You can’t regret them

If it doesn’t work out, no big deal. You did the logical thing and tried. Your mind is at rest. Ssshh now little brain.

B) You know exactly why you made them

It’s a simple formula. You won’t get confused about your motives. Want something? Ok, have a go.

C) You always gain something unexpected

Building a website taught me how the internet works. Starting a business taught me a million things that I put into a recent post (How I lost £1,500 when I was 23). Teaching part-time right now is making me 10x better at explaining stuff and speaking in public. And the last girl I asked out is going to become my wife next summer, so that one worked out pretty well too.

Worrying about failure kills good decisions. Whenever I worry I lose the magic power to make simple logical decisions and I waste my life fretting. I’m glad that didn’t happen with applying to be an astronaut.

The physical tests and most of the application form were ok, though I couldn’t really disguise my lack of a PhD in astrophysics or biology. The weakest bit though was when I had to describe my experience in radio communications:

I did hospital radio for two years when I was at school. I was a presenter and had my own weekly show.

But since I haven’t actually heard back from ESA, I assume they’ve got me on the reserve list.

Hopefully someone will drop out soon.

 

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LAUNCH: Advice for Media Students

I’m teaching my class how to build a web project, so I thought I should build one too.

I’m a method teacher, the De Niro of the classroom.

So I just launched a site called Advice for Media Students – three posts a week with practical advice to help my class and their peers get a job.

It’s rather ironic that I’m doing this at the same time as being made redundant from my own media job.

But I’m going to ignore that and let people decide for themselves whether my wisdom is to be trusted. Am I King Solomon or Stacey Solomon?

Head over to the site and decide for yourself.

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One year on – 10 things I learnt from Me In TV

One year ago today, I was extremely bloody nervous. It was day 1 of a project called Me In TV.

Here’s a short video about the project:

The aim was to give young people from tough backgrounds access to the TV industry. Over five days the participants created a TV show idea, filmed and edited a trailer for it, and then pitched their idea to a panel of TV experts. The young people were from Community Links, and the event was held at FremantleMedia.

It was so much work that it nearly killed me and Josephine, who ran the project with me. At one point I was waking up at 5.15am and I stopped trusting pencils.

But it worked out really well. Everything came together, there was a great atmosphere throughout, and the feedback was amazing: it averaged 96% positive on every single thing we measured.

Last week I was asked to offer some advice to a lady working on a similar project. So, on the anniversary of the project launch, here are 10 things I learnt from Me In TV.

1. Record everything

I had made a huge mistake on my previous project, and I didn’t want to repeat it.

I did nothing to record the event, so afterwards it was hard for those involved to tell people about what they’d done. “So I attended these workshops, and we were working some kind of social enterprise, er…”.

For Me In TV I did the opposite. meintv.org was built to record everything. In a project like this, it’s important that everyone involved has something to point to afterwards – a link for their CVs, a reminder of what the project entailed, and something they can be proud to show other people.

2. Get a partner in crime

There’s no way the project could have been such a success without Josephine Serieux. About two months before launch, I realised I had way too much to do and was struggling to prioritise. Getting a partner in crime means you get more capacity, but also more ideas – Josie changed loads of stuff for the better.

3. Give everyone else a clear vision (even if it’s still in flux)

It took me about six months to set the project up. The plan was changing constantly throughout. But I realised early on that I should keep that a secret. That way anyone I was trying to sign up would feel confident that I knew what I was doing, even if everything was still in flux.

4. Find a leader the young people trust

You’re dealing with a lot of nervousness and uncertainty in projects like this. So you need a Jason Forde. He’s a youth leader from Community Links, and because he had the trust of the students before the project began, he could ally their fears and (almost) always get them to turn up on time even when they’d been working late the night before.

5. The non-charity people will be the most nervous

The biggest single mistake I made in the planning was misjudging what one of the tutors needed from me. She didn’t need ideas, or structure – she needed reassurance! It hadn’t occurred to me that my colleagues would be more nervous than the students.

But for them, this project was an unknown – even though they would only be teaching the stuff they get paid to do every day, none had never taught before, and none had ever worked with young people from tough backgrounds (not that there was any difference in practice from any other youth group, but pre-launch it’s all about perception). It took me ages to figure all this out, and it nearly lost me a tutor.

6. Have a single, clear end goal 

Me In TV built towards a grand finale: the pitch. Having this single, clear end goal was exceedingly useful. It meant that the students were highly motivated to pay attention. They knew they had to do the pitch, so they were grateful for anything that would help them prepare for it.

7. Clearly define and explain what happens afterwards

I got these questions a lot: would there be jobs for the students at the end? Or at least job opportunities that they could apply for? Would there be more training, or mentorships, or follow-up workshops on CV-writing and interview skills?

No no no. Me In TV was meant to be self-contained. It was supposed to give the students skills, experience, and contacts. But it took me a while to define that list, and to make it clear to everyone – hence the repeat questioning. Know what happens afterwards before you even start.

8. Look for spin-off opportunities

We had a problem: 6 spaces in the project, but 7 people desperate to do it. At first I said no to Emmanuel – everything had been set up for a group of six and it was too late to change it.

Thankfully, one night I realised that I could just invent a role for him, without changing anything else. So Emmanuel became the Content Producer, tasked with recording the experiences and reactions of the students, and posting them on the student blog. He did a great job – 40 posts during the week of the project! – and still got to learn a lot alongside the other students.

9. Make it measurable

All this good stuff is harder to communicate without numbers. You have to be able to put numbers on your project, because numbers make things tangible. Here are some key numbers from Me In TV:

Website: >3k views in the week of the project, 1k visits, ~500 uniques

Feedback stats: 96% positive overall; 100% of tutors described as Excellent or Very good, 95% of students said they learnt useful future skills on every single day

Cost: £800 (kindly funded by FremantleMedia’s HR department)

Cost per hour – students: £2.96 per hour of training delivered to the students

With these numbers I could create a solid project report to send to everyone involved, and to all the people elsewhere who had heard about the project and wanted to know more. If you want to read it yourself, the full project report is now online.

10. Reward everyone

I gave all the tutors a hand-written note.

And I added every single person who made a contribution, however small, to the list on the Who’s involved? page.

No-one expected it. And it took ages. But in many ways it was the most enjoyable bit.

So what happened in the end?

I wrote to all the students last week. Two have found work in TV production; four have not; one didn’t reply (perhaps he’s busy on a production somewhere? I don’t know). All of them were very happy to have been involved, and very grateful to my colleagues for their help during Me In TV.

So if you’re thinking of doing a project like this, I hope the ten things I learnt are useful.

I’m very proud of this project, but if I wish I’d known all this before it began!

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The Infinity Problem

My English teacher freaked me out.

“I want you all to write a story,” she said, “and it can be about anything you like.”

Anything? Anything at all?

It was madness. Where should I start? Where should I end? And what the hell should I write in between?

I spent 95% of the time figuring out what to do before scribbling some nonsense and handing it in.

This is the Infinity Problem. When you can do anything you like, what do you do?

Tomorrow I’m starting an evening job as a Visiting Lecturer in New Media at Regent’s College, a university in central London. So this weekend I’ve been finalising the module guide and lesson plans.

There are a million ideas and projects and books and articles and shows that relate to the topics we’re going to cover – a potential Infinity Problem.

So I’m very grateful for the course outline given to me by the guys who invented the course.

Creating something new is difficult if you have absolutely no constraints. If I wasn’t constrained by the course outline, it would be 10x harder to nail exactly what I’m going to teach.

So next time I’m sat in English class, I’m going to seek out constraints for myself. I could base my story on anything that offers an initial direction or limitation, even if it’s chosen at random.

A story about something that was in the news this morning.

A story about a recent family event.

A story about the top post in my Facebook feed.

I’m pretty sure that when you read those three suggestions, your brain started thinking of stories you could write.

Creativity is tough without constraints, but even artificial constraints make it a whole lot easier.

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