Friday, 5 January 2018

Freedom vs Freedoom - Thoughts on the Ria Crafford Award


by Trevor Watkins

I attended the 2017 libertarian Seminar in Wakkerstroom recently. It was a great Seminar with good presentations, wonderful food and lovely people. Many thanks to Frances Kendall for organising it.

Like all good seminars I came away from it with much to think about and much to write about, and just a little to gripe about.

Duration of presentation

First my gripe. I believe the seminar organiser enters into an implicit contract with a presenter to prepare and deliver a talk of a certain prescribed duration, agreed in advance. Commonly this is a talk of 55 minutes duration, with the presenter deciding the exact balance between presentation and questions, including when those questions may be asked. The presenter may invest significant time and effort in preparing a talk of the appropriate length.

The program provides an indication of the date and time at which the talk is expected to be delivered. The session chair will endeavour to start the talk as close to the indicated time as possible, will provide timing alerts to the speaker, and will bring the presentation to an end when 55 minutes have elapsed from its start. If the start is delayed due to reasons outside the control of the speaker (session chair is late, audience takes time to settle, technical presentation problems), then the speaker is still entitled to the full 55 minutes for which he or she prepared. You cannot ask a speaker to dramatically modify their talk on the fly just because some arbitrary deadline is looming. The organiser MUST build slack into the schedule to absorb slippages, such as cutting teatimes short, or starting lunch later. 

Best speaker award

The Ria Crafford award was won for the second time in a row by Viv Vermaak with her “Doom demo” talk. Now I am very fond of Viv, and although I was highly entertained (and slightly alarmed) by her antics, I was not convinced that her talk satisfied my criteria for the best talk, namely Preparation, Presentation and Persuasion (as discussed further below). I was grateful that there was no journalist such as Ivo Vegter present, since I think he would have flayed the libertarians as intellectuals for their choice of winner. I am absolutely NOT SUGGESTING that Viv’s victory should be changed, diminished or affected in any way, but I do wish to make some suggestions for the future.

After a series of seminars plagued by poor presentations, in 2000 I bought a blue glass trophy, had it engraved with a big “$” sign and the words “Ria Crafford Award”, and made it available to future seminar organisers to present to the best speaker at their seminar, as decided by the attendees. It was presented for the first time at the Alpine Heath seminar in 2000 to Frances Kendall for her talk “The SeXY factor”. Since then the award’s fortunes have waxed and waned, it was lost for several years, and the winners went unrecorded. Although the winner was expected to arrange the engraving recording their success, most did not. In 2014, after much enquiry and significant guesswork, I arranged a new engraving showing award winners all the way back to 1992, in preparation for the seminar in Jeffreys Bay.

Commonly, the winner of the award is decided by a simple ballot of the remaining attendees in the dying moments of the seminar at Sunday lunchtime. In my opinion this is not a great system and results in distortions - not all attendees get to vote, most people cannot remember the names and topics of speakers from Friday, visitors to the seminar on Sunday get to vote, showmanship tends to trump preparation and content in the minds of delegates. When I have organised seminars in the past I ensure that delegates can record their selections on the program against each talk as they go along, and that they understand the criteria on which the talks are judged.

In my opinion these criteria are as follows:
  • Preparation: a good talk requires adequate research, assembly into a coherent thesis, and an attractive delivery medium. Although this is often Powerpoint slides, it does not have to be. Interesting demonstrations (eg early internet access), interesting props (eg an inflatable witch), or interesting format (eg a debate, or panel discussion) are good examples. However, hastily prepared handwritten notes dredged from memory on the morning of the presentation is precisely what the award was setup to discourage. 
  • Presentation: The award is meant to reward interesting, well prepared and fluent presentations. It actively discriminates against the shy and inarticulate, no matter how well-intentioned. It should serve as an incentive to do better, to rehearse adequately, to fashion a first class presentation. 
  • Persuasion: The award is for the best presentation at a Libertarian seminar. The topic should deal specifically with libertarian issues and concerns, despite the particular biases and interests of both the organiser and the delegate. When ranking a presentation, the delegate must ask how this presentation adds to understanding of libertarian issues, how well does it persuade listeners towards individual freedom, how appropriate is it to a libertarian seminar. 
Delegates should be advised and assisted to take these criteria into account when voting for the winner. In my opinion, a simple binary choice of speaker is too simplistic. I far prefer a ranking on the 3 criteria above, resulting in a single number reflecting the choices made. This does not add significantly to the complexity of choosing a winner and has been done by both me and others in about 20 minutes after the last presentation at a seminar. It makes sense to have topics like 10 minute presentations, report backs or debates as the last session on a Sunday to allow time to analyse the results. I attach a sample voting form for the past seminar as an example.

Advantages

  • a delegate should ideally have no idea who will emerge from their rankings as their “best” speaker, thus eliminating the influence of showmanship and dramatic effect from their assessment. 
  • Delegates may also rank several presentations equally, as opposed to being forced to make a single selection. 
  • The presentation is evaluated, not the presenter, hopefully eliminating personality bias. 

Recommendations

As the original instigator and donor of the trophy, and having worked to keep its tradition going for the past 17 years, I would like to make the following recommendations to future seminar organisers:
  1. Ensure that you have possession of the trophy at least 3 months before the seminar date. Remember to bring it to the seminar (It has had to be presented in absentia several times, which sort of defeats the purpose). 
  2. Design the program (or a separate document) so that delegates are reminded of the need to judge each talk on the criteria indicated, at the time the talk is given. (Sample below). 
  3. Delegates will rank each talk from 1 (bad) to 5 (good) on the 3 criteria. They will then sum their assessments, resulting in a single number between 3 and 15 representing their final score for each talk. 
  4. Delegates will hand in their assessments to the organiser after the last talk on Sunday, or before leaving if making an early departure. Missed talks will receive an average ranking of 7, so as to avoid discriminating against later speakers. 
  5. The organiser will have either a manual or electronic spreadsheet containing all talks on the row axis and all delegates on the column axis (names not required). (an example is provided below). Each assessment sheet received is given an incrementing number, which is written on the sheet, and on the next available column on the spreadsheet. The delegates total rank (sum of individual ranks) for each talk is then rapidly transcribed onto the spreadsheet in the appropriate column. Finally, the row total of these rankings is calculated for each talk, and the talk with the highest total is the winner. 
  6. This process may result in a draw between 2 or more talks. That is fine. The Nobel prize often goes to multiple winners. 

Conclusion

I would like to encourage discussion and input on the awarding of the Ria Crafford prize for best speaker, working towards a consensus for future seminars. As an exercise, complete the form yourself and see if it matches your vote at the seminar.






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