It's January 2, just a week after Christmas, and the dozen students sitting in a classroom in Larsen Hall are being asked to reach into a black Harvard tote, dubbed "the bag of fun," and pull out an object. While most of their classmates are still on winter break, recuperating after the fall semester, these students are about to spend the next 30 seconds selling their "education object" to one another.
"Think about what works in a sound bite," says Matt Weber, Ed.M.'11, the school's digital strategist, who is coleading the exercise. "In the future, you may be interviewed for 20 minutes, but the news agency is only going to use 15 or so seconds. You need to be concise. This isn't a thesis."
One by one, the students stand in front of the class and sell. A black stapler. A plastic spatula. An Old Spice deodorant stick. There are lots of laughs and a few clever pitches. But even with this silly ice breaker, the students realize something important: Speaking in front of the camera isn't as easy as it looks.
It's the first of many lessons they will learn over the course of three meetings for STS-15: Developing Your Media Presence, one of the school's 11 new special topic seminars added to the January-term course roster. The seminars are short, lasting from one to three days, with little or no homework, and offered free to current students. Also unique is that the seminars are less academic and more hands-on than a typical Ed School course — learning how to speak in front of the camera or how to write a good op-ed (with Adjunct Lecturer Nancy Sommers), for example. They are meant to give students concrete tools to use out in the real world.
"The origins of STS-15 actually came out of a practical need we've encountered when filming students over the years," Weber says. "Many just weren't confident being on camera and communicating their personal or institutional narrative." As he tells the students that January morning: "You can do awesome at Harvard, get an amazing job, but then you freeze the minute you're on camera. We want you to feel comfortable when someone puts a camera in front of you."
After the object exercise, the students watch short video clips of educators (all with Ed School connections) being interviewed in real life.
"These videos show you that Ed School people go on to be rock stars," says Mark Robertson, Ed.M.'08, communications manager in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, who is co-teaching the seminar with Weber. The students offer their observations: One professor was incredibly relaxed, one alum didn't make eye contact, the word "um" was overused. For every observation, there is advice from Weber and Robertson.
"Instead of saying 'um,' which is a breath out," Weber says, "take a breath in."
And then, the students get a chance to take practice runs — first in front of an iPad connected to a pulldown screen in Larsen Hall, and then the next day, the "Big Show," as Weber calls it, when they meet in the school's media lab, complete with full lighting, a green screen, and professional video camera.
In the media lab, on day two, the students arrive camera ready. Taking earlier advice from Weber and Robertson, none are wearing white (too much contrast) or complicated patterns (too distracting). Someone asks if they should write out a script ahead of time. "Generally, that's a bad idea," Robertson says. "Instead, have a few bullets points in mind that you want to make sure you don't forget."
For the next three hours, the students take turns speaking in front of the camera, some seemingly not nervous, others needing four or five takes. To one another they throw out encouragement — "That was so good!" — and to Weber and Robertson, they ask lots of questions. "Should I move my hands?" (Do what is most natural.) "Am I talking too fast?" (Usually, yes.) Students are urged to try new things — sit if they normally stand, take a slight pause before delivering the last few lines. From time to time, Weber throws out an unexpected "gotcha" question in an effort to simulate what it might be like when confronted by an actual reporter. Robertson tells them to practice being on camera at home with friends, using Skype or smartphones.
Ed.L.D. student Andrew Frishman tells the group that he was once terrified of speaking in public but eventually got more comfortable after doing an internship at an oceanographic research center where he had to give a daily seal talk to the crowds of visitors. Even still, on that second day, after several clean takes, he stumbles a bit.
"I'm really paralyzed," he says. "It's really scary." And then he nails it. As he walks away from the camera, he looks at his classmates and shakes his head. "I'm not a golfer, but I've heard that if you try too hard to hit it, you mess up," he says, as much to himself as to the others. "That's what I was doing — trying too hard."