The Coffee Factor – Learning by Doing Nothing

When the recession hit a few years ago, a company I was doing a course for told me that tea and coffee were no longer being provided on training days. It was the first thing to be cut and, in truth, it should have been the last.

The point might seem obvious – keep people awake with coffee – but is actually more subtle than this. The coffee break (the morning one in particular; people often prefer to do their own thing for lunch) is the most important thing in any training session, insofar as, if you omit it, you will do more damage than you will by omitting anything else.

Coffee-breaks are much more than just caffeine.

And it’s not just the caffeine, it’s the ritual. Think of the sound of the clinking cups – you can hear it in your head, I know you can – the smell of the roasted beans, the hush that descends as people munch on freshly baked scones, the chatter that starts to bubble to the surface on matters outside of the course: the weather, the traffic that morning, the news the night before. This chill-out time is not a break from learning, it is learning.

A few years ago, I interviewed the director of communications for the Tate gallery in London, Marc Sands. If you think about it, on any visit to a museum or gallery, you usually take in an enormous amount of information. I was interested in the thinking behind how this information is presented from the expert’s point of view. During our conversation I asked Mark how important the coffee shops are.

‘Incredibly important,’ he told me. ‘The coffee shop and gift shop are important from a revenue point of view, obviously, but I they are really important from a museum experience point of view. You don’t just shuttle people from one piece of art-work to another, the non-art space is just as important. The concourses in the Tate Modern are about chilling out and relaxing, calming down before you go to the next room.’

Coffee shops are an ‘incredibly important’ part of any museum experience because of the rest they provide between bouts of intense study.

This is a critical point, and any sports trainer will tell you the same thing: the periods of rest and recuperation are just as valuable as the training sessions themselves. Likewise, when you are taking in information, you need reflection periods to digest this information. You need a break.

But there is another aspect to the humble coffee-break that is significant, a very human one.

When I was in final year in college, a friend of mine got a job interview with a company in Galway. We were studying in Dublin, at the time, so this involved a day-long round trip. Job interviews in the early nineties were hard to come by and so we were all eager to hear how he had got on when he returned.

‘Not fantastically,’ he told us. Although he thought he had done OK in the formal interview, he wasn’t at all enamoured with the company. When I probed him on this, he said, ‘Well, I came all the way from Dublin on the bus and arrived just after lunchtime, and I was down there until nearly six…and they never even offered me a cup of tea.’

For me, this story is small but profound: that you could make a career-defining choice on the basis of a cup of tea. My friend was thinking: if that’s how they treat a visitor, what does it say about them? What kind of a crowd are they?

When giving a presentation, you are the host, so look after your guests. And don’t forget the biscuits.

But what has this go to do with the presentations? Well, it should give you pause for thought the next time you are giving one. You will have many things to worry about – the laptop, the projector, the time limit, your guide notes, difficult questions, stupid questions, a bored audience – but these things all pertain to you. Your biggest concern should be the audience.

You are putting on a show and the people in the room are your guests. You are the host and, like a good host, you have to put your guests first. So, be nice, be interested, allow questions, stick to your time-limit, take breaks, and, if possible, serve tea and coffee. And biscuits.

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