Sprezzatura, for those of you not obsessed by early modern Europe, is a term that Baldassare Castiglione uses in his The Book of the Courtier to talk about the way a courtier should seek to make difficult things seem effortless and spontaneous.
For example, if you were an Elizabethan courtier, you might want to think of some really good lines of poetry in advance, so you could "toss them off" as though you'd just thought of them on the spur of the moment. Done well, I imagine dazzling mastery. Think of Joe Montana making the quick pass to Jerry Rice look easy. We all know it's not easy, but they could sure make it look that way sometimes.
It's a matter of being so thoroughly prepared that you make whatever it is look like it takes no thought or work at all.
I admire sprezzatura, I admit. Some people are naturally more capable than I of pulling things off; I need serious preparation. Sometimes, that means really figuring out the questions and problems, and doing some background research to really have a solid sense of the issues, and to be able to discuss them as if you've put no effort in. It means reading whatever reading, taking good enough notes that you don't have to refer to them much, and being ready to field questions.
In a way, I've been thinking, being a good committee chair is a little like sprezzatura. I spent a fair bit of time these past few days putting together memos and sending off this and that, making sure I'm ready for whatever questions will come up at the meeting when we make our proposal. And mostly, no one will realize how much time things took. I don't think I'm especially slow about things, just that doing things right actually does take some time. And I imagine other folks take time to put their stuff together, more time than is readily apparent. Except when someone doesn't have their stuff together, it's easy to tell there's a problem.
And, of course, you have to balance the need for information or explanation with the time you have available and the brainpower you have left. Alas, I don't have a photographic memory, either!
I gave my first presentation at the local library this week to a very receptive audience. It was fun, but also a little nerve-wracking. You see, when I came here to the Northwoods, I filled the spot of a colleague who retired that year. And this colleague, an utterly charming, kind, and helpful person, came to the presentation. And I'm still a bit intimidated by this colleague, in part because I know s/he was a big part of the committee that hired me and has said how much s/he enjoyed my teaching presentation when I was interviewed. So I feel like I have a lot to live up to in order not to disappoint him/her, if that makes sense.
But some of the questions the audience asked were tangential, and that's when the whole sprezzatura thing comes up. It's spine-tingling fun to know things well enough to have answers to even really bizarre questions, to have specific examples to help people understand the answer, and that's how the questions went. Of course, they could easily have asked a dozen questions I'd have been stumped by, but I got lucky. Or just was adequately prepared.
I love the performance part of sprezzatura, the making things seem so easy that it looks utterly safe, although you know there's really no net.