Communication skills usually focus on presentation — delivering messages clearly, establishing rapport, making eye contact, speaking clearly, projecting well, and otherwise being a good speaker. It is also important, however, to expand consideration to include another communication role for museum presenters, that of listener. The following suggests ways in which those who are usually the “voices” of their museum can become even more effective by developing the “other” side of their communication skills.
- Don’t guess who’s coming. Find out as much as you can about the group with which you’ll be working. In addition to number, age, school or organization, learn their special interests or unit of study, where else they’ve been or are going as part of their study or on the same day they visit you. Ask if there are people in the group with physical disabilities or language difficulties for which you should plan. If the museum sends preparatory material, have the leaders used it?
With this information in mind imagine yourself a composite visitor with the level of knowledge, interest, energy, and attention span typical of the group. Walk yourself through your tour or presentation, listening with that visitor’s “ears.” Wherever you sense a listener lag, change your approach, vocabulary, pace, or perspective to accommodate the specific audience’s needs.
- Add something new. Chances are, when you listen to yourself you’ll hear a lot of things you’ve repeated for many a group. Even in a standard presentation, you’ll find yourself more interesting to listen to if you come up with a new way of saying it, or some new examples, anecdotes, tie-ins to current events, or other way of updating your comments. Inquire about recent research that might affect your interpretation. Ask your colleagues how they present the topic. Look for related issues in the news to be aware of how your visitors might be perceiving the topic today. If the format allows, try a new activity, guided imagery, or simple game to energize your visitors” involvement and refresh your own enthusiasm.
- Strive to be a better, more attentive listener when touring. Good teachers give thoughtful consideration to the questions and answers offered by their students.
- Video. You can’t fight it, so use it! Even the smallest museum has access to a borrowed video camera to be used to capture on tape the live interaction of docents and visitors. Unsettling as the idea may be to some, we can all benefit by seeing and hearing ourselves from the vantage point of the uncompromising camera. A taped tour can also be a training tool for new recruits eager to observe successful, experienced guides but unable to be on hand for several live presentations. With editing you can combine the best segments of several tours or different approaches to the same material to give varied views of your program. Of course, videotaped museum experiences can also be used to promote use of the program and to enlist new support and volunteers.
- Listen to each other. Ask your docent colleagues if they would like to observe one another’s tours, meet to discuss communication problems, receive training in communication skills, or practice new approaches together. Sometimes, just hearing that others have the same questions empowers us to find the answers. Schedule time for these skill building experiences and look for trainers and resource people from your museum staff, area universities, and community.
- Listen to your public. Find out what audience research has been undertaken by your museum. Ask for the reports and recommendations that may have resulted and consider their implications for your role as a museum representative. If no such research has yet been done, inquire about its status in the long range plans of the museum board and staff. Indicate your need to be informed about the current and projected audience you are expected to serve. By your willingness to learn from the findings of audience research, you can encourage the museum’s pursuit of this important information.
Being a good listener — on the job with visitors, in training and sharing with your colleagues, in consultation with the policy makers and planners of the museum, and out in the community with its audience — you can become an even more important part of the communication process.
Susan Miner has been Education Director at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum in Wichita. Kansas, for 16 years. She teaches a graduate workshop for classroom teachers on utilizing local museums to promote visual learning and has served as a Chair of the Education Committee of the American Association for State and Local History.
Miner, Susan. “Another Side of Communication: Listening,” The Docent Educator 1.2 (Winter 1991): 13.