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Refining Your Communication Skills

The joke on the first day of theater class is to tell a novice actor to “just walk naturally” across the stage, and then to watch. Suddenly, the innate skills of movement and coordination become jumbled into a series of labored and self-conscious gestures. The humor comes, of course, from the dichotomy of having something so mundane become difficult and complex.

One of the pitfalls of investigating the process of communication — both verbal or non-verbal — is the similar hazard of making something that seems commonplace and natural into something that is stilted or halting. And yet, just as theater students must learn how to move across a stage in a way that appears unaffected and believable, educators must learn how to communicate with audiences in a manner that is both effective and efficient.

Teaching is formal communication. Formal communication, unlike its everyday counterpart, is not simply a casual behavior. As with acting, it involves applying innate behaviors and skills in ways that may seem spontaneous and natural, and yet are purposeful and deliberate. Formal communication is a learned skill — one that must be worked at, developed, and honed. Perhaps this is why public speaking ranks among many people’s greatest fears, and why most people are reticent to translate their thoughts and ideas into written form.

As public speakers and writers refine their craft through critical analysis, reflection, and practice, educators can refine their communication skills by analyzing their purpose, reflecting upon their methods, and practicing. For it should be the goal of all educators to communicate as clearly and directly as possible, and to reach every individual in their audience.

Being Observant

Among the least considered aspects of being an effective communicator is being a good observer. “Sending out” communication is actually the second part of an effective communicator’s job. The first is absorbing the overt, subliminal, and indirect communications coming from the audience, and using what is gleaned to define and refine output.

The rule of “STOP, LOOK, and LISTEN,” which is often used to teach children how to cross a street, can be applied when developing stronger observation and communication skills. At every opportunity during a tour or gallery lesson, an observant communicator should “stop, look, and listen” for several things. Among them are:

  • Who is the audience? Are they homogenous or diverse? What are their ages, interests, and levels of preparation?
  • Is the audience focused or do they need to be provided with a perspective from which to approach the learning experience?
  • What physical and emotional needs can I identify? What can I do to best meet these needs?
  • What kinds of questions is the audience asking? What do these questions reveal about the group’s interests and comprehension?
  • Do people demonstrate an understanding of the discussion? Are some being left behind? Do any participants appear confused?
  • Have I given everyone an opportunity to participate who wishes to do so? Are some potential participants being thwarted by others who would dominate the conversation?
  • What are members of the audience talking about when they talk among themselves? Are they discussing the topic of the tour or lesson? Should I consider shifting my focus to respond to their concerns?
  • How is the audience’s stamina — has their interest peaked; have they begun to tire?

More than likely you are asking yourself, “Who has the time to consider all these things?” The answer is — you do! Take advantage of each stop along your tour to look and listen. Pausing for just a few seconds before you begin a discussion gives visitors the opportunity to investigate what you are showing them, while giving you a few seconds to become a better observer.

Using the Right Words

Recently, I came across a delightful and humorous little book entitled The Superior Person’s Book of Words. Its pages are filled with lesser known or archaic words that are intended to befuddle, amaze, or impress. Peter Bowler, the book’s author, offers up such tantalizing words as “formicate,” which means to swarm like ants. Then, the author suggests (with tongue-in-cheek) that you might use it to tell a principal “the Seventh Grade is formicating all over the quadrangle.”

Having a large vocabulary can be fun, and is a wonderful and valuable asset because it provides its owner with broader ranges of expression and alternative routes for being understood. It follows, therefore, that words should not be chosen merely because one knows them, or even because they are technically precise, but for their ability to match the needs and comprehension level of their intended recipients.

Using one’s vocabulary to “befuddle” or “amaze” might be humorous in the context of a parlor game, but not in a learning situation. Educators who use their vocabulary to impress, or who choose words that are beyond the understanding of an audience, do so at the risk of totally eliminating their effectiveness.

Employing vocabulary that is too technical, even though correct, can actually stifle comprehension and make listeners hostile. For example, how would you feel if you went to see a doctor about a rash that appeared on your hands and she told you that you had “paronychia caused by Candida.” Apprehensive, certainly. Disenfranchised, almost assuredly (unless you had a background in medical terminology). And, if a more comprehensible explanation wasn’t forthcoming fast, you might even become angry or freightened!

It is neither fair nor wise to tell someone that they have “paronychia caused by Candida” when you might simply have told them that they have dishpan hands. The same is true of using scientific, technical, or historical terminology with visitors lacking appropriate definitions.

When speaking with colleagues, scholars, or experts, it may be fitting to use words best known within academic circles. Such words presume a reservoir of knowledge and serve as a sort of shorthand for complex thoughts or ideas. When speaking with the general public, however, such words constitute a secret code to which the audience is not privy. In the majority of teaching situations within museums, historic homes, botanical gardens, and zoological parks, the most suitable words are those that help people to understand in spite of knowing little about the field or topic of discussion.

Is it ever appropriate to teach visitors new vocabulary in the course of your tour? It may be, especially if asked to do so in the context of a school visit, or when helping visitors express their own thoughts more efficiently. When you feel that you should introduce a new vocabulary word to visitors, refrain from asking if anyone knows the word’s meaning. (Why point out what people do not know or find yourself engaged in a debate?) Offer your audience the definition. Then, use the word or term in the context of a sentence, and/or apply it to appropriate examples.

For instance, you might tell your audience, “The style of architecture you are describing is known as ‘Gothic’ The term ‘Gothic’ is an art historical label that refers to a style of building produced from 1 150 to about 1550. Gothic architecture is characterized by the interior arches and columns you mentioned, as well as by high vaulted ceilings, and exterior buttresses that support the weight of the structure. The church depicted in this painting is an example of a Gothic structure.”

My advice is to think hard before initiating a vocabulary lesson, however. Visitors will only retain a few things from your brief encounter . . . ask yourself whether those things should be ideas, concepts, methods, or vocabulary. In other words, ask yourself, “Do casual visitors really need to learn that the botanical name for a geranium is Pelargonium hortorum?”

Avoiding Ambiguous and Judgmental Language

National Public Radio reported that, in upstate New York, a romantic young man decided to propose to his intended by asking for her “hand in marriage” on a billboard.

“Terry, will you marry me?” the board read; it was signed “Bob.” Within the course of a week, eleven women named Terry dating men named Bob called the billboard agency wondering if this gesture was from their fellow. Eventually, the appropriate Terry did connect with, and accepted the proposal from, her Bob. But, as the N.P.R. reporter stated, the lesson in this is to “… say what you mean. People are easily confused or misled.”

Audiences can easily be confused or misled if opinions are not distinguished from facts. Telling visitors that something is “an excellent example,” “a very significant artifact,” or “a lesser quality piece” is not only subjective and ambiguous, it disenfranchises those who either do not understand your reasons for saying it or who may disagree.

Although a qualitative judgment may have been told to you with authority, by an authority, it remains an opinion and not a fact. For the sake of clarity, it is best to speak without judgments about your collection if for no other reason than once judgments are made, open consideration usually stops.

To impart a judgment that has not been personally developed through reflective thinking and personal understanding is to impart a prejudice (or a pre-judgment of the facts). If you feel compelled to share something subjective about an object, animal, or artifact that will be examined, make a point of doing so after your visitors have considered it, and be sure to tell your audience that this view reflects the opinion of our curator, director, or whoever.

Communicating Clearly

Communicating clearly requires more than simply knowing what you mean to say. Others must understand the meaning of what you’ve said. And, there, as Shakespeare once wrote, “is the rub.”

As you reflect upon the suggestions and ideas offered in this issue of The Docent Educator, remember that enhancing your communication skills is hard work, but it is also essential to improving your teaching performance. Stronger communication skills will allow you to enfranchise and reach more of your audience, including those who have different learning styles, those who hold alternate points-of-view, and those who have special needs.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Refining Your Communication Skills,” The Docent Educator 5.3 (Spring 1996): 2-4.

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