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Taming the Maddening Crowds

There they are — what seems like hundreds upon hundreds of people, totally bereft of any fashion sense whatever, impatient, hot (or cold; it’s always one or the other), gazing skeptically down on you as you prepare to transport them to new heights of consciousness. Sound intimidating? It doesn’t have to be. Although most of us find interpreting to small, intimate groups more rewarding and pleasurable than speaking before a large throng, there are techniques that you can employ to engage the visitor even if s/he is but one in a large mass of people with differing agendas, ages, and, ah, shall we say, acumen.

Ultimately you want to challenge your visitors to think, to react — either verbally, physically, or mentally — and to try to relate to the information you are proffering them. The easy way out is to spoon feed the rabble your information in a one-way oration that only tends to distance you, and your message, from them.

“But, golly, Mr. Howell,” you may be thinking, “it sounds as if you’re suggesting we try to interact with, like, 30+ people!” Well, you’re right, I am. Adult (and child) education is most effective when the learners are involved in the process.

“Well, Mister Hot-Shot Know-It- All, did it not occur to you that those same college flunkies who came up with that obvious little pearl also concluded that most adolescents and adults get extremely intimidated by large crowds and don’t like being involved, for fear of embarrassing themselves in front of a bunch of strangers?” Yes, but only when they are singled out and made separate from the group. (By the way, don’t you just love third – fifth graders? They’d jump off a cliff naming all the geologic periods they passed if you asked them to.) And remember, “involvement” can mean many things. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The following are some ideas to keep in mind when interpreting to crowds. They won’t work with all groups all the time but I think you’ll find that they will help you improve your ability to personalize your interpretation and, as a result, make your message more immediate.

The Agassi Angle Remember a shoe commercial on TV not too long ago featuring Andre Agassi saying “image is everything?” It’s always annoyed me that someone with his gifts could say such a thing, particularly when he was partially right. The way you are perceived is extremely important. In fact, most people will form an opinion of you within three seconds of coming into contact with you. That first impression will set the tone for the entire experience. The more professional, upbeat, personable, and enthusiastic you are at the beginning, the less energy you will expend trying to justify your credibility later. Whether we like it or not, perception is reality in our visitor’s mind.

Periscope Up Watch the group. Observe their actions and react accordingly. Don’t ever assume the tour will go the way you expect it to. Be flexible: if people seem to get antsy, use your judgment and decide if it’s in the tour’s best interest to edit your remarks. It’s their tour, not yours. Are they confused-looking, frustrated, totally lost? Or, for that matter, are they smiling and nodding at you? (Most visitors feel they have to be polite, no matter what they’re really thinking.) At least once ask for feedback: “Does this make sense?” “Am I going too fast?” Once you go on automatic you are not longer an interpreter. You are nothing more than a live tape recorder and are in great need of reviewing past issues of The Docent Educator!

The Pawn Opening People tend not to like being set apart from other people. They like to feel safe and secure in new surroundings and situations. If you can devise a situation at the beginning where everyone participates together rather than picking on a select few you will create an atmosphere of openness and camaraderie. This can be done either physically or mentally.

Start off with a rhetorical question or direct questions to the whole group that are easily answered. I have seen an interpreter hold up two pieces of reddish and white wood, mention that one is white pine and the other red oak, and ask which is which. “Too elementary,” you may say, but it accomplishes three things: it shows you are not going to embarrass them, it helps their self esteem because even if they don’t verbalize the answer they are thinking, “hey, I know that!,” and it establishes from the outset that this interactive approach is going to be your style. (A question like “You there, in the orange shirt . . . there was only one period in history when the entire world was at peace. When was it?”* is not a good opening gambit.)

Physically, if you can involve the entire group, or a sizable portion, in illustrating an idea they will begin to feel a bond with one another; you lessen the feeling that they are a group of strangers at the mercy of some tour guide gone wacko. For example, use the size of the crowd to relate to points dealing with quantities: “Together, we are about the size of typical Continental Line company.”

Once you establish the fact that you are going to use them passively, then you can start narrowing down the numbers yet still expect a reasonable chance of someone volunteering. For instance, use them as points along a time line to illustrate historical distance (“You here represent today; the lady two feet away from you represents when man first appeared on Earth. That guy way over yonder represents when dinosaurs walked the Earth.”)

If you do have a situation that calls for only one or a few volunteers then you have a few decisions to make. Sometimes it’s good to let the experience be a surprise; keeping the visitor’s experience unpredictable will help maintain interest but, on the other hand, explaining what you are asking of volunteers might encourage them to participate. At any rate, never forget to thank them both before and after you have used them.

If you are asking someone to role play or read a quote then make sure you provide them with easily read material and time to review it. Stuff like this is best done by someone sixteen or over and, above all, make sure it has a point. You can also use the visitor to represent what you are trying to explain. I saw a wonderful interpretation once where the guide asked a tall man to represent a mature redwood, then surrounded him with a ring of children representing how the species reproduces itself by expanding outward from a central point. No one had to say anything or do anything or trust to prior experience; they were just pawns in the game of interpretation. This example leads me to my next point.

Suffer the Little Children Kids will be kids so why try to change them, shushing them all the time or, worse, ignoring them. Asking kids to come to the front of the group, explaining an idea to them first then expanding on that idea for the adults or having them do activities (scavenger hunts, object identification, etc.) that illustrate ideas from your tour does several things: first of all, the kids get something out of it all, and the parents think you’re the next best thing since the automatic garage door opener. That, in turn, makes them respect you all the more and, besides, adults get as much out of interpretations geared to children as the kids do. They won’t admit but, trust me, they do.

The Emperor’s Clothes I’ve never understood the old public speaking advice of imagining your audience naked. I can’t think of anything that would put me off this profession more quickly. But do remember that you are more familiar with your subject than the vast majority of your audience. If you are intimidated by large groups just keep in mind that you are perceived as the expert until you do something to change that opinion. To keep that from happening maintain good eye contact with the group (it will unconsciously register with them if you keep looking over their heads), be honest if you don’t know the answer to a question, keep fidgeting to a minimum, and finish your sentences with a sense of finality. Some folks end declamatory sentences as if they’re asking questions, with the voice trailing up, suggesting a lack of confidence in what they are saying.

Of course, following this course of interaction always leaves you vulnerable to the bane of all interpreters — the Know-It-All (shudder). If you get some Know-It-All on your case, allow them their opportunity to speak (you should have encouraged questions and observations at the beginning of the tour and, besides, they would have interrupted you anyway) but always have the last word, beginning with “Our research indicates …” and then leave the point. Who do you think the crowd will believe? If Mr. Know-It-All (they do tend to be men, don’t they?) becomes a heckler, then no one will think the less of you if you tactfully suggest you will gladly talk with him/her after the tour concludes. Believe me, the other visitors will thank you for it. The chance of that happening is by far negated by the positive interactions you will encounter.

Silence is Golden Feel like you have to fill up every little portion of your tour with verbiage? Do you find yourself answering your own questions because no one spoke in the nanosecond you gave them to think of an answer? Remember that language is an artificial tool that humans developed for communication, and it has to be processed. Give people time to respond to a question, at least four seconds before you bull in with the answer or a follow-up clue. Doesn’t sound like a long time? Time it out; you’d be surprised how long a time it can be.

The same goes for dramatic pauses. The silence that follows a salient point or that occurs during an activity or an observation of something is as useful as the commentary you provide but only if you utilize it right from the beginning of your interpretation and prepare people for the fact. If you are consistent, silence is less an uncomfortable pregnant pause and more a moment for reflection.

Speak and Be Heard On the other hand, when you are speaking make sure you can be heard. Periodically, ask the group if they can hear you. This does two things: first of all you’re not assuming anything and it shows your respect for them and your message. If we discover we are not being heard we tend to compensate by increasing our volume. This only sends the voice into a higher register and pitch where it dissipates faster and is just downright irritating to listen to. Female interpreters need to be particularly sensitive to vocal strength since their voices tend to be high to begin with, but us tenors need to be aware of the impact our voices have as well. This topic deserves a full article (or issue, Mr. Editor?) but, generally, try to keep your voice at a normal level and put more air behind it by taking deeper breaths and pushing that air with the diaphragm. Yelling originates in the throat and sounds thin and will tire your voice out. Projection begins in the chest and will be more resonant. In short, don’t yell, breathe.

Traffic Control Try to position yourself slightly above the group if at all possible but not in an obviously dominant manner. If you’re outside, a small rise in the ground is dandy but standing on a chair or something similar will unconsciously distance you from the group, even though you would be better seen. Better to spread the group out to 2 – 3 deep in a crescent shape, if possible. If they don’t do it naturally, direct them to.

Piloting a Battleship Face it, large crowds move more slowly than small crowds. If you are interpreting in more than one location then accept the fact that you will not get across as much information as you will with a small group, so plan accordingly. Also, try to avoid talking while on the move. Before you step off, offer a transition or some food for thought from your current location to the next one and give them a break from your wise insights (Voltaire once said that “the way to be a bore is to say everything.”). Once moving, take it easy. Those of you who have stepped off and then turned around only to find yourself light years ahead of a huffing and puffing queue know how difficult it is to match your workman-like pace to their I’m-on-vacation-dammit pace. When you arrive at your next location give the back of the group time to join you while you fill the time asking for questions or just getting to know some of you group (you never know what might come in handy). Once all are collected reiterate your transition and begin. The reiterated transition lets latecomers know that you have not been yapping about critical information they may have missed that might cause them to resent you.

What if they just don’t want to play? Despite your best efforts, you’ll get groups that will not gel or just won’t interact. Well, you’ll never know if you don’t try. Avoid the all-too-easy practice of prejudging a group. Approach each group with a fresh perspective and the benefit of a doubt. I know this sounds a bit prissy but, remember, your attitude will be perceived by tour members. Either consciously or unconsciously, they are sizing you up while you are sizing them up.

Confidence, visitor perspective, flexibility, establishing expectations: these are ideas to keep in mind when approaching a group. Ultimately, your best guide is experience (sound familiar?). It’s easy for me to sit here and type out suggestions and recommend a few techniques. Sure, there is risk involved in these ideas but, as with all things, the higher the risk, the higher the return. Plus, you control and lessen your risk ifyon establish your expectations for the experience right from the beginning. You cannot expect effective interaction if you introduce it halfway through the tour.

Large groups of people with divergent backgrounds can have a meaningful tour but only if you approach them with the intent of involving them in the experience. Ask yourself: what can you do to exceed their expectations. You will find the answer requires work and diligence but the rewards are worth it — for both of you.

* P.S. – As far as I know, the world has never been completely at peace. It was a trick question!

Mark Howell is a trainer in cultural history and presentation skills, program planner, and occasional interpreter for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He also edits a quarterly publication on topics pertaining to the colonial Chesapeake region and interpretive technique called the Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter. He has foolishly offered to the editor that anyone interested in receiving this publication, free of charge, can be placed on its mailing list. Write Mr. Howell at Colonial Williamsburg, Box 1176, Williamsburg, VA 23187 and request to be added to an august list that includes Justice Sandra Day 0 ‘Connor, The Docent Educator, and the Annie Oakley Foundation.

Howell, Mark. “Taming the Maddening Crowds,” Docent Educator 3.4 (Summer 1994): 8-11.


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