Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Flexibility and Public Programming

Being flexible often proves itself as one of the greatest challenges for public historians. Flexibility is key, however, to working with the public. Maybe the skill needed more than staying flexible is that of releasing control.

"But I know how to do it! I know the best way! They just have to listen to me! I am the trained professional, after all." I am not referring to The American Breed's version of flexibility:

Flexibility does not mean you lose control and have to let yourself be bent and shaped anyway somebody wants to bend and shape you. It means you are confident enough in your message, your understanding of the resource (in this case, the history), or your goals that you are willing to take alternative routes to reach your destination. These alternative routes come from the "give-and-take" process called engaging.

Today's public, especially, sees themselves as engagers. A combination of our society, technology, and contemporary norms have created a public that expects transparency from organizations, methods of expressing thought, and response to their expressions. If historians want their stories to captivate the public audience, historians have to meet that audience at their level. The following case studies on flexibility demonstrate the usefulness of "letting go" and how not being a control freak can have positive benefits.

Example One: Partnerships
Partnerships, and really all relationships to some degree, require flexibility. Each partner has expectations. Communicating and sharing expectations is important. Having similar goals is vital to working together. But the glue that makes partnerships function is flexibility. Historians working with the public have to be willing to listen to those partners and their desires. Listening and engaging might mean adjusting the course of a project, but often it is for the best (a way to keep all parties happy). In my most recent experience working with a partner, Asociacion Cultural Latino-Acadiana, flexibility keeps the project functioning. We are working together to develop an exhibit about the Latin American influences in Acadiana, both historically and contemporarily. It would be very easy for the Acadian Cultural Center to say "this will be the exhibit we will produce and you can help if you want." Instead, we engaged the group and had the members express what they envisioned. This has shifted the theme of the exhibit, but the group feels ownership of the project and wants more of the community to engage in this story. That's the point of developing a partnership.

Example Two: Social Media
In my experience, the words "social media" tend to scare those working in bureaucracy, control freaks, and in some cases, historians. Social media is just a "phase," right? Not really, not anymore. Social media, by design, is meant for engagement. The only control organizations have is what they say, not how people respond. This notion has kept many organizations away from utilizing the media. In fact, until you establish your own presence, you have NO control over what your audience may already be saying about you. I say "jump in!" with flexibility and see where your audience takes you. Use your audience's responses to adjust your sails as you navigate the social media water. Engage your audience to see what they are looking for. You can't launch a successful social media presence with an exact plan and expect you'll be able to follow that exact plan. Have a framework set up that will guide your engagements, but be willing to accommodate change as you listen to those responding.

Example Three: Interpretive Programs
This is a good one. Speaking from experience, most people attending a ranger program expect to be talked to by the ranger. They usually don't expect to talk with the ranger until the end when those magical words come out, "are there any questions," indicating a permission to speak. What happens when these programs become interpretive experiences? I will say, as a seasoned interpreter, no one program ever goes the same. The audience makeup changes with each program; even when giving a cookie-cutter "talk then ask questions at the end" program, different members of the audience will walk away with different memories and meanings. Why not utilize the variety of your audience and use them to help you tell the story? Prompt conversations among your audience. Allow opportunities for visitors to share. When you ask questions AND LISTEN to the answers, you provide an opportunity to see where your audience is coming from. This can be a scary thought, as you don't know what your audience will say or how they will respond. And you have to overcome that "but-I-am-in-charge-here-and-need-to-do-all-the-talking" temptation to make this leap. But if you know your resource (in this case, the history or a place), you can be flexible with your audience, providing opportunities for them to make their own connections to that place based on what they told you.

Interpreters interpret best when they facilitate visitors' experiences. Facilitation requires listening, conversing, letting go, and being ready to respond with whatever happens. Historians working with the public work best when they engage the public. Engagement requires listening, conversing, responding to the public, and ultimately, letting go. I will speak from experience that "letting go" is a difficult thing for control freaks to do. Actually, it may be the most difficult thing for control freaks to do, a skill that completely goes against the personality-type. But ultimately, it provides avenues for engaging a broader audience on deeper levels.

Reminder: these thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

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