Sunday, September 25, 2011

Brisk, Bold, And Not Boring

Recently I found myself waking up one morning wondering, "Why did I say I'd do that!"  What was it?  I had committed to giving a session at the American Association for State and Local History conference about how not to do a boring session.   Luckily,  with many thanks to my colleague Lindsey Baker, director of the Laurel Historical Society who joined me as co-presenter, willing to try anything, and to a great group of session participants, we all had a good time.  I thought I would share a bit of what we did with Uncataloged readers as you head off to conferences, Rotary meetings, or anywhere else where you stand up in front of a group.

First off, we planned.  Lindsey and I did an agenda, revised the agenda, talked on the phone, emailed, shared our powerpoints, and met the morning of.  I've been in sessions where the participants appeared to engage with each other for the first time on the podium.  For us, the planning really helped.

Changing the Space
The chairs were set up in straight rows--we just rearranged them into slight curves, which felt more conversational and friendly.  We put up big pieces of brown paper and asked participants to share their thoughts on what they love and what they hate about presentations as they entered.  Even this little bit of change communicates that a session might not be the same old thing.

Yes, we used PowerPoint, but we wanted to show that presentations can be fast-paced and compelling. We started by thinking about Pecha Kucha (20 slides/20 seconds per slide) as a starting point and discovered we could go even faster.   Lindsey's presentation was about how to do a bad Powerpoint, and she did it by actually doing a great version of a bad Powerpoint.  It's below, followed by my Powerpoint on what makes a good presentation. 

In addition to Pecha Kucha, we modeled two other presentation techniques. Drawing on ideas about multiple intelligences, we asked participants to draw (not write about) their idea of what a conference participant in 2111 would look like (you can find the framework at the end of my Powerpoint above).   Of course, there was some grumbling about not being able to draw,  but it produced some interesting results, spurring lively conversation.   We tried a stand-up interview as our next technique, leading one participant to comment, "It works so well we're now asking you questions about the project, rather than about interviewing!"   

Our final assignment (accompanied by candy) was small group work. We took real session titles from the conference and asked small groups to design participatory, engaging conference sessions.  From dropping a vase in a session on collections care to role-playing the closing of a historic site, the results were great.  And the results were gained by really lively conversations--and that, to me, is the sign of a great session--when everybody's ideas are in play.

We made sure we had some time at the end to debrief. Participants were also encouraged to ask questions along the way and we both got out from behind the podium.   There was nothing miraculous about our recommendations.  They are ones we know from our work with museum audiences, but somehow those techniques are often forgotten when we step in front of that conference podium.  It's just like working with school groups--if you don't approach the task with joy and enthusiasm (and a sense of humor) why would they?

We'd love to hear about other great suggestions for making any presentation more memorable.   What techniques have you found effective?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Oh, Planning Does Work!

Sprint006 plan
As any consultant knows,  there's a point when you can just hope for the best--you've worked with the client,  you've facilitated community conversations, and you've written the report.  And's like waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Has the organization really embraced the process?  Are there the skills and the drive to move a plan forward?  And the bottom line...did your work make a difference?

This past week or two I've had two experiences that reinforced my belief in the importance of planning, but they also helped cement my understanding that sometimes it takes a while for the results of the process, much less the plan itself, to be fully known.

Almost two years ago,  my colleague Anne Ackerson and I led the strategic planning process for a volunteer committee of a small town in Massachusetts as they worked to save a historic building for use as a heritage center.  Focus groups, space planning, conversations with other stakeholders,  benchmarking,  committee meetings, budget development--the whole process.  No word for a while, as sometimes happens with clients as we and they head off to the next steps.  But this week an email that read, "there have been many twists and turns to get us here but it finally is a happening thing!  Your study proved very valuable to us as we went before numerous committees, radio, TV and finally a special town meeting to appeal for the last chunk of funding."   That's what a good plan does--it helps convince others to join in, to help accomplish the goals.

Yesterday I went to a meeting with a client that had had a number of staff changes throughout a long interpretive planning process (mostly completed some time ago)  and met with senior staff,  three of four of whom were new (although not necessarily new to the organization).  To my surprise and delight, these four women embraced the knowledge gained in evaluations along the way;  over a long lunch we had a lively conversation about the meaning of community engagement and community anchor;  discussed the real needs of the organization to accomplish the interpretive goals;  and overall, made a substantive commitment to work together as a team to lead the way.  Tremendously gratifying.

What made the difference?  It's hard to say.  In the first case, it was a long-standing committee that remained united and committed to the project.  In the second, it took some staff changes to make that commitment happen.  But, like almost all of my work, it's about the people involved--and the need to be ready, to have a plan in place when the time is right.  Planning is best done when you're not under the gun but when your organization takes the time to slow down and think collaboratively with your community.  "Too busy!" you say?  Find the people; find the time.

Planning by J'Roo on Flickr

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Icelandic Museums

My family and I recently spent two weeks in Iceland on vacation.  It's a fascinating place, unlike any other and its museums were the same.  I saw traditional folk museums, met a few impassioned small museum professionals, and saw high-tech media installations.  I thought Uncataloged readers might be interested in seeing some inspiring images and have posted them on the Uncataloged Museum Facebook page (oh yes,  and don't forget to like it).  Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Talk, Talk, Talk!

This past month,  my book club read, A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation, by Daniel Menaker, and although we had some mixed feelings about the book,  it did generate lots of conversation over a terrific lunch of home-grown fruits and vegetables.   We talked about social media and the web, and rather it has lessened conversations;  about how talking with family is different than talking with friends--we ranged all over the block.

But then one friend asked if we felt we were able to have deep, meaningful conversations in our regular lives, in our work lives perhaps.   And it made me realize how lucky I am to have a job where those deep conversations are really a part of my work.  Not every day,  but often.  Over the last several months I've had the chance to talk with colleagues about whether greed was the primary factor in the shaping of early Western New York; about the creative process of artists and whether representing in an activity is a way to share it with others;  over a dinner in Ukraine,  about how Soviet citizens and American citizens perceived each other during the Cold War;  with my long distance food writing course, about everything from wheat trials to the meaning of kimchee;  with my consulting colleagues at our retreat about the changing landscape of the museum field;  about how collecting beautiful objects tells the story of a life;  and most importantly,  over and over again,  how we, as museums, can encourage deep conversations in everyday life.   Increasingly for me,  museums are about those conversations--and the objects are the ways to frame or to spark thinking and talking. 

As I head off to the AASLH meeting in Richmond for several days of more conversations,   I'm grateful to be a part of a field that values and appreciates talk.  And at the same time, it made me realize how much more, we as a field, can do to encourage those deeper conversations among all the members of our diverse communities.