Friday, January 24, 2020

Impromptu Communication Tips and Tricks for Museum Workers

Jen Oleniczak Brown is the Founder of The Engaging Educator (EE), a women-owned and operated company dedicated to helping people find their unapologetic, authentic and best voice, communication style, and self through improv-based education. Jen lives in Winston Salem, NC with her husband, their two dogs Drumstick and Pickle, and over four-dozen houseplants. (Jen's photo credit: The Confetti Project.)

Jen’s latest book, Think on Your Feet: Tips and Tricks to Improve Your Impromptu Communication Skills on the Job (McGraw Hill Education, November 2019) is one of Inc Magazines “20 Books That Will Kick Off 2020 on the Right Foot” and has been called “a helpful maven’s guide ideal for anyone who views a podium with fear and trembling” by Publishers Weekly.

Jen was kind enough to share some impromptu communication tips and tricks below that I'm sure will of be of interest to ExhibiTricks readers.

Conversations With Friends 24/7

Flying by the seat of your pants.
Going with the flow.
Rolling with it.

You’re either cringing or getting excited reading those phrases.

Now, take those phrases into your museum workday.

Same feelings? Different?

I’ve been there – after working in museums as an educator for many years I realized that the whole “flex in the moment” thing isn’t the easiest for a lot of people. It’s not to say we aren’t good at it – because we are! – it’s the stigma of impromptu moments and impromptu conversations that causes this disconnect and often the discomfort.

Surprise! You’re probably already pretty good at impromptu speaking, flying by the seat of your pants, going with the flow and rolling with it – and if you’re laughing at me, think of the last friendly conversation you had.

Did you plan it?
Did you script it?
Did you overthink it?

NO! We simply listen and respond when we’re having these friendly conversations. For some reason, our brains short circuit when it’s work-related and suddenly we feel like we’re not “as good” as impromptu moments. If you just tap into that listen and respond like you’re talking with a friend mindset, you’re going to notice drastic improvement with staff, visitors and more.

While you’re wrapping your head around that mind shift, here are three areas to start tapping into directly that will build those skills in the moment and beyond:

Active Listening

I am constantly bringing everything back to listening. Imagine building a house, and you don’t check the foundation before you start building, you just start putting up the second floor on wiggly beams with no support.

That’s how I see communication without attention to the basics.

We are terrible listeners sometimes. I mean, can you blame us? We have a million things going on, we’re managing people and projects and the public and the next thing – on top of that all the information! We have an agenda and we need to make it happen…and when that takes over, listening in the moment can be one of the first things to go to the side.

And yet, listening is crucial and key, and usually one of the things you can improve on first and immediately reap the benefits. Take a moment to assess your listening skills: they are non-negotiable in impromptu communication moments. If a visitor or a coworker says something and you miss information, or were thinking about the what next NEXT, they might tell you – or they’ll write you off as a distracted listener.

If you know you tend to drift or focus a few steps ahead – or answer the question you think is being asked versus the question that is asked (a common offender in museum practice!) try this: wait until the person finishes their sentence, and take the last word of their sentence – let it inspire the first word of your sentence.

This is a riff off of a training exercise we do called Last Word – we have pairs take the last word of the previous sentence and have them use it as the first word of the response. The idea is to be comfortable in silence and to pay attention to the entire thought instead of forming an answer or before the other person is even done talking. Since that exact exercise makes you sound like Yoda in real life, the scaffold is the inspiration.

Show it, don’t just tell it

Because active listening is so darn important, I have to tap it twice. As adults, we’re often super polite. Smiling, nodding, mmmhmmming – all these lovely non-verbals that show that we are COMPLETELY LISTENING – not thinking about our inbox, our dinner, our plans later…right?

Yeah, I thought so.

Kids are the best. Kids will tell you when they aren’t listening to you because they will talk over you, fidget, say you are boring – all these things.

Be more like a kid.

Show that you’re listening, don’t just tell us with the smile and nod. Asking questions – true curiosity questions to get more information or to get deeper into the topic, not questions to insert your opinion or swap focus. “Tell me more about x” or “That’s awesome, can you explain y more?” are great open-ended questions that aren’t aggressive or attacking, and they center the speaker. Also, pro tip: when someone shows they are listening to the speaker – and truly listening, so asking these questions and getting the speaker to keep talking – that speaker has some seriously good vibes going. Dopamine is firing in the speaker’s brain and that good feeling will pass to you as the listener – and who doesn’t want to be associated with a good feeling?

Embrace Silence

It takes time to respond thoughtfully. Silences are confident.

Read that again, sink it in your brain, and start taking more silences.

We have a weird association with silences – be it the “getting caught” because you’re not paying attention or the “deer in headlights” of not knowing what to say next, silences are usually associated with anxiety. Sure, a silence that is forced on you is generally nerve-wracking. On the flip side – a silence you take to be thoughtful, to respond with consideration instead of reacting, is confident because you’re taking it by choice. When we put intention behind our actions, confidence comes through. Remember to give yourself some grace and space to learn, grow and improve. And don’t build the house without the foundation!

Thanks again to Jen for those helpful communication tips!  If you’d like to learn more about Jen and her work, hop over to

AND NOW A FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY!  Here's your chance to win one of two free copies of Jen's new book, Think on Your Feet: Tips and Tricks to Improve Your Impromptu Communication Skills on the Job.  Either click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog OR send me an email with "I want to win a copy of Jen's book!" in the subject line before January 30, 2020.  We will randomly select one new ExhibiTricks subscriber and one emailer to each receive a book as their prize.  Good luck!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Relatability and Relinquishing Power: The Global Guides Program at the Penn Museum

Ellen Owens and Kevin Schott from the Penn Museum were kind enough to share this guest post with ExhibiTricks readers about the "Global Guides" program at their institution.

Ellen Owens is the Merle-Smith Director of Learning and Public Engagement at the Penn Museum.  Kevin Schott, as the Associate Director of Interpretive Programs, works closely with the Penn Museum’s volunteer docents and Global Guides. (Learn more about Kevin and Ellen by reading their extended bios here.)

Relatability and Relinquishing Power
Through time, museums placed great importance on academic knowledge focused on historical facts. Global Guide tours break this pattern to help Penn Museum visitors opportunities to connect to ancient history through stories that resonate universally. 

Offered free-of-charge in a museum that is focused on anthropology and archaeology, Global Guide tours are led by immigrants and refugees who have grown up in the origin countries of the exhibited objects – we currently have guides from the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and Central America. Job descriptions and recruitment were in partnership with local agencies that serve these populations and were a win-win proposition to offering skilled people into professional positions.

An hour-long tour has six stops at key objects, where the Guides describe the historical importance and key facts at each stop and then share a personal narrative that connects the object to a powerful memory from life in their former home country. They use iPads to show personal photographs, videos, and other materials to make their stories more concrete.

Abraham Sandoval Iñiguez talks about the region of Mexico
that his parents farmed in front of the artifacts from that region.

While these tours use historical info to set the context for the artifacts and the people they represent, the guides’ own life stories and the relevance of these objects to their cultural groups are profoundly relatable to visitors, overcoming a challenge inherent to interpreting unfamiliar cultural material. For example, we learned through the Guides’ personal knowledge that spindle whorls are still used by older generations in Iraq and Syria – the guides had seen them used by their grandparents! The resulting tour stop focuses on a story about our guide receiving an ugly sweater as a gift from a well-meaning grandmother, crafted from yarn made with a spindle whorl, not unlike the 7,000-year-old example on display.

The tours also add a layer of understanding through lived experience in places far away, allowing visitors glimpses into countries they may have only experienced through news stories – in fact, we know most visitors have no, or shallow, connections with people of these cultures, based on visitor data. Opportunities to get first-person insight into foreign cities and towns help to undermine stereotypes and misinterpreted histories.  The Guides are highly aware of the widely held misconceptions that Americans have about their parts of the world since they live within those constructs daily. We support them in politely declining conversation beyond the stories they choose to share – unless they wish to share more when visitors ask, which happens often.

Celeste Diaz shows a photo of her speaking an indigenous 
language in a Guatemalan pageant as a child during a 
tour stop about carrying traditions into contemporary life. 

Relinquishing Power
As part of our training, we ask the Guides to think about the key learning objectives they would like visitors to take home after the tours.  Helping visitors to see beyond stereotypes has been core to the design of the tours, and the Guides accomplish this through both demonstrating the realities and contrasting these against the misconceptions. This shift of agency to the Guides, who represent often-marginalized communities that have legacies of colonialism, allows for their authentic voices to be heard as experts within the context of the Museum, rather than under the control of the Museum. We help them learn the facts and get professional storytelling training, but we don’t control their narratives.

Clay Katongo, a present-day pastor, talks about divination baskets 
and traditional religion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo 
where he grew up.

When asked “What is the best part of the tour?” visitors all note: “the guide’s personal stories,” or list their guide by name.  Yet nearly half of visitors share that they have had no or very little contact with a person of these origins before their tours.  By the end of the tour, over three-quarters say they are interested in learning more about the region their guide came from, particularly about its history, art, and culture. Participants also report they are more likely to support agencies that assist immigrants and refugees in their resettlement.

From a recent visitor’s survey: “I have seen the galleries two times on my own, but having Moumena give us a tour in her eyes and history as a Syrian -complete with personal photos and anecdotes- was one of the most enlightening and pleasant museum experiences EVER!  I was for almost 40 years at the [OTHER MUSEUM NAME HERE] and have visited and continue to visit museums around the world but the time with Moumena shall long remain with me as one of the best anywhere.”

Moumena Saradar proudly shows her family heirloom golden 
jewelry nearby the gleaming adornments of Queen Puabi.

Anyone can go on a Global Guides tour since we offer them for free to general visitors and offer financial assistance for private tours to groups that need it. We have delivered these tours to over 3,500 people since the program’s start in May 2018. Proximity has had a profound impact on our visitors, and our own Museum staff and trustees have enjoyed hearing fresh insights that humanize the collection and bring them closer to their Philadelphia neighbors.

To learn more about the Global Guides program, please visit the Penn Museum website.  Thanks again to Kevin and Ellen for sharing this guest post!

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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