I began college as a communication major. One of the first things I learned as an introductory student is that communication involves back and forth dialogue, a give and take. If I speak to you and you do not respond back to me, we are not communicating. Communication, the back and forth, give and take, is very important in civilized society. For the purposes of this blog post, it is especially important to cultural heritage professionals and organizations that care to be successful in what they do. The give and take, smoothly flowing exchange of information, allows the conversation initiator to evaluate a reaction to what has been said and to adjust perceptions and activities accordingly. It seems like an easy concept, but the actual act of communicating to get intended results can often take a lot of concentrated effort.
As a writer, I often wonder how my writing is perceived. I worry if others enjoy what I've written, if they agree or disagree, or if my message has reached an audience at all. When I write a book and it sells, that gives me some sense of success. When I tweet or blog and someone starts following me, I get the same feeling that I'm doing something right. I know that someone finds at least my concept interesting, but it is rarer for me to get more helpful information than that to allow me to further evaluate what I've done. If someone takes the time to e-mail, that closes the communication loop and gives me direct feedback that can help me improve my writing and communication skills.
The challenge for institutions and individuals trying to communicate ideas is to encourage the feedback. How does a conversation initiator tell the receiver that a reply is appreciated and provide enough incentive for that receiver to accommodate the request? After all, replying to information we receive takes time and we have to (consciously or unconsciously) consider the act of replying worth our time.
For example, here's a not a- typical morning conversation with my six-year-old:
Me: "I bought a special snack that you can have after school today."
Daughter: No reply
Me: "I bought you a cookie at the bakery."
Daughter: No reply
Me: "Are you happy that I bought you a cookie?"
Me (a wee bit aggravated): "How about a 'thanks for thinking of me mom'?"
On good mornings, the conversation may go like this:
Me: "I bought you a cookie at your favorite bakery. I bought the one with the colored sprinkles. You like the colored sprinkle one best don't you?"
Daughter: "Oh yes! Thank you mom!"
In the second conversation, I immediately offered all the information up front and ended with a question that invited reply. Because my daughter was excited from the start that the treat was a cookie from her favorite bakery and that I had considered her preferences in my decision about which cookie to buy, her excitement was ramped right out of the starting gate. It was worth it to her to reply to me, so that next time I was near the bakery I might again consider her and she'll again get what she likes. (She knows I'm a sucker for thanks and a kiss too!) In the first exchange, she was probably thinking whether or not the snack I bought was "special" for her or for me and then was considering what kind of cookie I got her. Rather than focusing on the conversational exchange, she was focusing on what she was getting out of this little arrangement I had set up. Notice too how much shorter the more successful conversation was. There was an immediate push pull. I gave information and asked a question. She answered.
Communication can be difficult one-to-one, like in the exchange with my daughter. It is much more difficult when it is one-to-many or many-to-many. Do you ever feel like you're jumping up and down shouting "look at me, look at me!" but you don't know to whom you are shouting? Do you ever look at all the entertainment and educational options that surround you and try to figure out how you can communicate to your potential audience that your institution is the one they should visit? The key to solving these issues is communication - not just the outreach from your institution, but devising means to get feedback.
The give and take allows you to change what you are doing. It shows your potential audience that you truly are considering their desires and feelings. It also makes individuals feel more empowered. Your organization becomes less stand-offish (a perception we all know that many have of us) and your approach is more personalized when you invite a response and user input. When I told my daughter that I thought she liked a certain kind of cookie best, it showed her that her opinion matters. I was less the bossy mommy and more the guiding mommy.
A few resources have come across my desk in the past few weeks to promote this idea of the give and take. Those wishing to pursue a give and take strategy should also consider that there are many ways to do it including one-to-one, to groups in person, through media, or on the Internet. Choose multiple strategies, but always make sure there is a way for users to give you feedback. Try to devise strategies that make them want to give you that feedback.
A few sources new to me:
Nina Simon's "The Participatory Museum" discusses multiple methods of encouraging feedback. Her handbook provides a great jumping point. You can pursue some of her suggestions or use her ideas to jog your own communication creativity.
Open Spaces: bringing new people to museums, libraries & archives through self-organised learning groups. http://bit.ly/bhJybw . This British program encourages institutions to create new programs that acknowledges an individual's desire and need for continuing education throughout their lives. It promotes the cultural heritage institution as a learning partner.
Meta Data games is an Internet based game for augmenting access to records http://www.tiltfactor.org/?page_id=1279: I am anxious to see how this pilot project by Dartmouth College progresses. Even more than libraries and museums, I think my beloved archives suffer from communication issues. (Maybe because people usually give me a blank stare when I tell them I'm an archivist, but if I say I'm a curator or librarian there is recognition in their eyes?) We have been working hard for decades now to provide more readily available access to archival materials. Archives are great communicative tools, giving us information and waiting for us to respond. Unfortunately, very few have access to archives and they sit on the shelves like a conversation waiting to happen. I think Dartmouth might help change that!