I’ve been writing about the differences between a voluntary and an involuntary audience, and about researching one’s audience for my forthcoming book, Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer. Which reminded me of the first docent training I did after I moved to Winston-Salem. I had trained museum docents. I had trained the guides for French-speaking tourists of Philadelphia. All I had to do for this assignment was fit my usual training into the allotted time, revise my hand-out slightly, and I was done. Except that I began to hear mumblings from a docent or two that I met–“We’ve been doing this for years, why do we need training?”– and to see raised eyebrows and rolling eyes that said, “Lot’s of luck, you poor fool, you.”
Whoops! The person who hired me thought the docents needed training; the docents were darn sure they didn’t, and already resentful of anyone (including me) who thought they did. So I changed course–no apparent training, I would entertain them with an over-the-top improv skit demonstrating what could go horribly wrong in a docent’s day. The first time in thirty-four years of teaching that I’d ever tried this approach, but it worked. The audience’s former resentment became irrelevant, some learning occurred, and everyone had a good time.
So audience research isn’t necessarily about digging deep, but more about keeping one’s antenna up.