Monday, July 23, 2018

Hanging with the Historical

For close to a year now, I've been hanging out at a historical house one to four times per month. I give three 50-55 minute tours in three hours to groups of one to sixteen people, some local but mostly out-of-state visitors. That means that I am representative of Phoenix, of Arizona, of the Southwest, of the U.S., of the Victorian era, of historic homes, and of museums. No pressure, eh?

A couple of weeks ago, there was a girl maybe about nine years old who had just really enjoyed seeing the house. A few months ago, we had a lot of college students because there was a class that required them to visit. I remember one of them in particular who'd had that look of genuine, kind of unexpected interest at many of the things I talked about or pointed out (like the stereoscope). Sure, it's great to talk to people who already love historic homes, but to see that first spark of interest is quite a gift.

I've alluded before to the fact that I'm repeating myself over and over on these tours. It's come to the point where I have my basic spiel and most of it I will give on every single tour. So I've said the exact same sentences many times--each time, though, I say them like I'm saying them for the first time because I know that this group in front of me is hearing them for the first time. And as I try to keep that in mind, that also brings me back around to considering my audience.

When there are at least a couple of children ten years old or younger, I tend to not bring up too many years. To say that the original owner was born in 1851 is pretty irrelevant to them since most children don't really have a concept of 1851 versus 1891 or 1811, anyway. I'll try and also bring in more comparisons to the modern day when there are children on a tour, just to give them a connection. And I don't tell the prohibition story when there are children.

We all kind of have our special angles and focuses and areas of interest when we give tours in this place; they do want us all to have different tours rather than for all of us to just be parroting the same spiel. Architecture is not my special angle. But when I notice that someone is interested in architecture, maybe I'll bring up some extra tidbits that I don't usually talk about. Maybe I'll talk a little more about wood that was painted over or which fireplaces are reproductions, things like that.

We like to encourage questions, but a lot of questions have a two-sided effect on a tour. They keep things fun, but they also take up time. Sometimes someone will ask a question that I was about to answer with my spiel (or maybe that I normally talk about at a later point). Rather than saying, "I'll get to that later," I answer their question with all of this info as if their question launched this great conversation that wouldn't otherwise have happened. That encourages them to ask more questions and keeps them engaged. If, however, I am getting lots of questions about things that I don't normally talk about, well, the tour might start running long. I always have about a five minute or so cushion of time that I can go over (if I aim for 50 minutes, then I can go up to 55 minutes and still have time to start the next tour on the hour). If that's the case, I might have to start cutting. Maybe I'll cut out a little story here or there or maybe I'll just bundle up a few sentences into quicker comments.

It's great practice for talking, to be able to treat your spiel as a fluid thing. You're thinking ahead while still keeping an eye on what you're saying (can't let your mind wander too much or you might start saying the wrong sentence at the wrong moment).

And it's amazing to see that you are the one shaping someone's impression of a place. Someone who only had a spare hour while attending a work conference in Downtown Phoenix chose to spend that spare hour here. A couple visiting from England put down this spot on their list of places to visit. A woman who brought her out-of-town relatives here. Etc., etc. Other than the fact that I love that house and I love the Victorian era, it's amazing to see how places like this can bring people together to one space.

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