6 BEST PRACTICES FOR SHARING INFORMATION IN YOUR ART DISCUSSIONS
Many of us are experts in our field – possibly art historians, historians or archaeologists – and want to share that incredible knowledge with the groups we lead in our programmes.
But knowing what information to share, how to share it and when to share it is often tricky – especially on interactive, discussion-based programmes. And what happens when you add too much information? And how much is too much?
Sharing information that is engaging and memorable (without overloading your participants) is a great skill to master.
In this week’s episode I’m sharing some thoughts on information delivery and 6 best practices for how to share your knowledge AND keep your audience engaged and curious (as opposed to bored and frustrated).
Make your knowledge work for you. Learn how to use information as a tool to create curiosity and engagement in episode 12!
Many of us are experts in our field – possibly art historians, historians or archaeologists – and want to share that incredible knowledge with the groups we lead in our programmes.However, the information dump, the monologue or lecture – call it what you will – is still an all-too-common way of sharing that knowledge.
It’s also still a standard way of ‘presenting’ an historic site, a city or a museum to the public, usually in the form of a guided tour, walking tour or highlights programme.
Unfortunately, participants on these types of walk-and-talk programmes will remember very little of the information they are told, less than 5% in fact. They will become exhausted (and sometimes irritated) by the non-stop flow of information. They might even leave your session, programme or tour, none the richer or wiser for the time they’ve spent with you.
So, even though you think you might be generously sharing the benefit of your knowledge, you’re actually achieving the opposite.
The fact that you, as a guide or educator, might have spent months or even years learning this information isn’t a good enough reason to empty the contents of your head onto a group of unsuspecting participants.
One of my favourite museum education articles that I go back to time and time again was written by Patterson Williams in the 1980s and is called Object‐Oriented Learning in Art Museums. I come back to this article again and again.
In it she says:
‘The primary aim of museum education must be to bring together people and objects, not people and information about objects.’
She goes on to say that programmes that deal ONLY in information-sharing are peripheral to the essential experience of the visitor, that of seeing, reacting to, and thinking about an object.
I agree. I feel that we sometimes place so much emphasis on the delivery of content, information or knowledge that we forget that we are also helping to develop skills in programmes:
observing and describing,
comparing and contrasting,
identifying and classifying etc.
I’ve been so pleased over the last 20 years to see many organisations (including museums) working hard at training their teams to lead interactive, inquiry-based programmes that involve the participants in conversation and discussion, which is great.
But what I’ve found is that they are not explicitly teaching their teams how to confidently use their knowledge in a more productive and strategic way – and by this I mean reducing the amount of information and knowing how to add it in small amounts or in response to a question.
And another thing I’ve noticed in the hundreds of Visible Thinking in the Museum method team trainings I’ve done over the years that the number one question I get asked is:
‘When can I share my knowledge with the group?’ ‘what is the best time to share the art historical or historical information?
So there’s definitely something going on:
we have many programmes still using the information dump or monologues
we have too much emphasis on content
and we have the educators (the ones delivering the programmes) asking me how and when they can share their knowledge
So, let’s unpack all of this.
OPEN AND THEMATIC PROGRAMMES
First of all, it’s important to make the point that there are two broad types of dialogue or discussion-based programmes out there :
The first type is an open programme: this is a programme where the dialogue is allowed to flow organically without limits. In an open programme: There is no fixed theme and therefore the limits of the sessions are open to the imagination!
These can be very rich and rewarding experiences. Open programmes are quite often slow looking or mindful looking sessions, Visual Thinking Strategy sessions – information might be shared or might not be. The emphasis is much more on personal connections and interpretations.
The second type of programmes are thematic programmes: where dialogue is framed by a theme – e.g identity, or nature or slavery.
Themes are common in museum and heritage programmes, and especially in guided tours etc – as they unify a programme. You choose a selection of artworks or objects that fit into your chosen theme. It’s important to note that on thematic programmes Information is very likely to be shared.
NB: all educators embrace a variety of methodologies and approaches to teaching. And they may use both of these types – open and thematic – in a more hybrid approach in a single programme.
Now if you’re working on a thematic programme, it’s safe to say that at a certain point you might want to share some information about the artwork or object you’re discussing – especially if it’s an educational programme linked to school curriculum or linked to a specific exhibition.
BUT HOW DO YOU SHARE THAT INFORMATION?
What are the best ways to share that information so that it’s memorable and engaging?
Knowing if, when and how to add information is key to fostering understanding and engagement on any of your programmes – whether it’s a guided tour, art discussion or educational programme.
Most people are likely to forget information when they are not challenged to think about it or when they are not given the opportunity to make connections between new and prior knowledge.
We know lecturing only leads to about 5% information retention – most of it will go in one ear and out the other.
We also know that people learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process, yet lecturing still exists.
After I left university my first job was as a Tour Manager. This was in the 1990s, and I was trained to spill out as much information as possible over the microphone of a coach and during walking tours all over Europe.
I was a ‘one-way drone fest‘ (as Nina Simon hilariously put it in a blog a few years back)
I had a lot of fun researching the content to share with my visitors and injected jokes, anecdotes and storytelling where possible, but on a coach interaction and audience participation is limited due to the logistics.
BUT I did wonder how much of what I told them they actually remembered when they returned home?
Later I worked in educational travel for a number of years and one of my responsibilities was to select, monitor and evaluate city guides in various European capitals (Amsterdam was one of them).
This was no-mean feat as city guides, especially those who have had to pass an exam to be registered, love to share their vast knowledge with you.
Unfortunately, the flow of this extensive knowledge was sometimes at such a fast rate and volume that participants, including myself, were left uninterested and bored.
No-one can concentrate on someone who is speaking ‘at’ them for that length of time. You just switch off.
I remember many conversations where I suggested to the guide in question that transmitting such volumes of information wasn’t working for our groups – who were mainly American school students on educational travel programmes.
Back then (and this was unusual) I suggested a ‘less is more’ approach – less information and more questions and activities.
The response to my suggestion was rarely positive – it was usually along the lines of ‘I have spent years learning all this information, therefore it’s my duty to pass on my knowledge’.
I know from my own experiences with groups in the museum and on guided tours that sometimes it feels easier to be on auto-pilot and than to learn how to invite dialogue and conversation into your programmes.
I have found myself in the same place, at the same time, saying the same thing. And it really bothered me. I didn’t like that feeling.
So, there is a delicate balance to be struck between selective inclusion of content and information overload. Include great content and great information by all means but don’t let your programme be dependent on it.
Put the focus on your participants (rather than yourself as the expert) and create participant-centered experiences that allow your groups opportunities for creative and critical thinking throughout.
It’s much MORE rewarding knowing that you will never repeat the same programme twice when you start working in a more discussion-based way.
You will never find yourself in the same place at the same time saying the same thing as no two programmes are ever the same.
And it gives a much better feeling when you know that participants will leave your programme with insights and knowledge that they will remember and memories that they will cherish.
I personally believe that we should think really carefully about what content is the most relevant to a particular group and if, when and how that information should be shared.
So, we need to think about how we can use the information and knowledge we have in a more productive and strategic way.
#1 DITCH THE LECTURE OR MONOLOGUE
So, let’s look at some best practices for sharing information:
The first rule is DITCH THE LECTURE or MONOLOGUE:
A long lecture or monologue is the worst way to deliver information to your group.
Your audience has no control over the pace of delivery
They can’t pause you so they can process and think.
And it won’t deliver any lasting learning. People will remember less than 5% of a lecture. Your participants won’t retain that information for any significant length of time.
Teaching is not telling – a familiar phrase but a useful one to repeat here. Telling people stuff is not an effective way to genuine understanding and it’s certainly not memorable.
So, talk less and get your group talking more. Make your programmes a lecture-free zone. Move from a monologue to a dialogue. Get interested in starting conversations, discussions and dialogues instead.
#2 LESS IS MORE
Don’t try and cram everything in: You may want to deliver ‘maximum value’, but that doesn’t mean you need to cram as much information into their heads as possible. Just because you know it, doesn’t mean you have to share it.
Avoid the big ‘info dump’ like the plague – you don’t want to kill their curiosity! You can see people’s attention and concentration start to fade as soon as you start monologuing.
Pay attention to body language for signs – are they looking away or down at their feet. Are they shifting around uncomfortably? These are signs that you might be losing the interest of the group
#3 ACTIVATE CURIOSITY
Don’t be tempted to share all your information at once.
When you mention something about a subject that someone is interested in or you spark a new interest, participants will instinctively want to know more. They will often ask a question to find out more from you.
You can also use visual aids to stimulate curiosity – show photographs, maps or objects to increase their interest in a subject or theme.
#4 TALK LESS
Talk Less: get your group talking & asking more
Think conversation rather than a presentation. Think dialogue rather than monologue. You are there to answer your group’s spoken (and unspoken) questions.
To draw people in, ask plenty of open-ended questions that encourage them to seek out their own answers— these are questions that cannot be answered with a yes or a no or a simple shrug of the shoulders. Listen to episode 4 and 10 if you’d like to work more on your questioning skills.
Ask people what they are wondering about, what they would like to find out more about or what questions they still have.
The aim is for you to talk less and for the group to ask you more.
#5 BE SPECIFIC
Make sure your information is specific to that group, that time and that place.
Don’t go off on tangents unless your group has asked about something that’s a bit off-topic.
Just because your enthusiasm and passion is for porcelain doesn’t mean you have to ‘treat’ your participants to an information download from your head when the programme is about other types of ceramics.
Keep it relevant. Share specific information for that specific type of programme.
#6 KILL YOUR DARLINGS
Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings. This can seem painful but it must be done. Eliminate any non-essential information,
work on what needs to be removed rather than what you need to add.
Ask the questions: ‘Is this essential to the theme of today’s session? Does this need to be said here and now?’
Is it relevant to today’s audience? What might be relevant to an adult might not be so interesting to a teenager, for example.
Patterson Williams, Object‐Oriented Learning in Art Museums
Nina Simon, Museum 2.0, 2010, Making Museum Tours Participatory