I had my first chance in a long time to brush up my public speaking skills yesterday when I stopped by the Global Habitat Festival – Vancouver’s Live Earth event – to help with the Free Geek Vancouver booth. Considering how rusty my skills were, I question how much help I was, but I enjoyed the experience enough to stay a couple of hours later than I had planned.
In past episodes of my life, I’ve staffed all sorts of booths, including displays at open houses in university, a brass-rubbing demonstrations at a Renaissance fair, and exhibits at trade fairs for several different companies. In all of them, my teaching experience has helped me through. My between-degrees stint in a mall book store was even more to the point, since staffing a booth involves briefer, more one-on-one contact than even the most interactive teaching.
However, for the last few years, I’ve worked mostly from home, aside from teaching a few technology courses, so yesterday I had a hard time getting started. Observing just the right time to approach someone takes practice: you don’t want to pounce on them, but you don’t want to hold back so long that they walk away with unanswered questions, either. And at first I was diffident, not because talking in public or to strangers bothers me in the least, but because I could feel how awkward my skills were.
Fortunately, I and the other volunteers had the example of Ifny LaChance, one of the Free Geek coordinators to learn from – and, eventually, to shame us into action. I can only describe Ifny’s approach as putting her whole personality and attention behind talking to passersby, chatting and exchanging introductions in a friendly and unobtrusive way. Observing closely, I thought I could see the effort she expended, but her approach definitely drew people into conversation (despite the booth being directly behind the stage and the frequency with which bands made conversation impossible).
I was feeling more at ease, especially when I realized that I wasn’t the only first-time volunteer, but definitely still warming up when I and a couple of others were left alone at the booth. Necessity forced me to push myself more than I felt entirely ready for, but the choice was measuring up or fleeing in panic. For my own self-respect — to say nothing of my wish to live up to expectations, I stayed. I soon started feeling comfortable enough to enjoy what I was doing, and to find my own style of drawing people out, including a store of stock phrases for the most common questions I heard.
Probably because so much of my recent relevant experience centers on interviewing people, I found that the style that worked best for me was following the lead of those with whom I talked, drawing out what interested them until I saw what information or direction they wanted the most.
Unlike Ifny, I tended not to ask for names, although perhaps I might have encouraged more volunteers to sign up that way. But I felt obliged to be especially restrained in talking to female passersby, just to make sure that my approach wasn’t misinterpreted as a more personal interest. In the past, I don’t think I was so aware of that necessity. And I was pleased that I was using more eye contact and taking more care to draw in everyone in a group than I used to.
I was helped by the fact that the booth was design so that those staffing it had to stand in front it, rather than hiding behind the bulwark of a table, as so many of those at the festival did. Lacking such a defense, I had no choice but to engage people.
However, I’m still more comfortable on the free software and education questions than the recycling ones. Fortunately, the indignation that many people felt when they saw the photos of the unsafe conditions in which computers are broken down in China and Nigeria were more than enough for a conversation in most cases.
Still, despite my lack of practice, I think I managed to conjure up a ghost or two of my former ability. When I’ve dealt with the public in the past, there’s always been a sense of rightness flowing from me when I was connecting, and yesterday I was actually feeling an echo of that feeling by the end of the day. Even with my legs feeling the strain of standing on concrete for six hours, I was tempted to stay longer.
I didn’t show up for personal gratification, except that which comes from helping a good cause in a small way. Still, I was gratified to see that my old skills had merely been dormant, and not lost altogether. They’re a little lower key now than they were, but I think that, with practice, they should be just as effective as my former repetoire.
Next time, they may return more easily – provided, of course, that I don’t wait too long for the next time.