Friday, April 30, 2010

Getting comfortable

After having called in sick for my previously-scheduled volunteer day at the Edison Labs, I went back in this week for another full day. I have to admit I wasn't all that excited for some reason. Maybe it's because I'm still under the weather. Maybe it was the uncertainty of what I would be doing that day, and the discomfort of knowing I'm not as prepared as I'd like to be to respond to questions. Again, I'm my own toughest critic.

Once again, I was shuttled up to Glenmont to shadow the rangers on tour and at the potting shed/visitor center. From the first few minutes I spent with them down at the main office at the lab, I knew it would be a good day. Nice guys, great senses of humor and positive attitudes -- very easy to get along with.

This looked to be a busy day: four pre-arranged group tours in the morning, followed by four public tours in the afternoon. To make matters even more interesting, the morning tours were scheduled back-to-back, every half-hour, and one of them would possibly have the park superintendent along. My role? Help keep the group together, answer questions if I could, smile, and keep inquisitive hands away from the contents of the house. I'd spend the morning in the house with one ranger, and then head back to the potting shed and perhaps do one tour with the other ranger to hear his spiel.

After going on a total of five tours, I actually think I could handle taking the lead on my own. When I was there doing backup a few weeks ago, I was pretty overwhelmed by the depth of information the ranger guide was sharing about some of the furnishings in the house, wondering if I could ever remember them all. This most recent experience made me realize two things: first off, some of the rangers don't even know all of it (hence the handy notebooks in each room), and second, it's near impossible to cover the whole house in 30 minutes if you go into that level of detail. So... I might be more ready to lead one of these tours than I originally thought.

In many ways, the Edison experience is turning out to be more instructive than the Ellis Island activities. While I have more autonomy at Ellis, there's greater variety of activity at Edison, and seemingly more focus on the volunteers as a resource. (Granted the Ellis Island thing is a bit of a hybrid, given that I'm volunteering through Save Ellis Island.) In fact, one of the rangers took me aside before his tour to share his approach to working with visitors at Glenmont, and the methods he uses to make a connection for them. I'd also heard much of the theory during the training at Ellis Island a few months ago, but he gave me his personal view on why it's important and a successful approach for him. Pretty cool.

Still not sure what I'm going to do as far as touring, but volunteering is giving me incredibly valuable experience and perspective. I've got the mechanics of being the backup down pat, and I got the sense the rangers were glad for the help. The funny thing, too, is that I think I'm getting more comfortable with the public speaking part. As I've said before, I was a pretty lousy presenter in a business setting, but that was likely due to general disinterest in the topic. Now I don't have much of an issue with it. And after talking with a few people at both sites, I've come to realize that my usual fear -- getting the first five minutes of the tour under my belt without feeling like a blathering idiot -- is a pretty common one. In a lot of ways, it's like acting. You know what you need to say, you have to be engaging, but you need a little time to settle into your role.

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