Sunday, November 24, 2019
Talking Everyone Into Talking
The art of getting everyone in a room talking about the same thing has always fascinated me. Small group dynamics—whether concerning a small circle of friends, or a collection of people like a genealogical society, dedicated to the same nonprofit mission—may seem mystifying, but definitely can provide signals to the observant. I try to read those signals.
While I realize every genealogical society is different—each group has its own personality—it can be gratifying to create a catalyst to get a group of near-strangers talking about the same topic. Of course, we have an up side in that genealogists' eyes do light up when talking about family history discoveries. The key, though, is to break the ice and move beyond timid reticence over being the one who "goes first" to the point where everyone feels she has something interesting to offer to the group.
Our training company has developed what we call "ice breakers" to help bridge that gap from silence to sharing, so it was a natural step to apply that to a meeting of our local genealogical society last summer during our annual potluck meeting. That event, though attended by many of the members who join us every month for our regular meetings, is also open to guests—often, non-genealogically-inclined spouses of our members—introducing that awkward silence that comes with first-time meetings.
To get everyone talking, we borrowed an activity from our company's playbook, and developed a genealogically-related icebreaker game. In essence, we created a way for total strangers to gracefully circulate among the crowd with the purpose of getting to know something fun and interesting about each visitor's family history.
In retrospect, we realized that not only did attendees really enjoy the activity, but it got everyone talking about the game as well as about what they learned about each other. That result also inspired our board of directors to take a step forward: offer these fascinating people an opportunity to share their stories with not just one or two members, but with the entire membership in a formal presentation.
The inspiration for this next step came, thanks to an article by Montreal blogger, Gail Dever of Genealogy à la carte. While Ms. Dever certainly writes her genealogical news blog "from a Montréal, Québec point de vue," her comments in that article last April certainly cross-apply to genealogical societies across the border in the United States, as well. She wrote about how genealogical organizations can encourage future speakers to develop presentations by mentoring their members in this process.
I requested permission from Ms. Dever to reprint her April 29 post in our society's September newsletter—which she graciously granted us—and then inserted the editorial note that our society would like to schedule an upcoming session in which we would feature brief talks by four of our own members.
We called our event "A Genealogical Sampler" and scheduled it for our November meeting. With four very tentative speakers—after all, public speaking reportedly ranks highest among Americans' top fears—we lined up an evening of presentations which would provide a taste of four very different research paths. It could either be a bomb—I wondered about no-shows, both on account of lack of audience interest and speakers' cold-feet syndrome—or a great success.
Thankfully, our four intrepid speakers played to a full house this past Thursday evening, and provided fascinating details of their own families' stories. One audience member told me privately that, of course, she would be there; she loved hearing people's stories. Another concluded the evening with a request: can we turn this event into an annual tradition?
Family history researchers often have the reputation of being introspective, quiet souls—with one exception: give them an audience of like-minded people who thrill to the same details that inspire their work, and they often brighten up to the task, despite the specter of getting up to speak in front of a bunch of strangers.
Of course, I have to say I was relieved that each participant seemed happy with the outcome. It sometimes feels like an uphill battle to persuade people to get up and talk, even about their favorite subject. But going beyond those stage-fright jitters to share a story that means so much to one's own family can be enough of a motivator to encourage people to reach out and make a difference. By choosing to share their own story, our members in turn are inspiring others to take up the challenge to do the same next year.