Wednesday, June 17, 2009

speaking situations: tour guide

Could you talk me through your workplace? Meet your customers--your most avid customers--face-to-face and handle their random questions? Asking employees to serve as tour guides, particularly in factory tours, is a trend that's opening up public speaking opportunities for women. Last week, I made a pilgrimage to the Martin Guitar Factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania--as thousands do each year--to see firsthand how these revered acoustic guitars are made. Debra Davidson, pictured at left, turned out to be a thoughtful and engaging guide to the factory, precisely because she's a line worker there, on the sanding line (see photo below). Here's what I noticed--and learned--about Davidson's tour delivery that makes sense for any speaker:
  • Listening to your audience should shape your speaking: At Martin, the guides learn to ask the audience questions at the start to establish rapport and gauge who's on the tour--much as I recommend any speaker do with a live audience. Davidson asked us whether any of us played guitar, owned a Martin or was attending a bluegrass festival in town that weekend. Then she made all that a shared experience, telling us that, while she didn't play, her father and son did; that she was a longtime "bluegrasser" with family members whose car had been stuck in the mud at the festival before; and which Martins her father favored and why.

  • Training helps you prepare and focus your delivery: Turns out Davidson and other employee-guides had gone through a theater improv training the week before my tour, according to Martin's training department. Martin sets competencies for tour guides that include interpersonal skills, knowledge of the process and corporate facts, and handling tour logistics, and would-be guides go through a variety of training experiences--including going on others' tours--before they're ready to lead one.

  • Speaking from your perspective beats a script, every time: As a sander herself, Davidson's perspective was useful when we got to this mesmerizing sight: A sanding robot. Someone wondered whether that displaced workers' jobs (we'd already seen round-one hand-sanding by her coworkers). She pointed out that the robot--which replaced a hand-held 9 lb. sanding machine wielded by workers--had saved a lot of people from carpal tunnel problems, a sliver of knowledge that an overly scripted speech wouldn't have allowed. Martin guides are discouraged from giving the same tour as their colleagues, and so your tour experience will vary depending on whether you get an expert luthier (guitar-maker), CEO Chris Martin IV (who sometimes gives tours), or someone from the sanding line.

  • Genuine answers work best with a crowd of questioners: Martin knows that many of its visitors, though not all, are owners, customers and aficionados, some of them highly skilled players and owners. In our group, a Martin owner noted that many guitarists wonder whether the strings have changed in quality since they moved that part of the operation to Mexico. Davidson offered to put that into the company's suggestion box. If she didn't know an answer, she'd say so--still the best approach for any speaker.

Martin training manager Joan Zachary (who very kindly shared information on the company's tour training effort) noted that the factory has begun to recruit guides from all departments, to ensure it keeps up with its production goals. If you're offered the chance to do something similar at your company--from an outreach day or tours to school visits--it's a great way to learn public-speaking skills and build the experience that leads to eloquent speaking, one of the best professional development opportunities you can get.