Are We Bored Yet? Giving the Effective Animal Chat
Coordinator of Volunteers, Central Park Zoo, New York, NY
Volunteer zoo docents are regularly called upon to give at-exhibit talks. At the Central Park Zoo, the at-exhibit talk is called a “chat.” Those who have a fear of public speaking tend to shy away from doing chats / talks in favor of doing the more informal “roving interpretation.” When doing roving interpretation docents politely interject themselves into visitors’ conversations and / or stand by to answer visitors’ questions. This is chatting with visitors but it is very different from giving a chat.
Volunteering at the zoo should be fun and yet a significant number of volunteers at the Central Park Zoo were not enjoying doing chats and were, in fact avoiding them. Other people were having a great time doing chats, but their chats were too long or boring or disorganized. The goal then was to rework the chats making them easier for the volunteers to deliver.
The Encarta dictionary defines a chat this way: “to talk with somebody in a relaxed informal way.” This term was specifically chosen with the hope that it would be less intimidating to the volunteer with a fear of public speaking.
There is a danger to be aware of in using the term “chat” – it fails to connote structure, and an at-exhibit chat definitely needs a certain format at the very least a discernable beginning, middle and end.
According to Sam H. Ham’s book, “Environmental Interpretation” these are the qualities of a good talk / chat – “¼ they’re interpretive; they’re entertaining to their audiences; they present information in a way that makes it meaningful and relevant; and they’re well organized around a central theme with five or fewer main ideas.” Docents everywhere would basically agree with this at least in concept but less so in practice.
Delivering an entertaining chat with one theme, and which consists of five or fewer points requires discipline. Some volunteers think that this kind of structure, frankly “cramps their style.” So what are the benefits?” and “Can this structure accommodate different personalities and styles?”
The premise of the themed chat espoused by Sam Ham is that people learn information better when it is presented in an organized manner, stating a theme and including only ideas things that advance that theme. It stands to reason that this statement is as true for the speaker as it is for the audience. If the chat is brief enough it will be more manageable for the volunteer to learn and less intimidating to deliver. If such chats are submitted for approval, then supervision is applied and consistency in delivery and quality control is achieved as well.
This structured chat can accommodate a number of different personalities and styles. Because it is so brief it can, in essence, be memorized and then spoken in a person’s own words. The structure actually allows freedom because it can so easily become part of the person.
The briefness of the chat allows the audience to keep on moving. The audience is a volunteer audience and is on the move. The brief chat precludes time to get bored and allows for the brief attention span of the visitor out relaxing and enjoying. But for those who are absolutely fascinated to learn more, it is possible to chain together several chats, each on a different theme with questions and answers in between. This allows for part of the audience to move on and another group from the audience to remain longer.
Before proceeding any further, it may help if you the following example.
Theme: Arctic foxes can stay warm even in an extremely cold climate
Prop: Jar of Artic fox winter fur
The arctic fox lives in the far north, near the North Pole, where the winters are very long and bitterly cold. But this
fox has special adaptations that keep it warm and comfortable.
His fur is the warmest and densest of any land mammal. The fox doesn’t get cold or shiver until the temperature is 50F.
If you’ve been through a New York winter, you probably know how important it is to keep your fingers, toes, nose and ears warm. So what do you do? That’s right – you buy mittens, boots, earmuffs and scarves. But the Arctic fox doesn’t need these things because its small legs, muzzle and ears make it easier for his body to retain heat and keep those parts warm.
Just like you, the arctic fox likes to sleep with a cozy warm blanket in the cold. But his blanket is his tail. When he leeps, he curls up and tucks his face, legs and feet under him. Then he covers it all with his furry tail.
The arctic fox has one more trick to help keep him warm- hair on the soles of his feet. Very few mammals have this, but it helps keep those paws warm and makes walking on ice easier.
Though arctic foxes live in one of the harshest and coldest environments on earth, the special adaptations of their paws, legs, muzzles, ears and tails make life easier for them.
The above example contains all the characteristics of an effective chat. The volunteer has a prop to show. The chat has a beginning a middle and end. It is organized. It is short. It is personal and entertaining.
The one thing that will attract a visitor to come and listen to a chat is the prop they see in the volunteer’s hand. Every effective chat has a prop.
The chat is organized around one theme, which is stated both at the beginning and at the end. This helps the listener
comprehend each of the statements quickly and remember them better.
“Just like you¼” is an example of a phase that helps the listener related personally to the material being presented. Can’t you just picture yourself all bundled up with earmuffs, gloves and scarves in the middle of winter? And then can’t you just imagine an Artic fox with its extremely dense fur, all curled up and tucked in and covered with its blanket of a tail?
And there’s no need to cramp your style. Any volunteer can take this chat, semi-memorize it and then deliver it, in essence, using his or her own words. Following the chat they can answer visitor questions. When a new audience comes by, the chat can be repeated with more questions and answers. This cycle can take place over and over again.
Alternatively the volunteer can give another chat about Artic foxes that strikes a different theme, i.e. Did you know that Arctic foxes love eating leftovers? The more themed chats about a given animal that you have in your repertoire,
the more adaptable you can be especially if there is an animal behavior going on in the exhibit right behind you. Just
pull the appropriate chat out of your “hat” and use the animal’s behavior as your prop.
Ham, Sam H.: 1992. Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets.
North American Press, Golden, Colorado.