Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Engaging Spectators

"Is that fire real?"

Photo credit: Jess Bruce
Back in February, I attended a brief class on historical interpretation at Jamestown. As a new volunteer for the site, I needed to attend a class on how Jamestown suggests that living historians engage and interact with the members of the public. My biggest take-away from that session was making your mundane, every-day task/gear/clothing relevant to the public. When I first understood that this was the point of the session, I reflected on how I teach in my high school classroom. It was much the same way--if I don't make the content relevant to my students, they won't care enough to stay awake.

Now, to be fair, reenactments are not classrooms in the usual sense of the word. Spectators also voluntarily spend money to attend; they're there to see a show and learn something. For that to happen though, we need to engage them, ourselves. Certainly, some members of the public will be outgoing enough to ask a ridiculous question like "is that fire real?" just to get the conversation started, but if you want to avoid that question and future embarrassment, be the one to initiate the conversation.

Engaging spectators is much like television ads. It has to be brief, entertaining, and relevant. Just last May (2015), Time published an article about how humans' attention span has dropped to eight seconds. You don't need to be a high school history teacher to notice this on a daily basis though. So how can you make a total stranger understand in a short amount of time why some complicated historical concept or artifact is important? You need to first make them connect with it.

Ask Simple Questions:

The truth is we ignore what we can't identify with (tell me this isn't true about today's American society). I see it in the classroom and I see it in politics. Here's a great way to make your history "lesson" come alive, in a way that I've personally tested in the classroom and at events:

Ask simple questions. This was something I picked up in my master's program for teaching as well as at Jamestown's training session. When you see a member of the public walking by your camp or your demonstration, create a discussion with them. The old "sage on the stage" model of relating information (think Ben Stein as the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) is no longer considered the most effective way to teach (surprise!). Instead of telling the spectators everything you know about the role of women in an 18th century military camp, try instead to hook them with a question and encourage them to apply themselves to your "lesson."

Photo credit: Helen Wirka
"Have you ever been camping before?" This question requires little effort to ask, but now I've hooked the spectator who was planning to stroll by my lean-to like they did for all those tents nearby. I made the spectator identify with my 250 year old camp. I just made the first step to establishing a personal connection. Most spectators have either been camping or have at least heard about it to understand the premise. It just helps me to bridge their prior knowledge of camping as a hobby to camping as part of an army.

When formulating questions for discussion, you should keep in mind the goal (what you want the spectators to get out of your short interaction) and the relevance (the connection to them). My goal while asking the camping question is to ultimately relate how French militia in the French and Indian War lived in a military camp. My relevance was camping as a pastime versus camping with the army. The "relevance" is a modern connection that is usually a common activity that people experience or have seen. From my training session at Jamestown, I realized that the "relevance" could also be a common emotion or motivation. When you have a moment, think about what aspects of the reenactment you want to talk to people about and what the relevant point could be. Almost every activity at the reenactment could be explained with modern parallels, but some examples of emotions and motivations to consider as your "relevance" include survival, greed, protecting family, hunger, power lust, etc.

Asking basic questions is an easy way to quickly grab the attention of a spectator since, by the nature of being a question, they know you're expecting them to deliver an answer. It's also a great way to mentally prepare the spectator to enter the imagined 18th century camp you so effortlessly entered Saturday morning. Finally, it provides you with a glimpse at what they may already know so you may work off that. There are certainly other ways to hook spectators and students, but I've found this method to be the easiest and quickest.

Great conversation-starter examples:
  • "Why do you think a farmer like me would need a gun?" could lead to a discussion on defending your family from frontier raids, hunting for survival, or opposing a tyrannical government.
  • "When might I need to wear this apron?" could lead to a discussion on cooking (since aprons are still used today) or other work that might otherwise dirty your clothing.
  • "What are some ways you know of or have used to start a fire?" could lead to a discussion on flint and steel, flintlock muskets, or cooking.
  • "Why do you think my friends and I are all dressed the same?" could lead to a discussion on uniforms (connected with sports teams or a job hat requires uniforms) and military life.
  • "Just looking at my setup, how might doing laundry today be different to how it was done 200 years ago?" could of course lead to a discussion on cleaning clothing before the use of washing machines.

Conversation-deterrer examples:
  • "What do you want to know?" usually leads the spectators to answer something like "I'm just looking around." What else should you expect when, chances are, they haven't learned anything yet to be able to ask questions on their own.
  • "Why do you think Cornwallis went to Yorktown?" Unless you told them the answer previously, the only ones who could answer this successfully are the Revolutionary War historians, and even then, that's a loaded question. They know that getting the answer wrong may be embarrassing, so they might not risk responding.
  • "Yes" or "No" questions: these usually don't go anywhere and they don't allow the spectator to share their experience and thus make the connection.

Keep It Simple:

I fall into this trap every so often both in teaching in the classroom and at reenactments. I get so excited while explaining historical strategies, for example, that I don't realize that I lost the attention of my students or spectators. Start a conversation by asking a simple question. Get the spectators hooked. Then gradually feed them information, remembering that they are trying to find how it could be relevant to them. If you start going off the deep end about cloth-covered buttons, you might lose your audience's attention. Describe concepts--the big ideas--and constantly ask them follow-up questions to keep them thinking and connecting (and remember, keep those questions simple, too).  Those follow-up questions can also be useful at gaging interest and how well you've been relating your information. You know you did it right when they start asking questions, themselves. That shows their comfort with the level of engagement you created as well as with taking the social risk that comes with asking a question.

So how can we as living historians encourage spectators to come back and learn the history we love so much? Make your information relevant, involve them through questions and discussion, create a comfortable learning environment, and keep what you have to say short and simple until they ask for more. Most importantly, and it should go without saying, be patient; that might even mean starting your conversation with "why yes, that is a real fire."


Have you tried any of this before? Did something not quite make sense? Please let me know what you think by writing a comment below.

Upcoming Topics:
  • The role of first-person interpretation
  • Making a 1716 kit


  1. Very interesting I have done this, both the right and wrong way, but now I will think about it

    1. Thanks for reading! If you give it another try, let me know how it goes.

  2. Great article! I find that engaging the public first preempts the "Is that a real fire" types of questions. Many urban/suburban raised folks simply have no vocabulary to start the conversation.

    1. Thanks Phil! That's the great thing about this style of "hooking" your audience: you get to start the conversation with a common language and shared experience.

  3. Nice article with some good ideas for conversation starters. Sometimes it just takes a smile and a "Good day" or "Hello" to the public walking by. We've all been to the events where reenactors seem to be ignoring the public. The visitors came to the event because they are interested in the time period/historical event/place. If they see we are open and willing to enter into a discussion sometimes that is all it takes. And then there are the events where kids are bussed in for field trips and need the kinds of questions you mentioned above.

    1. Thank you Erika! You know, I found that these questions, while simple and seemingly geared towards kids, work amazingly well with adults. They're always happy when they can easily answer a question, especially if they get to share something about themselves. Adults are just old kids.

  4. Very interesting to read. I like how you make connections from experiences teaching to reenacting.

  5. yes, the folks want a "story". Good starter questions.

  6. Good article Clayton.
    My favorite "go to" with public is can you buckle a shoe? and then simply unbuckle my shoe and hand it to them and present my foot.....
    an easy parlay into shoes and boot blacking...shoe care etc.

    1. Thank you Bridgett! That's another great example of asking questions to engage spectators, especially as you combine the question with an artifact. Thank you for keeping history alive!

  7. Excellent points are made. I would like to subscribe to your blog but it appears that I cannot. Did you do that purposefully?

    1. Hi Utah Josh, and thank you! I'm pretty new to blogs so I didn't even know about it. I just added a "Subscribe" button next to the "About Me." Thank you for the suggestion!