Making Standards Your Own

This is the third instalment of a presentation I made at the Montreal NAI/IC Conference in May, 2015. You can find part one here.

Be prepared for a little conflict when embarking on a standards exercise.

sculpture face-to-face, Oslo

There are a few strong lessons I learned from the evaluation project, and I have applied them since to other initiatives.

First, be prepared to open a can of worms or two with the very concept of standards. If they’re not a part of the organization’s culture, they’re not going to be accepted easily overnight. Staff will react defensively. Consult with them on the standards from the beginning. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that anyone who is going to be held to a standard have a say in what those standards are. During this evaluation process, after the first round of evaluations, the new manager sat down with the staff to review the criteria. They ended up discussing them as a group, and collectively embracing them and committing to them going forward. I thought it was a brave thing to do, and it made a difference in their programs.

Involve your human resources department from the start, and your union if you need to. Be open and transparent and make sure anything you’re requiring of your staff falls easily within their actual job description.

Foster a culture of support and evaluation within your interpretive department right from the beginning. Staff should be evaluating themselves by these standards, and each other whenever possible. Post a copy of your program standards in your prop room, on your intranet, in your training manual.

Standards are only standards when they are consistently and equally applied.

It will be up to you as a supervisor to make sure everyone is held to the same standards at all times.

Staff can’t meet standards if they don’t have the training and tools and resources and support to do so. It doesn’t do much good to insist your staff be out there ten minutes before a program’s start, for example, if you’re going to hold them in meetings until five minutes before the hour.

Meeting standards at the first performance will be much easier if the supervisor has signed off on the program at the outline, script, and dress rehearsal phases. These are essential approval points.

Ensure there is recognition for staff who regularly meet or exceed standards. Make a fuss. Celebrate excellence.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that there must be consistently and equally applied consequences for those who don’t meet them. I chose the word consequences carefully; it certainly doesn’t mean punishment or discipline. When an interpreter fails to meet standards, the responsibility for that failure falls on management and staff equally. Were the standards not communicated? Did the interpreter not have the training or resources to meet them? What kind of a plan can you agree on together to allow the interpreter to get back up to standard? It becomes a discipline issue only after it becomes clear that employees have everything they need to meet standards, yet choose not to do so.

I would like to conclude by acknowledging that we have talked about standards in interpretation for a very long time; here in Canada various efforts to come to a national consensus go back to the mid-1990s at least, and standards have never been fully adopted. Having embarked on this particular exercise myself, I emerged more convinced than ever of the value of standards when placed within a constructive and positive program of performance support. I really do believe in them.

But I’m not hopeful about seeing standards for personal programming any time soon, national or international or otherwise. We are simply too comfortable without them. We are all complicit in the great big secret: the audience has no idea how much better it could be. The longer we keep that secret from them, the longer we can keep bobbing merrily along in our great big sea of average programs, buoyed up by the odd island of brilliance. Other aspects of our profession have progressed by leaps and bounds. Interpretive multimedia is light years away from where it was in the 1980s, not just in the technology but in the storytelling and emotional sweep and imagery. Interpretive signs and panels are slowly becoming more beautiful, more relevant, less tedious and less verbose. But by and large, we are still presenting the same calibre of personal programs that we did in 1982. They really haven’t evolved or improved much. I know; I was there.

I think we need to hand the job of evaluating our personal programs over to our audiences. We need to create a more discerning and critical market, and then we need to stand back and let that market do its job. It’s time for some client education. It’s time to get some difficult, intelligent feedback from our publics: if they hold us to higher standards, particularly with their feet and their wallets, I know we can rise to meet them.

We live in the age of the public online review. The restaurant industry is now held to strict account by apps with customer review functions. The cruise industry has with its dozens and dozens of increasingly-savvy reviews appearing daily. The tourism industry is kept on its toes by Google and Trip Advisor. What if we worked with sites like these? What if our role as professional associations were to partner with these organizations, communicating our standards to them, and allow them to promote them to their publics? What if you went on Trip Advisor, and when you chose to review an interpretive attraction, six good questions popped up, as suggested by NAI and Interpretation Canada: questions about the interpreter’s ability to use interpretive language, the interpreter’s ability to do things like start with hooks and end with calls to action? We’d have to start simply, and phrase questions that were meaningful to a tourist:

  • Guide was a good storyteller
  • The presentation gave me something to think about
  • I felt the presentation was put together with me in mind
  • The one main thing I really remember from this presentation is ____

It sounds far-fetched, I know. But surely if the public can be educated about the value of 300-count Egyptian cotton pillowcases over 200, we can slowly elevate the level of discourse about tour guides and other interpreters around the world. I honestly don’t think we will see our standards rise until we do.

Our audience has no idea how much better it could be. I think it’s time we told them.

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