Talking to the crowd
READING TIME : 3′
Two weeks ago I talked to an audience of ‘Active Seniors’ in a community hall in one of the suburbs of the city of Ghent about our project. The comfy polyvalent hall had small islands of coffee and cookies present, adorned with eager elderly seniors jabbering away about the weather. Arriving an academic 15’ early was cause for organizational panic number one. Lesson learned. With the elderly, you should arrive an hour beforehand or they tend to call in your absence to the local authorities as alarming.
The lecture was organized by the seniors themselves, zealously present with attendance stamps, money boxes and check-lists. It is to keep in mind that this is how they function. With pen and paper. Getting them enthusiastic about the digital archive, might mean brushing up your drawing skills and always arriving with a notepad.
I made my way through eagle eyes and walking sticks up to the table in front and the Macbook present. The friendly 15’ early were quickly filled with organizational panic number two. Not much different from starting your ordinary lecture, cables were switched to accommodate this PC user, microphones were tested, and at the latest lights and beamers were checked in a slow motion stroboscope event.
The chair of the ‘Active Seniors’ introduced the lecture with small announcements concerning taxi arrangements to the next walk in the woods and unfortunately the obligatory two minutes of silence for deceased members of their club. Feeling a bit out of place, I started the lecture with an appreciated joke about the sound. We did a minor sound check, so that the ladies in the back weren’t tempted to start the cookies early and leave me talking to the front rowers. In the course of the lecture, I kept an eye out for that back row, checking tiny agreeing responses to the things I said and adjusting the microphone accordingly if I noticed nodding off. Although, that apparently can happen simply on the second row as well.
I started the presentation with a simple introduction of myself as a researcher within a university. These are the kind of simple questions you need to answer first; who are you? What do you do? I adjusted my nervous efficiency speaking voice and paced down to about a tenth of my talking speed. For the historical part, I used the metaphor of a walking tour; guiding them through the city. I kept the language free of in-crowd terminology or academic jargon. Theory was abolished and history simplified to ready-to-eat dates and the anecdotal name-dropping. The story was meant to ignite the memory spark, not to justify my historical background knowledge, which could make master students fall asleep given the appropriate librarian tone. The PowerPoint presentation was almost a hundred slides, but purely based on visuals; photographs from the digital archive on the cinemas, the audiences. Someone once told me that listeners are more concentrated if that is what you ask them to do, to listen.
I timed the part on the lost cinemas of Ghent to 40 minutes, at which point I kindly suggested a break. Twenty minutes of small talk, tab water and a breeze of fresh air, I continued the presentation on the memories themselves, with a focus on how cinemas were remembered. The crowd got to the tip of their chairs when in the end it finally concerned the movies. It occurred to me that the movies themselves still spark the contemplative oh’s and ah’s. As if to tell me that I should never forget that talking about bricks and stones should never make me forget the magic of Don Camillo, Rhett Buttler or the shouted ‘Sissi’. I recommend you to simply ask them to shout out what they think the number one remembered movie of the 1950s is. Feel free to be flabbergasted.
I ended the second part of 30 minutes with a call for participants. Coming home I realized that that probably wasn’t the best pitch I ever did. One tends to think you need to talk about architects and closing dates of neighbourhood cinemas after a metaphorical historical walk like that.
But the next day I received a thank you e-mail from the ‘Active Elderly’ about the lecture. That is was so well brought, the story, the tone. And contact information for possible participants. It tends to warm the heart.