You’ve experienced it – you’re sitting in the audience enjoying a pleasant presentation on something you’re interested in, when the speaker says something awkward and cringe-worthy. No, no, don’t go there! you think, but it’s too late, and the speaker has just alienated a significant portion of the people s/he wanted to influence. You want to smack your forehead with your palm, or melt into your chair with embarrassment for the presenter.
This was my experience several weeks ago. A seemingly likable fellow was beginning his exposition on something interesting in nature. He introduced himself first – an important move, as anyone who knows the cardinal rules of resource interpretation will impress upon you. You want the audience to feel connected to and comfortable with you. But then, like a bolt from a clear sky, instead of mentioning why he’s qualified to give the talk, instead of explaining why he’s passionate about the topic, instead of finding out the base knowledge of his audience, instead of relating an interesting opening anecdote, he decided to make comments about current political leaders, even proudly comparing himself to a controversial one as if it’s a badge of honor.
Ack! There was instant dissent – groans, muttered comments, shaking heads, nodding heads, smiles and frowns. Not the atmosphere you want to cultivate to enhance learning. Even the people who agreed with his assessments now had minds whirring about topics completely separate from, and distracting from, what he would be talking about. I found my own mind fuzzy and spinning, like the man had just slapped us with a noodle or something else bizarre, and it was hard to reel myself in to listen. In fact, I don’t think I completely succeeded, as my paltry notes reflect.
I thought I never want to do this to my audience.
Here’s one way to avoid this gaffe: don’t talk about politics if it has nothing to do with your presentation! Even if it’s related to your presentation, tread carefully. In polite southern society, this is drilled into us: don’t talk about religion or politics. Stick to the weather or sports, anything besides those other toxic, polarizing topics. And currently, is there anything more polarizing than politics? (I gather from several members of previous generations that politics have not seemed this divisive and unpleasant in decades….or ever.)
As interpreters and educators, we often tackle tough topics. Climate change. Human evolution. Slavery. Environmental policy. It’s hard enough to influence hearts and minds when interpreting uncontroversial material; why make your work harder by mentioning unrelated and divisive subjects?
In any attempt to educate, we must strive to find common ground with our audience, despite our differences. Tell the truth, but tell it in love and with understanding. Don’t poison your audience by bringing politics into your presentation. If your message is important enough to share, it’s important enough to share well.