Don’t Poison Your Audience With Politics

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.

Field Notes Friday 0033: A Realization and Encouragement

This realization has already helped me, and may help you. So of course, I want to share.

Bird banding log

Bird banding log and restored savannah behind it

It started to dawn on me when I listened to Dr. Jim Bednarz speak to the Dallas Audubon Society this month. He detailed his research in the Galapagos, an exotic location I’d be honored just to visit. He focused on the Galapagos hawk and its unusual polyandrous breeding arrangement, including what evolutionary pressures could lead to such an arrangement and how the size of male harems affects each individual’s fitness (survival and reproduction).

Dr. Bednarz did a stellar job making his research come alive; striking photos and interesting anecdotes wrapped around the scientific steps of creating a hypothesis, gathering data, celebrating being wrong and revising hypotheses… and gathering more data. Data, data, data. As the photos flashed before my eyes, I saw similarities with another study I’m occasionally able to participate in (and which Dr. Bednarz consistently does): the Winter Sparrow Site Fidelity Study at LLELA. In the Galapagos, the researchers caught, banded, measured, measured, and measured the hawks again. Data. And the researchers returned, year after year. I think the study spanned 6-8 years. Data, and more data, and details, and time.

And at LLELA, I’ve felt the excitement of flushing sparrows toward mist nets in the prairie, the pressure of writing data for multiple birds simultaneously, as well as the monotony of making the rounds to find empty nets. I’ve seen the enlivened team when there are multiple catches, and disappointed participants when the ‘pickins are slim’. And I realize: a successful researcher is tenacious. There is a process. There are steps. There is information to be gathered, there are good days and bad days, and one must persevere.

I’ve long admired the brilliant insight of naturalists like Darwin and Wallace, the adventurings and pluck of Mireya Mayor, and the discoveries and positive influence of Jane Goodall. But all I’ve gotten to see or study are the highlights of their lives: the big ideas, the results of their influence, the excitement and danger of travel… the director’s cut, really. I forget that there were hours spent with a magnifying lens or microscope, crawling at (truly) a snail’s pace on hands and knees to get a closer look at something, hours poring over books and maps. Hours of journal time, noting the tiniest changes in the subject. Hours of staring at the subject. Hours, probably, of recording seemingly unimportant numbers. Data.

So I revisited the sparrow study and took this photo.

And in my journal, I wrote:

MAYBE

SCIENCE

is a slow process

made of tiny mundane steps

leading to short, rare bursts of insight.

I need to adjust my desires and expectations.

I find this new perspective uplifting and affirming. The little moments you and I spend in detail work, perhaps feeling like we’re making no progress or not contributing to humanity’s knowledge, all add up. Keep on keepin’ on.

KeepOnTruckin

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Field Notes Friday 0030: Monarch Day!

It was a day of Monarchs! I’ve never seen a migration like this… or rather, I never knew to look up at the right time before.

The actual journal page is below, but I know how my handwriting is, even when I do my best to slow down and smooth out the curves… so here’s the transcript/translation:

Social media CAN be used to reconnect people with their nature! Before I got out of bed (it was SO COLD this morning! We slept with the windows open and it dipped into the upper 40s), I checked Facebook. Both Suzanne & Michelle had commented on monarchs flying through their backyards/are (in Fort Worth). So I kept my eyes open [throughout the day], and HOLY COW! As I approached LLELA, I saw ever-thickening numbers – at first I was delighted with one, but then 15 in as many minutes… and this gave way to 150 in an hour and I lost count! They seem to be using the area just South of the dam as a highway, flying East to West. The only two or three times I saw them deviate was when a couple circled each other or a dragonfly chased one. (about 2.5 / min or 5 every 2 min)

There is something sacred and special about feeling a part of something as epic as this journey of thousands of miles. To be witness – to be graced with a canopy of monarchs – to see beauty and fragility but know it belies strength and tenacity – to finally be awake and aware enough to see how grand nature’s stories are – I am honored to be this awake, and indebted to those who have made the invisible visible by studying this incredible… being.

Monarch Day

Dad got to see it, too – he surprised me and showed up to see what the Dutch Oven Club is all about. Then we walked to the Homestead. SEeing monarchs, and honey locust, and a few other items of interest caused him to say ‘now I remember what I enjoyed so much about Lufkin.’ His family used to visit the grandparents every summer, I think.

Field Notes Friday 0029: Sisters of the Eclipse

The clouds low on the Southern horizon were like a gathering army, visible only once illuminated by the premonition of sun. They invaded when the sun rose, never spoiling the view.

One of my latest Field Notes entries was more flowery than usual. The florid words were inspired by an early, chill morning, an amazing astronomical sight, and being graced by the company of like-minded naturalists who were dedicated to seeing something powerful in nature… regardless of losing sleep, enduring a tough climb (not to mention the descent), and facing the unknowns of a new location and the dynamics of a group of people who are just starting to know each other. We were watching the October 8 eclipse, which was awe-inspiring. I’m grateful for their company and glad to share my experience here.Sisters of the Eclipse

Continuing from my field journal:

My spirit bird* soared over us after the sun lightened the Eastern sky, but hadn’t yet appeared… (turkey vulture)

Int the dark turning dusk, a ladybug landed on my spread sleeping bag…. I was surprised to see it so early.

The air was still and warm till 6am, when a stiff breeze whipped the warmth away from my body… even though the breeze was warm.

We bonded on top of that tall climb, wanted to dance and sing at full eclipse, raised our arms to the wind and the rising sun…

And Cynthia says her name means moon.

As we stood on top of the dam, 125 feet up after a long climb, a dark morning, feeling like dancing and singing to the moon and finally seeing the sky turn bright and colorful, Susie said she feels the world would be a calmer, better place if more people saw something of this awe and beauty every day. Kris ventured ISIS as a juxtaposition… and I wondered if [ISIS members would] be where they are today if someone had shown them the beauty of calm and surrender and loving this world and its creatures. Maybe I can help make the world a better place – by helping people be more calm and introspective.

Some of my pictures are here on my Facebook page (although don’t expect astro-images until I get permission from friends to share their photos. Mine are much more earthly).

* I feel the need to explain that this is not an animal that came to me in a vision after a spiritual quest; I use “spirit bird” to mean the animal that makes me feel elated, makes my “spirits soar” every time I see it.

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P.S. One of the Eclipse Sisters herself just shared this photo! This is totally how I felt.Eclipse sisters from Diane