Wednesday, November 28, 2012

a warm feeling

Helped at the new RASC Toronto Centre welcome desk run by Sharmin. And it was fun. And effective.

We set up a table in the Proctor and Gamble Great Hall. Underneath Cloud. Nice.

It had never occurred to me. But it was a brilliant idea. The typical spot for the welcome (or hospitality) table in the past, in the first meeting I ever attended in fact, was inside the "foyer" of the Imperial Oil Auditorium, inside the curved concrete channels flowing around the lecture hall. In that space, it is easily missed. The new visitor walking to the end of the bridge has no idea where to go. If we're lucky, we have our signs up. The new signs designed by Jason. The new wonderful signs that require special stands. With the large movable direction arrows as recommended by Tony. If that visitor knows what to look for, we're OK. But the new person could get to the end of the hall, look left and right, and due to sight lines not see a human. Not hear anyone. Sharmin, setting up at the end of the bridge and having volunteers around the welcome table, created a visible target from the beginning of the bridge! People know, right away, they are going the right direction.

And the more I thought about it, staying out of the foyer space, solved other problems: dense congestion from people milling, slightly awkward proximity to the washrooms, a small, possibly claustrophobic, cold space. Unable to avoid "too many people" for the possibly nervous new visitor.

Very smart.

With Tanya and Sharmin, we received people as they emerged from the bridge.

Immediately, however, I was uncomfortable! The thought of walking up to everyone and greeting them was not something I wanted to do. I don't know why exactly. Not my nature. I can do it. Yes. But it requires a lot of energy. The right kind of energy. Some psycho-emotional power. To be bubbly and friendly and receptive and, well, welcoming. Not the kind of energy I have in abundance at the best of times. Not a lot now.

But, what mitigated this, somewhat, was—remarkably—the handout. Charles's meeting handout. The thing that I have been harping about for months. Years. That I regularly make noise about. Which I reiterated at strategy planning meetings. That I talked about, way back when (Jan 2010, the start of the IYA) in my train-the-trainer Presentation on Presenting. That we must have, at every meeting, a takeaway. Something for people to take home. To look at. To remember us by.

The handout!

I love handouts. Sure, some may say it is wasteful. Not green. Consuming paper at every meeting. Wasting paper. In this modern era. In the internet era. Smartphones everywhere. QR codes. When all the information is already online. And people can just look it up for themselves. And, if they want, on their printer, with their ink or toner, print it, at their expense. It can be considered very wasteful when viewed from the perspective of the existing, active member. Who regularly attends the meetings. Do they need the handout? No, not really. They already know where to get the information. They're already dialled-in. And they may employ some efficiency too; they won't go after data they don't want. If they don't attend city or dark sky observing gatherings, they can ignore that.

But I've never worried about the existing members. I'll admit that some may receive the handout, take it home, perhaps even put it somewhere prominent, and never look at it again. So, yes, there's some waste. Into the recycling stream. Perhaps. Or the landfill. Some expense. Whatever the cost of photocopying, per sheet. Or laser printing, per sheet.

All that said, time and time again, I see members responding positively to the handout. When I've provided handouts for my presentations, people have always been very thankful. When I've provided the general meeting handout, everyone wants it. It is rare that one refuses it. And I often see people looking at it, reading it, at meetings. I've often raised this when people question the value of the handout. It really struck me recently when I looked closely at a photo taken of the audience in the auditorium, taken from the stage, wherein I noted several members looking at their handout. Proof. I'm not makin' it up!

But, again, it's not them, I'm thinking of. It's not the existing member I'm really considering. It's the new person. The first-time, or maybe second-time, visitor. Someone who's heard about RASC. Or is getting interested in astronomy. Or wants to buy a telescope. Or just got a telescope. The NOVA people we "bring across." Someone in the science or astronomy community, coming to see and hear the speaker. It is the non-member. The handout is essential for the non-member.

The incredible useful handout. Cheap. Chock full of information. Critical.

Having that handout made this new welcome role interesting, fun, doable for me. It gave me a reason to walk up to someone I didn't know and start talking to them. It was the ice breaker. It was common ground.

A hand, outreached.

Something I hadn't thought about a lot but recognised it as soon as I saw it, is that the handout also offered an out. An escape. A way for a minimal acknowledgement. The person receiving the handout had a lot of latitude and it made it their choice. Their decision. If they were comfortable with it, comfortable with the rendezvous, it opened the door. They could ask their immediate questions. Or chat. Start a dialog. But if they didn't want to talk, if they were not ready to engage, they didn't have to. Handout received. All they needed to do was say, "Thank you," and move on. They were free.

I really liked this context. I wasn't under any pressure. I did not have to engage them. I could read their body language. Watch if they lingered. Leave them alone. Not pressure them. Off you go. And they were grateful.

For those receptive, I could take another step. "First time?" And chip away at the ice some more. But then, at that point, I was on firm ground.

Funny, those first moments are the difficult ones.

It was good connecting with the visitors this way. It was working.

And then we ran out of handouts! And it all changed. I felt strange, standing there, empty-handed. Now, once again, I did not feel comfortable.

I don't know how it happened exactly but I suddenly realised where I could get more handouts. A moment of inspiration. I ran into the auditorium and sequestered sheets from people. Our long-time members. Those who I knew wouldn't mind. Couples with two. I drummed up 10 or dozen or so. Not enough, I knew. But better than nothing.

The numbers were askew admittedly. We were getting way more people tonight. It was our speaker! Despite estimates, we ran out. Again. With the last couple of sheets in hand, I experienced another dynamic. Unexpected. Disquieting. I wanted to ensure the handouts went to the new people, those I didn't recognise, versus known members. And that created a those-who-have and those-who-have-not situation. Possibly worse than nothing at all. OK. Now I was not feeling good. But, essentially, I was saved by the bell. It was close to 7:30. Time for the meeting to start. I asked Sharmin to be released. And I scampered away.

The really great outcome of all this, was connecting with people in need. Sharmin had anticipated some of the issues. Had her notepad and pen ready. And it all worked. I met very new member and NOVA participant Helen. She wanted to explore benefits of her new centre. Get more involved. She wanted to get connected on the Yahoo!Group. "You're talking to the right person." We walked over to the table, took up the notepad and pen, and Helen gave me her info. Mission accomplished. Another mission accomplished. This time, one I could directly see through to completion.

I felt good helping bring to life one of the key ideas from the strategic conference.

Funny. Helping at the new welcome table... Floodgates opening. All these thoughts. And a prevailing one: we're on our way to being a better centre.

Three cheers for Sharmin.


Anonymous said...

Am I to believe that you are not bubbly, friendly, receptive or welcoming when you do your computer training????
Man, those feedback questionnaires must really sting then.

bla said...