When I was a young boy I spent every free hour wading in the Town Branch, a local stream near my home in Vandalia, Illinois. I was looking for crawdads, my favorite critter in nature, but I studied everything else that turned up around them. Tadpoles, minnows, turtles and mud puppies were always fun encounters while crawdad hunting. My mother was accustomed to finding buckets with murky water at our home with an aquatic animal brought home for closer study. I sold the tiny “creek lobsters” to bait stores and invested the income in aquariums and seine nets. I knew I wanted to be a biologist when I grew up.
I’ve told that personal story many times as an introduction to a new group in training. It often causes others to talk about their first passions in the outdoors. I first heard of “personal stories” as a training technique from Disney trainers in their leadership seminars in Orlando, Florida. They emphasized how important those were in building a culture of personal communication. The stories tell much more than one incident. They begin a conversation with a guest or new acquaintance based on common interests and our sense of wonder in the world.
Personal stories have some very specific values in a natural or cultural heritage site.
1. Personal stories empower all employees to share why their work matters to them.
2. Sharing stories creates a culture of communication and caring.
3. Emotional connections are more accessible through personal stories.
4. Stories make each employee feel valued for their personal life experience.
5. The stories reveal ideas and insights from those who know the place best.
After sharing a personal story, a maintenance worker who attended the very first Certified Interpretive Host course we taught in east Texas commented, “This is the first time in 25 years in this park that I feel like a member of the professional staff.” He told stories about his interest in Caddo Indians and his flint knapping hobby to demonstrate how Native Americans made tools and weapons. His supervisor said he had known this worker 25 years but had been unaware of his employee’s passion for native lore. Most workers at parks, zoos, museums, aquariums and historic sites have deeply rooted interests in their jobs. Encouraging all to share a personal story briefly is another way to connect visitors to places, events and people. And we learn more about people with whom we work.
– Tim Merriman