Tales from the Workplace: On Being Wrong With Confidence

One of my many jobs when working for the Public Sector in Canada was, believe it or not, continuity announcer. This was at a historic military site which did twice daily shows of Victorian military drill or marching band music (alternating days). Those of us who didn’t do either, got to climb up a rickety ladder to an even ricketier crow’s nest with giant speakers, extract a binder of snappy descriptions of what the audience were seeing, and read those out over the microphone. If you were lucky, the drill sergeant would have told you the order of manoeuvres for the day. If you weren’t, s/he would just be randomising them, and you’d have to flip feverishly back and forth in the book for the descriptions, and hope you weren’t accidentally mistaking enfilading fire for form-fours.

Which is where I got a very useful piece of advice, from more senior people in the announcing trade: if you’re wrong, be wrong with confidence. Because you will make mistakes, or have to suddenly truncate a description, or have a page blow away in the wind, or similar, and the worst thing you can do is to stammer and stutter and sound like you don’t know what you’re doing. If you say it wrong, but with confidence, most of the audience don’t know there’s a screwup, and you can apologise to the ones that do later.

Fast forward twenty years, and it’s my first time reading out the names at Redbrick University’s graduation ceremony. I’m really, really worried about mispronouncing someone’s name, so I’ve been looking names up, asking colleagues who are native speakers of various languages how to pronounce things, and, in the final analysis, reminding graduating students that if they’re concerned about pronunciation, to please write a phonetic transcription on the little card that the attendant will pass to me with their name on.

The ceremony starts, and I’m reading off the names, and feeling more and more confident. I’m remembering pronunciations, and I’m helped by the fact that many of the students have written their names phonetically, and then I come to a card bearing the name: Jorje.

Which I know perfectly well is pronounced, to transcribe it for English speakers, “Horhey.”

And the student has helpfully written, above his name, “Horhey.”

But, unbelievably, and with confidence and gusto, I say:

“George.”

I looked for him after the ceremony to apologise profusely, but never found him. Jorje, if you ever read this, may I say that I am terribly, terribly sorry.

Life Lessons from a Tour Guide

If you had to ask me what has been the most useful job for me in terms of skills learned, I’d have to say the two summers I spent working as a tour guide at a (Victorian military) living history museum. Here’s what you learn from a job like that:

How to compartmentalise. Because if you’ve got back-to-back tours, you can’t be thinking about everything that went wrong on Tour One while you’re leading Tour Two.

How to deal with difficult people. Because if a guest is angry, or upset, or determined to ruin the fun for the rest of the tour, or coming out with an appalling remark about those members of the historical interpretation staff who aren’t white or male (those were rare, but they happened), you have to be able to respond calmly and cheerfully, but very firmly.

How to deal with difficult people (schoolchild edition). After a few tours I figured out that the trick is, identify the attention-seeking ones and make sure they’re getting attention. It can even be seemingly negative attention: they’re the ones who will actually love it if you “pick on” them to help demonstrate something, or make them stand in the corner of the Victorian schoolroom when running a pretend lesson, or similar, and the shyer members of the class get to giggle with relief that it’s not them.

How to deliver information in 45-60 minutes to a group of people of varying skills, knowledge levels, English levels and boredom. There’s a surprising amount of overlap between tour guiding and university lecturing.

How to deal with the unexpected. For instance: in one of the museum rooms, the German-speaking guides were encouraged to point out a picture of Prince Albert, ask if anyone knew who he was, and prompt them by saying he was the most famous German in the British Empire. Usually German-language tours didn’t know (one student suggested “Bismark?” which wasn’t a bad guess), but then came the tour who all chanted out his name, birthplace, pedigree and life history in unison. Turned out they were from Saxe-Coburg.

How to improvise. If you’re all set to take a tour into the soldiers’ living quarters, and one of the senior staff brushes by and whispers to you that you can’t do that bit because a schoolchild on the previous tour has vomited onto one of the beds, you’ve got to turn round without a blink and say, “I’m sorry, we can’t go into the living quarters, Sergeant Smith’s wife is having a baby, so let’s go visit the underground fortifications instead.”

How people deal with frame breaches. If a tourist happened to accidentally venture into one of the backstage areas (the office, the staffroom, or God forbid the locker rooms), they would inevitably make exactly the same joke about “the old Victorian computer system [refrigerator, hair dryer, whatever]” and wander out again. After a while I began to find the fact that they all used the same script rather interesting: I suspect that if they’d done the same at an amusement park, they’d just have said, “oh sorry”, but when you’re dressed up and performing, there needs to be that little extra layer of joking to make it right.

How to find fun. One of the best pieces of advice the guiding manual gave was to make sure you’re enjoying the tour yourself: if you’re not having fun, neither will the guests. So you have to get creative. Give different pieces of information in different ways. Develop narratives. Do improv drama with other staff members. At one point I wound up giving an impromptu chorus of Pirate Jenny’s song from The Threepenny Opera (long story, but it made sense in context). But it’s definitely true of just about everything that you need to find the fun in it– and that you can always find some way of locating, deriving or creating the fun.