Gather ‘round, kiddies. Let me tell you a story. Grab yourself a sharpened willow branch and a marshmallow and settle in by the fire. Whoa! Not too close, Shea! You almost burned your seersucker suit! Everyone comfy? Great!
Many years ago, when I was still trying to convince my father that the Internet was not just a fad, I was invited to a local school’s “Envirothon.” Yes, it was the year 1998, and Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” was burning up the airwaves and a young man named Matt Damon had just won an Academy Award for co-writing the screenplay for Good Will Hunting with another actor, whose name I can’t recall.
Anyway, this school decided to have a mini environmental trade show. They invited environmental organizations, government departments, university biologists, and pretty much anyone else whose work related to the environment and phone number was within reach of the school’s Geography teacher. I was invited, since I had just started my own business delivering interpretive school programs and leading tours to local parks and other natural areas.
The school’s gymnasium was set up with massive trade show displays, and numerous classrooms were reserved for break-out talks and presentations. When I arrived at the gym, I felt a rock in the pit of my stomach. It wasn’t because of my scarred memories of Phys-Ed teachers throwing a ball at my face during sadistic games of Dodgeball. I was feeling anxious because I saw the incredible displays and technology being set up by some of the other invitees.
One particularly impressive display was set up by the Department of Natural Resources, the government agency in charge of provincial parks (translation for our American audience – Canadian provinces are like individual states, but with larger animals and fewer people, notwithstanding Alaska, which should have been Canadian). Their display had massive tradeshow panels, glossy brochures, and a whole row of computers with big beautiful tube monitors prominently displaying their website and a few other electronic resources for people to browse.
I stood there and looked at my display – some photos, a wolf skull, a wolf pelt, and a carousel tray of slides to show in the breakout room. My plan was to simply tell some good stories, and teach people how to howl like wolves.
I nervously set up my display in one of the break-out rooms and got ready for my presentation. Then, I stood in amazement when the crowds flocked to my tiny room to hear my modest wolf presentation. Over the day, I delivered four packed, standing-room only presentations. Tiny hands stretched out to feel the fur of a wolf. Ceiling tiles and florescent lights transformed into spruce crowns and sparkling stars as heads tilted upwards to howl. There were smiles, giggles, and family bonding.
At the end of the day, I was still in utter surprise that the government representatives stood alone by their moderately used computers all day, while crowds packed in to see my basic presentation and have a glimpse at something foreign to them. And, that’s when I had one of my first Oprah-level “Aha!” moments.
You see, technology is neat. But, unless you can show people something different than what they can do on their own, it won’t attract the crowds. Technology needs to show something new, give people access to things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. And, technology needs to be grounded in a captivating story. The massive, expensive trade-show display was poorly attended because it didn’t do anything special with that technology. A row of computers showing a website that everyone can just see at home does nothing to draw a crowd.
All that technology couldn’t compete with a few props, a great activity, and some captivating stories. But, where technology can be combined with these things, where media is used to support the story instead of replace it, and everything works together to create an experience – that’s where the magic happens.
Now, the water is at a boil, and it is time for some classic hot cocoa! Does anyone want more marshmallows?