I did it! I brought John Wesley Powell to life for folks who had never heard of him before. I am a happy ranger.
My first “patio talk” on the front porch of the visitor center last week was stressful. I had too much information and not enough structure, and the WOW transition I had planned was a complete failure as I had forgotten that there is no wireless signal there. Other than that, it went okay, but I knew what I had to do for the second time.
My boss would dress in disguise and take coaching notes this time around. I had prepared my outline in vibrant color-coded marker, and it was by my side all morning as I memorized my prompts for the 1:30 talk. At 1:28 I am still having trouble rounding up an audience. Everyone is either in a hurry, disinterested in a man with an unfamiliar name, or worried about the bad weather to the west. My boss sidles up and takes a seat on the benches… and, magically, others begin to fill in. I will have an audience.
Taking a deep breath, and with only a sidelong glance at my clipboard, I launch out. My theme statement, “The thrill of discovery compels courageous men and women to take incalculable risks,” infuses my talk with structure and purpose. I present the opening question and aim for the introduction of a man few people knew. Painting a colorful picture is easy with Powell; the audience willingly follows me into my first element, and then the second and third, as I spin tales of discovery, daring, and disaster.
I am careful to err on the side of whetting their appetites rather than overwhelming them with an avalanche of facts, and I purposely leave out some details to pique their curiosity. I want them to start asking themselves questions — and if they come up to me to inquire afterward, I’ll know I succeeded. The all-important sound bite of the Apollo 11 lift-off is my critical transition to current-day exploration, and when I reach that point, my listeners are riveted. Looming black clouds set a somber backdrop as the countdown proceeds.
Fifteen people are now (as Karen later described) putty in my hands. I have successfully made intellectual and emotional connections for them, linking 19th-century feats with 20th-century exploration. I have built a bridge for them between what happened in Canyonlands 141 years ago and what they are experiencing today in the park. The resource now has expanded meaning, attachments with history that they can grasp.
We are told that our conclusion must be powerful enough to stand on its own, ringing like a large bell, obviating the need to end with a lame “thank you for coming.” The wind starts to pick up as I build to the emotional peak. I reiterate my theme in the form of their final charge: Go forth. Take risks. Explore. My words hang in the air for three beats, and the audience does what audiences have been doing since the first ranger program was given. And then the mother of all sandstorms arrives with a vengeance, driving us all to take shelter.
And I am pleased. Very pleased.