The Silent Period of Participation

As I’ve been learning German this past month, I’ve come to a realization: Getting visitors to participate and contribute in can be a lot like asking them to learn another language.

There are five general stages to learning a second language:

  1. The Silent Period – You have a small receptive vocabulary of words and ideas, but you’re not comfortable using them yet. You may be an excellent mimic, but you’re not producing original content.
  2. The Early Production Period – Your vocabulary is growing, and you can speak in short statements.
  3. The Speech Emergence Period – You can speak in simple phrases and sentences.
  4. The Intermediate Production Period – You can speak in complex sentences and you feel comfortable expressing thoughts and ideas.
  5. The Advanced Production Period – You’re near-fluent in the language.

In my experience, encouraging visitors to become contributors happens much the same way. Ideally, we want visitors who participate in the #4-#5 range: creativity, new ideas, animated discussions, and debates. But no one gets there right away.

Visitor-contributed content and institutions that function as forums rather than temples are still new experiences for many visitors. Many visitors will need a silent period, a time where they feel comfortable as observers rather than contributors, and can participate passively.

Sometimes we charge ahead too quickly (I know I have), expecting visitors to function as a #4 or #5 right away. As institutions, the contribution scenarios you create and the questions you ask may backfire if there’s too much expectation for visitors who are still in their silent period. Not that you shouldn’t create those scenarios or ask those questions, but you also need to make make visitors feel comfortable in an environment that encourages participation when they’re not ready to participate.

On a project I worked on earlier this year (remember Elvis and Regis?), creating contributory spaces that allowed visitors to feel engaged and comfortable as spectators in their silent period was a primary goal. The end objective (and we shall see what happens) was to design experiences that were organic and growing: over multiple visits a visitor could observe and then build upon their level of engagement through time.

So far, I’ve seen this approach executed well in larger institutions with multiple exhibits. It makes sense – the more spaces you have for engagement, the more opportunities visitors have to encounter and become comfortable with the idea, and the more chances an organization has to develop layered experiences. But this can also happen in smaller institutions – it’s all a matter of degrees and approach.

The best part is, if getting visitors comfortable with engagement is like asking them to learn another language, their desire to contribute will grow. A month ago I accidentally asked someone for “a shower milkshake.” Today I purposefully told my husband that “we can walk to Iceland with little boats on our feet.” My silent period is nearing its end, and I’m excited to see what I can do with the language I’m learning. I’d be surprised if visitors’ excitement doesn’t grow the same way.

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