Friday, November 10, 2006

Describe, display, explain...

How do you describe your work, your project, or even the materials you are digitizing?

If you have watched Iron Chef America, you will have noticed that the Iron Chefs always use many words to describe their culinary creations.They will talk about the ingredients, the cooking methods, the intent, the history... You may also notice that the judges always seem to like the taste of the dishes prepared by the Iron Chefs. Coincidence? No. It is proven fact that the descriptions influence our perceptions of taste and quality.

However, we tend to under-describe what we do. We fail to use language -- adjectives, adverbs, analogies, etc., -- to our advantage. In addition, we don't show enough graphics to help with our explanations. (Think of that tray of desserts that restaurants will bring around to the tables.) We don't try to evoke people's feelings, fears, memories, or desire for nostalgia. Yet these things capture a person's attention and imagination.

Sometimes we under-describe in order to hide a flaw. However, people like designer Isaac Mizrahi have shown that imperfections can become defining, positive qualities.

When working on Winning the Vote (a small demonstration project), we under-described the region where the suffragists lived. We downplayed it because we used the region that the library council (sponsor) covered, which did not include Seneca Falls, NY. Seneca Falls is "the place" where the movement began. thus we saw our region as a flawed because it didn't include this place. In hindsight, we should have displayed a map of the five counties covered by the Council and shown its proximity to Seneca Falls. The message could have been that, "yes, Seneca Falls was important, but there were women and men in small towns and villages who were working for suffrage. You may not know who they are, so we're going to tell you." That could have been very powerful.

Giving fuller descriptions is not something that comes naturally to all of us. So challenge yourself to work on it. You might start with more fully describing what you had for lunch or how you talk about what you did over the weekend. And as you think about your work, start to collect words, images, etc., that will help you better describe what you do. Find words that will connect with the listener and draw that person in. That description will allow your listener to better appreciate what you do, how you do it, and why.

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