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  • Writer's pictureCait McQuade

Speaking with uncertainty during planning

I'll be teaching exhibit development in the Spring! Over time, teaching has become more a delight and less an anxiety. Knowing it’s coming up, I’m adding to my lists of reminders and new ideas.

Here’s something I just reminded myself about: when we’re planning an exhibition and we talk about visitors’ experience in it, we should (sometimes) speak in conditional sentences.

This means using words like “might” and “could” instead of “will” and “can.” It’s common for exhibition teams, when discussing ideas, to say things like, “Then visitors will see this thing and head in that direction” or “This can remind them of their own experience” or “They’ll understand the basic concepts after this display.”

Well, truth is, we’re not sure any of that will happen. It’s what we want to happen. Those are behaviors and responses we will try to encourage. Nothing we design for an exhibition guarantees a particular response from any visitor, never mind from all visitors.

I’m not suggesting that exhibition teams use conditional language in every planning discussion. Explicitly recognizing the unknowns all the time would be wildly inefficient. Imagine talking like this for a whole meeting:

"If we add some explanatory text here, it’s possible that some visitors might understand photosynthesis a bit more clearly."

"We could make it more likely that a few people will remember the first time they voted if we use this photograph instead of that one."

What a drag! This could sap a team’s enthusiasm. It could reduce their confidence that their plans will fulfill the goals they have for visitors’ experiences. Language like that exposes the gap between our intentions and the choices we're making. It hints at a disappointment: that after the exhibition opens, people don’t have the experience we want for them. That we don’t fulfill the goals that we’ve worked so hard to achieve.

But disappointment is more likely if we ignore the difference between intentions and the likely result of our plans.

Our work requires holding in one’s mind both an ideal (the goal) and a complex, yet-to-be realized design (the plans). In order to approach the ideal, we must constantly compare a) the effect we want with b) all the things that might produce that effect. The fact that both goal and plans exist only in our minds makes this harder. If we start conflating them—acting as if our design and the ideal result match each other perfectly—we won’t see ways to improve the plans so that they actually achieve our goals.

So if I say, “After this display, visitors will understand the basic concepts before they turn that corner,” I’m covering up some uncertainty by saying “will.” It’s risky to assume that visitors will understand or enjoy or react to what we plan as we expect them to. To some extent, we can rely on past experience or human nature. But so much depends on context. And then there’s that pesky implicit bias. We regularly need to nudge ourselves to question our assumptions.

Image by geralt

Using conditional language to describe our plans exposes assumptions that we can test. If I say, “The hope is that most teenage visitors will understand the basic concepts,” there’s a logical next step: let’s find out what some actual teenagers learn from the display we’re planning. When we acknowledge uncertainty, we open up a whole tool chest—evaluation and audience research—that could improve our exhibitions.

Now, there is a time, I think, for unconditional language, for conveying certainty: when talking with funders. Hedging words make for unconvincing grant applications. Perhaps the most skeptical sponsors would appreciate you saying “We have reason to believe that…” But fundraising seems to benefit from confident affirmations.

I first noticed students using unconditional language during final presentations one year. Teams had spent all semester creating an imaginary museum to illustrate concepts we’d been studying. I had tried prompting them to include realistic problems and to critique their institutions’ weaknesses. But I’d made severe mistakes in designing the assignment.

What I heard in their presentations were glowing descriptions of wildly successful institutions. They wanted me to believe their inventions would succeed (in retrospect: of course they did!). They made no critical judgments, foresaw no difficulties. I felt like a grant program officer. These were funding pitches.

(It’s taken me a couple years to find the flaw in my curriculum design. I had made assumptions about how students would respond to my instructions. I was enacting the very trap I want them to avoid.)

Image by hpgruesen

I read a draft of this post to my writing group. (See? Testing!) They saw ways that thinking conditionally more often could be useful in parenting or business, but also how it could slow a person down, make them less productive. Also, uncertainty is a bit scary, especially if we recognize how frequently we lack definite knowledge about the future. We get in the habit of relying on assumptions. It’s more efficient, more comfortable.

Given the resources we devote to creating exhibitions, though, it’s worth a little discomfort and delay to speak out loud the things we don’t know.

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