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How Much Jargon is Too Much? Maturing a Lighting Volunteer

My first conversations with new volunteers are usually about team expectations, things like when to arrive, what to wear, or how to behave in the booth.

When introducing a whole industry, like lighting, to a new volunteer, there’s a real temptation to overload them with big concepts.

Lighting has a unique language and it’s important to have new recruits learn to speak it.

Often, there’s a feeling of needing to discuss with them everything from artistic choices, changing technology, theatrical history, computers, control languages, software, to church culture, not to mention the lights.

Depending on the volunteer, it’s not too difficult to freak someone out.

Here’s a quick framework that I use to teach the large tech disciplines, such as lights, sound, video and more:

Teach the “Why,” before the “How”

The choices we make on lighting come from somewhere. Often, they reflect our cultural values. For example, at my church, we hold altar calls and ask people to come forward to give their life to the Lord, with this being done with the house lights up. This reinforces our culture, because we believe making a public first declaration of faith is important.

To stand for God in front of the church will make it easier to stand for God, in other places of your life.

Even so, I’ve also been to churches that choose to have the lights down when asking people to accept Jesus.

There are reasons for that too, like making it a more comfortable experience. Both are valid choices, depending on your culture.

Whatever the choice, though, we need to teach our volunteers the motivation behind our choices.

How inappropriate would it be to have someone turn the lights up during that moment, if the congregation and the pastor is then expecting a dim, intimate moment? It can be really uncomfortable, or even an embarrassing moment for the volunteer.

Moreover, by explaining our goals and motivations from the outset, we are helping our new volunteers learn to make choices that reinforce our culture.

Lighting, in particular, is about controlling the attention of the audience. Knowing why the lights should do something will help them be better operators and designers, once they learn how to make the lights do that.

Start with Your Standard Procedures

If you don’t have any standard procedures in place, developing a series of them can be helpful for new recruits. They can be written, oral, or captured on video from your cellphone.

My first conversations with those new volunteers are usually about team expectations, things like when to arrive, what to wear, how to behave in the booth, etc.

During this stage, I always highlight to the volunteers that it’s OK to make mistakes. Service altering accidents, such as randomly turning off an important light, or calling Cue 10 when meaning to call Cue 100, are inevitable, and help us learn.

It’s basically a right of passage. It’s more important to have a sense of humor about it, and from that point forward, be willing to learn.

Following team culture, your standards should discuss how to run the service. A simple process description can be very useful. “The first thing to do is power this up with this switch. Next, do this.”

I also strongly recommend a shadowing period with a new volunteer, where a senior tech does the work, while the new recruit watches. No matter how routine and standardized a process is on paper, there often is enough choices in the field, to make having a mentor invaluable.

Avoid Excess Jargon

One thing I need to watch out for when walking a new volunteer through the system for the first time, is my bad habit of explaining useless details. I’ll point out the lights on the truss and mention how we use them. If I’m on guard, I’ll leave it at that, and move on. If I’m not, I’ll say how much more I like them than the lights we had three years ago. Before long, I can find that I’m plunging headlong into a diatribe about LEDs versus traditional sources. Then I’ll get into how LEDs work, using terms like “luminous efficacy.”

Before you know it, I’m blabbing about binning problems in fixtures, while the new volunteer is wondering if they should have been a greeter.

As I said in the beginning, there is a lot to learn. Just like a baby needs milk before they need steak, a new volunteer needs you to tell them the things they need to know, before sharing every detail you know.

Simple Vocabulary

Lighting has a unique language and it’s important to have new recruits learn to speak it, keeping in mind that we don’t want to give them too much all at once.

I usually start with the application language: key light, wash light, accent light. This language helps us transition the training from “why” to “how” better.

Then we’ll talk about the names of the fixtures in the room, both in terms of the specific brand name and the type of fixture. We’ll also discuss the names of the places they are hung, such as center truss, upstage, downstage, etc. These will help us to have conversations about making changes.

What you talk about next depends on your volunteer, and scope of your program.

If the user will be running a lighting console actively, you may wish to talk control terms. If they will help you install lights, you might want to talk about cables and rigging hardware. If you are troubleshooting, you might want to discuss cables and DMX. If working with video, you might want to give them some video terms.

Take it as it comes.

Go at Their Pace

The best way to help any volunteer is to meet them at their level.

Some volunteers understand the design and artistic side best. Some understand the technical and programming side. Guide them along encouraging their strengths and help them recognize areas they can grow.

Remember, there is always more to learn, even for those of us with years of experience.

As leaders, it’s our job to mentor recruits along. Bringing them up right and eventually, they will be bringing ideas to the table for us to use.


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