The Interpretive Soapbox

 

Honey bee and lavender

THE BEES ARE ALL DYING    Wow. That is a stunning little creature.

Interpreters are purveyors of wonder. Never, ever forget it.

Those of us who work with endangered species (or endangered resources of any kind) tend to feel fairly passionate about them. We also tend to be have long personal histories with our subjects, and a high level of knowledge about them. As a result, we are prime candidates for committing what I’d like coin as Enright’s Cardinal Sin of Interpretation: assuming our audiences have the same level of commitment and knowledge as we do, and bending their ears back with shrill messages  as soon as they arrive. It’s a mistake.

I call it Enright’s Cardinal Sin because I confess I have been guilty of it in the past. But as I’ve mellowed with age and experience, I have learned to strike a gentler tone. At least, I’d like to think I have. In fact, a few years ago, I had the opportunity to supervise a young interpreter in just this discipline, and I secretly called him Younger Me. He was smart, talented, and fairly burning with righteous environmental passion. I remember rehearsing his presentations endlessly with him: “Start with the resource,” I’d say. “Make them love the resource. Follow up with the call to action. Be subtle. Go easy. Interpretation is a game of seduction.”

Fast forward to opening day of his presentation: “THE ARCTIC IS MELTING AND WE ARE ALL RESPONSIBLE WELCOME TO MY PRESENTATION.”

It was a difficult critique afterward. He resigned a few weeks later.

In choosing themes about endangered resources, we must be careful. Our audiences are bombarded with troubling, discouraging messages every day, and it’s not much fun. Yes, the earth is warming. Yes, the oceans are being horribly mismanaged. Yes, sharks are still having their dorsal fins brutally hacked off, and parrots are being cruelly mashed into suitcases and smuggled abroad.

Harlequin ducks

… and harlequin ducks are on the decline.

These troubling messages form part of the background mosaic of bad news that fills our audience’s days, mixed in with bleak facts about the status of women and indigenous peoples, conflicts in the Middle East, lack of access to clean water, child labour, honour killings, human trafficking, interracial violence and the crushing and utterly avoidable poverty that afflicts the globe’s population.

It’s enough to get you down. And at some level, of course, it should.

But if we are truly committed to building awareness and advocacy for our resources, we need to stop harping and start inspiring. We need to stop dwelling on the negative messages; the visitors who are already committed to these causes don’t need to hear them, and the visitors who don’t know these messages don’t want to hear them—not in a dire, discouraging voice, anyway.

Remember, our job as interpreters is to make emotional and intellectual connections between our (endangered) resource and the interests of our visitors. In order to effect these connections, we must once again take ourselves back to a time when we didn’t have the attachment to the resource that we have now. We have to recall and re-live the early moments of discovery, connection, attraction and love that fostered our attachment, and we have to find a way to facilitate those same epiphanies for our visitors.

We must do it in positive ways. Here are my own guidelines:

  1. Build the love and the caring first and foremost. Don’t assume your audiences have it. The core and the bulk of the interpretive experience must be filled with glorious, beautiful, moving, inspiring stories and feelings and facts and images and sounds about the things we care so much about. Foster the attachment. Build the love. Make it immediate and local and personal. Speak to the emotions first and foremost; associate joy and fascination with the resource. We are purveyors of wonder!
  2. Let your audiences envision a future with this wonderful species or habitat you’re showing them. Create a narrative that puts them at the centre: a vision of their future that includes a healthy, flourishing environment.
  3. Empower them to make that future happen with a call to action that is feasible and compelling and audience-appropriate. Most of your audiences aren’t going to change the course of their life based on their experience at your site, but if you’ve played your cards right, they might make a measurable change for the better.

The Call To Action

In interpretive programming, calls to action are the concrete things that audiences can do to become personally involved in the program’s subject matter.   1 The most important thing to know about calls to action is that we deliver them after we have fostered the audience’s connection to the resource, not before. We never lead our pitch with the call to action; we close the deal with it. It’s surprising how often we confuse the call to action with the principal theme.

In programs with a conservation-based theme, the call to action very often gives the audience something concrete they can or should do to help conserve the resource. Our biggest risk with these is in overestimating our subject’s profile in their lives, and asking them to do something they simply won’t do. (“From now on, you must never again drive a private vehicle!”)

How about: turn off a light switch; climb an extra flight of stairs; adjust a thermostat one degree or two… These are things that might be expected of an engaged target audience after a compelling program.

Along with these concrete actions, I’d like to suggest that simply encouraging people to learn more on the topic is a valuable call to action. “To discover more about the world of the sage grouse, visit X exhibit or go to X park or read X website…”

Calls to action may also centre around sharing a message. “Take your children or grandchildren to the seashore and show them what you’ve seen today. Tell them about the things you love there.”

While each interpretive presentation should include a call to action—interpretation’s role is to provoke and inspire—it must always be simple, compelling, feasible, and audience-appropriate.

And it should never overpower the love.

CALL TO ACTION: To read more about the role of “love messages” in interpretation, have a look at Branding Biodiversity: Love Not Loss. Let me know how it sits with you and your interpretive practice.

Notes:

  1. In this sense, the term ‘call to action’ is used a bit differently than the way the promotions world uses it. In promotions, a call to action is simply what the receiver of the message will do with the information he/she receives—pick up the phone and call a 1-800 number or visit a website—and it is generally something simple, tangible and easily measurable. It’s how promotions people cement their relationship with their audience, and how they measure the effectiveness of their communications.
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Posted in Personal Programming, Visitor Experience and tagged , , , .

3 Comments

  1. I agree with you that the call to action works better in the denouement. I like to couch it in terms of “How can we….?” rather than “This is what you should do.”

  2. This is a great article and really aligns with some research that colleagues of mine have done on Climate Change education. The doom and gloom is such a de-motivator! One tack we have tried in our interpretive programs in Kananaskis is ending a program by celebrating what people are already doing – small simple steps and the added motivator that other people are doing it too.

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