Defining Standards for Personal Interpretive Programs
I’ve had the opportunity, over the last few years, to do a great deal of traveling. I’m up to 54 countries and counting now, though my time in each has been tantalizingly brief. And as I travel, I manage to attend quite a few interpretive programs. I think it’s interesting to see the different interpretive styles and standards out there; it helps me get a sense of the state of our profession internationally.
If I had to describe the current standard of personal programming around the world as I’ve seen it, I’d have to describe it as uneven. What we have, ultimately, are rare islands of excellence here and there surrounded by a great sea of, well, pretty low standards. Mediocrity. There, I said it.
The programs I see usually take the form of guided tours of historic sites, bus tours of cities and towns, and occasionally guided walks through natural areas. Those are still, I believe, the most common forms of personal interpretation across the tourism industry. And what do I see on most of these tours? Well, it’s not always pretty. Take the last tour I attended, a month or so ago. Was there a theme? A compelling message elaborated with logical sub-themes? There was not. There was no interaction, no humour, no arc or thematic development or momentum, no changes of pace. There was no provoking, revealing or inspiring going on; there was no compelling call to action. The acoustics were terrible, and the facts were dodgy at best. It was long and painful and exhausting, and the most tiring part was simply the mental exercise of trying to find a thread or a theme or any kind of logical flow whatsoever. There was none to be had, and this, ladies and gentlemen, is the de facto international standard of personal interpretation around the planet: you get on a bad microphone or bullhorn, turn it up to 11, and say everything you know about a subject in no particular order, for as long as your larynx holds out, or until your virtually bottomless mental storehouse of historical and scientific minutiae is exhausted.
That’s what we’re up against. I’ve seen it now in Egypt, India, Central America, Europe, Indonesia, Canada and the USA. You want to talk about international standards? That is where we’re at.
But that’s not the most interesting thing.
Here’s what I find remarkable about it all: I was not alone on those tours. I was in the company of educated and well-travelled people from the developed nations of the world. And I mean really well-travelled: these are wealthy retirees whose long and impressive bucket lists are nearly completed. These folks have been everywhere and seen everything and will tell you about it in considerable detail. And at the end of one of these tours I would informally chat with those visitors and ask what they thought of it all. And do you know what they said?
“It was fine. It was good. I enjoyed it. It was a good day. Yep, a good tour. Tiring. A long day, but a good one. Um-hmm.”
And ultimately, from their point of view, I suppose it was a good tour. They saw cool things that they had travelled very far to see: the fjords, the Eiffel tower, the pyramids, the monkey temples, the volcanos, what have you. They got more or less what they came for, they ticked an item off that bucket list, and they had a fairly nice time. The tour guide was friendly enough, the bus had air conditioning and nobody poked them with a sharp stick and therefore, all in all, it was a good tour.
And listening to these well-travelled, educated people talk about their experiences, one of the great truths of our industry hit me for the first time. I’m going to coin it here and now as Enright’s Maxim: In interpretive programming, the audience has no idea how much better it could be.
The audience has no idea how much better it could be.
When you think about it, there are a whole lot of professions where the audience has a very clear idea of what excellence looks like. The hotel industry, for example. When did thread-count in bed linen become a common standard for judging hotels? Those same guests who had absolutely nothing to say about a terrible guided tour are suddenly willing to sit down and count every thread in their Egyptian cotton pillow case and feel deeply and personally affronted if they only come up with 200, whatever that means.
Another example: If I were to stop this presentation right now and burst into song, I can guarantee that within eight to ten seconds, each one of you would be able to articulate a strong opinion, and come to a fairly strong consensus together, on whether or not I can sing well. Don’t make me prove it.
Why is that? You have powers of musical discourse because we hear beautiful singing (however we choose to define it) every day, and we contrast that with the painful singing we sometimes hear at weddings, funerals and awkward family gatherings. And in the last 15 years or so, we have taken musical criticism and made evening entertainment of it, through shows like American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent and all the rest.
We don’t have that in interpretation. Our audiences attend personal programs sporadically at best, and critical discourse about them just doesn’t happen. It’s not really part of popular culture; I just don’t think you’re going to tune in to your TV and see So You Think You Can Touch-Table any time soon.
In interpretation, the audience has no idea how much better it could be. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good in that this truth has saved me innumerable times. I have been in this business for thirty-three years, and believe it or not, there may have been moments here and there when I wasn’t at my best. I may have, in my twenties, delivered the odd guided walk with a throbbing hangover. There may have been moments when I would finish a truly lacklustre evening program and feel sheepish about it… but still get nice comments from the audience. And inside I wanted to shout, “No, you guys, it could have been so GOOD.” But I didn’t. They had no idea, and I was happy to keep it that way.
Art lies in the concealment of art, as a wise person once put it, and our public’s ignorance of our profession is liberating. It allows us to keep the ropes and pulleys and greasepaint and sweat hidden behind the curtain; it allows us to place the magic, pure and unsullied, at centre stage where it belongs.
But it does put a burden on those of us who are responsible for quality control in the field to actually manage those metaphorical ropes and pulleys: those nuts and bolts that come together to create a memorable interpretive presentation. We have to be the ones to define what makes a good program, and we have to be the ones to hold ourselves and each other to those standards. If we want a seamless, magical, engaging, inspiring visitor experience—and we want it consistently, without embarrassing gaps in quality—then we the burden falls on us to define what that magic actually looks like. We need to learn from these islands of inspired brilliance; we need to quantify and make tangible the various elements that compose an excellent presentation, and use them to raise the bar on the endless morass of mediocrity that still exists out there.
How do we do this? Well, like many of you, I had been supervising programs for a very long time. I had hired and mentored new staff and evaluated countless guided walks, campfire talks, demonstrations, point duties and all the rest. And over all those years, I never really stopped to articulate what I was looking for. I just knew it when I saw it—I definitely knew when I didn’t see it—and I would sit down with each interpreter and hash through the program from start to finish, in classic interpretive critique style.
All that changed for me a few years ago when I was approached by one of the premier interpretive facilities in western Canada. The director of visitor experience had just hired a new manager of interpretation who was young and brilliant. With the change in management, she wanted to set a baseline and document improvement in the interpretive programs over two summers.
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