What is interpretive planning?

female rufous hummingbird

I’m an interpretive planner.

Sometimes I wish I were a veterinarian. Or a plumber. Or a bovine urologist, which would combine the two nicely. Why? Because then, at cocktail parties, when people ask me what I do for a living, I could casually say, “I’m a vet,” or “I’m a plumber.” And they’d go, “Ah. How lovely.”

But instead I say, “I’m an interpretive planner.” And they just look at me: Blink-blink-blink. Pause.

And then I say:

I work with parks and museums and science centres and aquariums, to help them plan and produce their programs and exhibits.

And then they go, “Oh, how fascinating! What varied and exciting work that must be.” And we chat for a bit, and part ways, and they drift off and whisper to their spouse, “From this he makes a living?”

Yes, from this I make a living. And it is fascinating. And it is varied and exciting. And I really love it.

Here’s how it works.

You’re a manager in the heritage tourism sector, and you have a mission to connect people, places and stories. But you’re not quite sure what that looks like yet. And let’s say that you get an opportunity from your board, your VP or your community to put together a new exhibition, or a new set of programs for your public, or a new series of special events, or a bunch of panels along a trail. Or maybe some combination of all of the above.

If you’re like most managers, you have a strong idea of how GOOD you want it to be, and how ENGAGED your public will be, and how it will FEEL and even maybe how it will LOOK. You are excited about all of those things.

But you don’t know how you’re going to get there. And you look at your budgets and your deadlines and you start to freak out a bit. That’s where I come it.

Before you hire a designer, before you decide “I must have LOTS OF DIGITAL INTERACTIVES! BRING ME ALL THE DIGITAL THINGS!”;  before you spend any money, you call an interpretive planner. Me, for example.

Step One: Goals

I sit down with you and try to look at the mission or assignment you’ve taken on, and together we start to tease out the concrete, measurable things you’re going to try to achieve. What benefits will this exhibition or program bring your public? How will it make your world a better place? How will it benefit your community, or your organization? And how will we measure those things?

We discuss the things you’ve been doing that are really working for you, so we can capitalize on them. We look at the things you’ve tried that haven’t worked out,  so we can try to fix them. 1

I write these things up for you as a set of goals.

For instance:

Increase visitation. Diversify your visitors. Engage the local community. Generate more revenue in the shoulder season. Increase your profile in the media. Reduce litter through education. Highlight Indigenous stories. Engage youth. Foster understanding of species at risk. Increase length of stay. Change visitor flow through the site. Increase visitor satisfaction and positive feedback. Increase knowledge of your subject matter. Support regional partners.”

A little further down the line, we’ll add concrete numbers and evaluation rubrics to those goals. But at the start, you just need to know what success looks like, and how you’re going to measure it.

Step Two: Audiences

Next, we ask, “Who are the people we need to connect with in order to reach our goals? Are they already coming to your site, or do we need to attract them? Where do they live? What are their habits? How do they travel? What do they read? How old are they? How educated are they? What are their values? What is the way to their heart?”

We talk about these things together, and then I go away and do some research, and I bring it back and propose them to you as a set of target audiences. I usually flesh them out as distinct profiles, and give them a name, and a photo and a writeup. And you look at them and say, “Yes. Them. I know them. They are exactly who we need to reach.” (Or maybe you say, “Hmm, not quite.” And I go back to the drawing board.)

For instance:

a sample audience profile

A sample audience profile

Are you still with me?

Those first two steps are hard work. A lot of managers hate goal-setting. A lot of managers completely glaze over when I talk about social science with them. In fact, if you want to see a room full of managers put their faces on screen-saver in a hurry, start showing them a powerpoint about market segmentation. Seriously,  It’s like walking down a row of dormant monitors at Best Buy.

But that’s ok, because almost every one of those managers recognizes the value of the work, and are delighted that I’m willing to do it for them. See? I suffer so you don’t have to.

Step Three: Themes

Interpretive planning is a form of communications planning. It’s as simple as that.

But it’s communications planning that use artefacts and storytellers and cool interactive displays and talented, passionate interpreters instead of press releases or commercials. And that’s what makes it so FREAKING creative and fun.

So together, we craft your site’s themes. These messages, these stories and facts, are hiding all around you. Your site—your historic house, your park, your science centre—is full of them, just waiting to be brought to light. And you don’t necessarily have to express them all with words.

We start with the Big Themes: if your site were a single sentence, what would it be? And then we flesh it out into a series of sub-themes and messages and, ultimately, a storyline. It sounds theoretical and airy; it’s anything but.

For instance:

“Atlantic National Park is where people, land and sea meet… and change one another.”

“The history of Thomson Creek is the story of good old-fashioned greed.”

“Thirty minutes at our tide pools will change your life… or the way you look at it.”

And so on. I could joyfully spend the rest of my life writing interpretive themes all day long and be happy as a clam.

Those three steps—identifying goals, audiences and themes—are the most important pieces of the puzzle. If you get them right, your project will have integrity. If you mess them up, you can spend millions of dollars on stuff, and your audiences will be left scratching their heads, if they show up at all.

Everything from here on is a process of creating kickass visitor experiences that connect your target audiences with your messages in order to achieve your goals.

We put together a creative team. There should be you, the manager. There should be an exhibition designer and/or a graphic designer… unless we’re putting together events and programs, in which case we can probably replace the designer with a logistics specialist and a couple of professional front-line interpreters.

There should also be a content development person: somebody who can dig up the stories, talk to the experts, source the artefacts, find the performers or the artists or the guest speakers. Very often your interpretive planner—me—takes on that role too.

And you’re going to need a writer. A good one. Trust me, don’t skimp on the writer. Sometimes your interpretive planner can fill that role; just make sure you’ve seen their writing.

Together, we plot out the visitor experience. We take a narrative approach, and write it out in the form of a visitor story. “The Abbott family arrives. The first thing they see as they enter the parking lot is (outdoor exhibit A). They read it and decide to come in. As they wait in line, they are delighted to encounter (Program Person B) who has an amazing demonstration to entertain them. Behind the front desk is a video monitor showing (Digital Presentation C).

And so on.

And as we work, as we envision these captivating visitor experiences, it’s the interpretive planner’s job to hold your feet to the fire. I say, “OK that’s a great idea. Which audience is it for? What evidence do we have that this will work for them?”

I ask, “Wow, what a cool idea for a digital app. Which goal will it serve? Which message will it communicate? What evidence can we show that this is the right medium for that audience and that message?”

And while I nag, I track all the proposed experiences in a database that I have developed for that purpose. It links the experience with its respective audience, message and goals. And, after a little more research, I can show you roughly how much you’re going to be spending per experience, per goal, per message, per target audience. It also shows you how much you’ll spend on digital experiences, on graphic panels, and on artefact acquisitions.

And at that point, the interpretive plan is pretty much done.

I write it up so that your manager (and your funders and your stakeholders) can see the groundwork we’ve done, and the logic that flows through it, and the easy visual elegance of it all. And they can see preliminary price tags attached to every experience you’re proposing, so that if your cash is flowing in in phases, you can pick and choose different interpretive products based on your priorities. 2

At that point, you should be well on your way to investing in a visitor experience that has quality and integrity: one that meets your goals—and meets your visitors’ goals too.

That’s interpretive planning.

It’s not for everyone, I know. But it’s for me, and I genuinely love it.

Hey if all this nerdy interpretation and VE stuff interests you, why not sign up for my monthly email? I never spam my readers and I never sell my email list. You can unsubscribe at any time. 

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Notes:

  1. I have a friend who refers to this as “Turning up the good, turning down the suck.”
  2. At the interpretive planning phase, we’re looking at Class D or Class C estimates, in case you’re wondering. Exact material quotes aren’t possible until later, when you get into design development.
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