Dear Don: I suck at themes. Help!

Rays: Seven sense are better than five.
Rays: Seven senses are better than five.


I’m struggling with themes. I’m terrible at them. They’re awful. I need to get better.

And I’m struggling with themes that have cropped up in other programs. They are still so fill-in-the-blank. I feel this is something myself and my team need to revisit.

Some more specific case examples – what are your thoughts on “Ray are the “aliens” of our oceans”? It doesn’t have enough of a “so-what”? Does it? What of “Snakes and humans have a long and intertwined history”? Still not good enough. How do I get to the next steps?

How did you get to sucking less at themes? Are you just going to tell me practice, research, and brainstorming? I get that, but honestly, I think this team produces a lot of these kinds of themes at first, and I want to know how to get everyone better at it. What kind of training games/activities/whatever could we do?

Thanks,  K

Dear K:

Thanks for your question. Themes are such a big issue for so many people, and I really don’t think they need to be. I think we make way too much out of them. Here are some ideas to help you with your interpretive themes:

It’s better to be specific than clever.

We try so hard to come up with something pat and funny and memorable with our themes. I am chronically guilty of this—I really love coming up with clever themes and then wallowing in self-congratulation over them. But I suggest you start with simple statements. Don’t worry if they’re not clever: your theme never has to be stated verbatim to your public. It does have to influence and guide every aspect of your presentation.

Let’s look at your snake example: “Snakes and humans have a long and intertwined history.” I love this—it’s clever and memorable and snakey (and way better than the one I was thinking of: “Snakes and humans are a lot alike, except for the bifurcated penis.”)

But it isn’t a good theme. It’s a classic fill-in-the-blank theme: true for virtually every animal species on earth. How to turn it from a clever line (which you should definitely use in your script) into a theme that can support a whole presentation? Start with this excellent exercise by master interpreter Sam Ham:

  1. My program is about __________ (THIS IS YOUR SUBJECT)
  2. Specifically, I want to talk about ___________ (THIS IS YOUR CONTENT)
  3. What I really want people to understand about my subject is that ____________. (THIS IS YOUR THEME)

My observation is that interpreters are generally skipping step 2. They get stuck trying to turn a subject into a clever theme without identifying exactly what they want to talk about. “Snakes” is too big a topic to turn into a theme. So what does your step 2 look like?

“Specifically, I want to talk about…”

  • The history of persecution of snakes by people
  • The ecology of this particular snake
  • How to identify the snakes in our gallery
  • The reproductive habits of snakes (HELLO BIFURCATED PENIS)
  • How snake A and snake B are alike and different
  • How institution X is working to save snake Y

Again, be specific. Have a point. Once you have it, articulating the theme is easier. Note Sam’s careful syntax in point three. By ending his sentence with “that”, he forces the writer to articulate a complete sentence. “What I really want people to understand about snakes is that if we lose the sharp-tailed snake, this ecosystem will be the poorer for it.” “What I really want people to understand about snakes is that their locomotion is efficient, elegant and unique in all of nature.” “What I really people to understand about snakes is that they all look alike, until you look for marks A B and C.” Something like that.

Themes should be audience-specific where possible.

Who is your program designed for? What do they know or believe about your subject now? What do they feel about it? What do you want them to do with the information you’re going to offer them? How will it change them? Answer these questions, and you may get useful insight into appropriate themes.

Let’s look at your example about rays. Who is the program for? Let’s say you’re planning the presentation for Mary and Bob the cruise ship visitors from Wichahoosie, Tennessee. What on earth do they know or care about rays? (And yes, you should know that. Interpreters should work hard at knowing their target markets’ knowledge and commitment levels vis a vis their subject matter.) Are they impressed by superlatives like “fastest”, “strongest”, “best”? (Hint: they’re Americans.) Lean towards something like, “Rays have senses and strengths far beyond what you ever suspected.”

What about Jessica the Recharger? (Rechargers are a Falk audience type who are  gratified by experiences that are aesthetic, contemplative, even spiritual.) How about, “Rays have stunning grace in the water, as functional as it is beautiful.”

What about Beth and Jeremy the local, highly-engaged members of your institution? “Rays are a key predator in our local ecosystem, but things are going terribly for them right now.”

A little relevance goes a long way in crafting interpretive themes.

Let go of 3/4 of your information. Just let it go.

Here’s a huge reason why interpreters suck at themes: they can’t bear to NOT say everything about the subject. I see this everywhere I travel—interpreters taking giant steaming information dumps all over their audiences. (Sorry, that was really vulgar, wasn’t it?) We really need to get over it.

Accept this: if you talk about rays’ grace and power in the water, you can’t talk about their evolutionary history. You can’t talk about their place in the food chain. You can’t talk about their ampullae of Lorenzini, even though they’re the coolest. things. ever.

Simplify. Pare. Eliminate. Focus. It’s the hardest thing on earth for most interpreters.

An exercise: the interpretive hot seat

“Hot seat” is a character development exercise I picked up from my years in theatre. You get into character, sit in a chair, and your colleagues grill you with questions about who you are, what your life has been like, what you want, what you think about issue x or person y. It’s gruelling and exhausting and invaluable.

Try it with your topic. Sit down and let your colleagues pepper you with questions. Better yet, let your colleagues assume the character of your target audience (Bob and Mary or Jessica or whoever.) Listen to the questions, and listen to yourself answering them. Concentrate on the “so what?”

If your can’t manage the hot seat, try…

An exercise: draft the FAQs before you draft the script

At one of my previous jobs, we got in the habit of drafting 20 FAQs (frequently-asked questions) about our subject and including them as an appendix to our scripts. The interpreter wasn’t qualified to present the script until they had memorized the 20 answers, too.

Think of your target market, anticipate their questions, write the answers… and see what jumps out as the single most important thing.


Go to this website and witness how these people distill complex topics into simple messages. It’s tons of fun to read, and truly inspiring. Not all these PhD candidates succeed in creating a haiku that functions as a theme- but when they do, its brilliant.

Note particularly how the haiku structure forces simplicity and directness. This is what we should be striving for:

dissertation haiku

Well, K, I hope all of this is helpful to you. Readers, please contribute your own tips for creating great interpretive themes. K and I will thank you for it.


  1. Melanie Knight

    Such great tips. You are the best in the biz. Love seeing these emails Don. Keep it up!

  2. Nicole Cann

    I would definitely be hooked by a presentation that started with, “Snakes and humans are a lot alike, except for the bifurcated penis!”

    As always your tips are spot on Don. I especially love the idea of the FAQ exercise.

    Another technique I use at time is to list the tangibles and intangibles of my subject, see what patterns emerge from there, and then look at what patterns would be the most compelling to my audience. This works ESPECIALLY well if you can actually go away from your site, find real people (NOT interpreters – we’re not normal), and have them select the more interesting patterns for you. I like to use my boyfriend or other family members. Look for the people in your life that best represent your audience.

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