Making a Case for Interpretive Programming

If you want to demonstrate to your manager that interpretive staff really matter, ask your visitors this question.

If you follow my blog you know that as an interpretive planner, I’m a huge advocate for evidence-based decision making. One of the ramifications of that approach is that I spend time poring over a fair bit of data.

This week I was looking through the results of a post-visit survey, and I came across a really smart question: “What was the highlight of your visit?” What struck me about the responses to this question wasn’t that it contained the data I was looking for; my project is all about built media (what we used to call non-personal media) and I was really hoping to be able to demonstrate to my clients that for visitors, seeing good quality media in the park made a difference. Sadly, I didn’t find that, although I did see a few good suggestions for making the existing media better.

You know what I did find?

What I found instead were lots and lots of comments about how staff were the highlight of the visit—particularly interpretive staff. The tours, the talks, the evening programs, the interpreter who took extra time to chat as they walked around the campground… these were highlights of the entire visit for a substantial proportion of the visitors. Literally hundreds of comments about how interpreters made their visit.

Now, you and I may know this already. We know what a difference a personal interpretive experience can make to the visitor. We’ve had those encounters; we’ve met the families two years later and discovered that they still remember and cherish the experience we helped them have.

But I’m here to tell you your managers don’t know that. Interpretive staff are, to so many managers, an expensive, high-maintenance, and unpredictable resource that are easy to cut back when times get tough.

Are you doing a followup survey? Are you emailing the people from your program registrations or campground registrations to ask them how their visit went? If not, what on earth is stopping you?

Costumed interpreter giving a guided tour in Dawson City.
Guided tour, Dawson City

And are you asking that powerful question?

It’s a great question to ask because it is entirely open; it doesn’t lead the visitor to any directed response. They’re free to say that the visit had no highlights; they’re free to say that the highlight was the ice cream in the shop or the fun people they met in the campsite next door or anything at all. That’s why, when you can demonstrate that what really mattered to the visitor were the interpretive staff and the experiences they helped create, you have something special going on. Something worth investing in.

Ask the question.


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One Comment

  1. Every interpreter knows they are the highlight/favourite experience for most visitors. Thirty years ago, pre mobile phones, the need for real human experiences wasn’t as important as they are now, requiring even more interpreters than ever. The same argument can be made for real objects over media.

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