Structuring an Interpretive Program

I have seen a lot of interpretive programs in my career. I mean, a lot. I started supervising seasonal interpreters in 1988; I stayed in the supervisor/manager role until about 2008, and then did program assessment as a consultant. I’ve seen… a lot of programs. 

I have no major horror stories to tell you. (OK I have a couple but they require beer to really get into.) By and large, it has been a blast. After over 40 years in the profession, I still genuinely love this stuff. 

But here’s what I will observe: over all of those years, observing programs in parks, museums, observatories, zoos, aquariums, and science centres, when I do see a program that isn’t working? it’s always the same two problems. Always. 

“This program has no point” 

“This program isn’t going anywhere.”

“This has no point” is not the language I use when mentoring interpreters, to be clear. It’s what I’m thinking in my head. What I say to interpreters is this: your interpretive theme is weak; there’s no big idea, no strong messages that connects to any kind of greater truth.

In interpretation, “point” equals “theme.” Right now, though, I want to talk about the other issue: the program isn’t going anywhere.

Organizing a program

“This program isn’t going anywhere” means that the interpreter has come up with a subject and is telling us everything they know about it—in no particular order. The program wanders from fact to fact, or story to story, with no structure; no momentum; no arc; no progression; no changes of pace or intensity; no interaction; no change of learning modality; no moments of surprise or delight; no change of mood; nada. You know that feeling when you’re watching a really bad movie and you’re sure you’ve been sitting there for two hours and you look at your watch and it’s only been 20 minutes? You shouldn’t have that feeling when watching an interpretive program. 

What factors influence how we structure our program? 

  1. The subject and theme
  2. The needs, interests, and abilities of the audience
  3. The logistical constraints of the programming venue
  4. Your organization’s brand
  5. Your skills and passions as an interpreter

Subject and theme

When you work at an aquarium, you’re dealing with radically different themes than, say, at a First World War Internment site. Working in an art museum is a radically different vibe than a children’s museum. The theme sets the tone; the tone influences your program structure. Would you do a fun scavenger hunt at the scene of a horrific battle? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but you’d better think it through. 

Sites of Conscience are places where visitors gather to remember, reflect, and think about how difficult histories shape the present. Program structure at these places tends to involve small-group tours and (absolutely ideal in this setting) facilitated dialogue. 

Nature reserves and parks may sometimes deal in challenging themes like climate change or extinction; they may organize their programs around dialogue and reflection. But they also are wonderful places to do puppetry, say, or musical interpretation, or early-morning guided adventures, or sunset yoga in nature and other experiential programming. 

Is your institution’s subject and theme thoughtful and reflective? Does it lend itself to adventure? To “shows” and presentations? Is your subject perfect for a hands-on touch table? Can you use demonstration/ambassador animals and plants from a live collection? 

The subject and theme set the tone. The tone helps set the program’s structure. 

The needs and interests of your audience

The golden rule of interpretation is that we meet our audiences where they are; not where we are, nor where we wish our audiences were. We start by understanding their needs, their priorities, and the things that excite them. We recognize their abilities and disabilities and organize our programs so everyone feels welcome, included, and engaged. 

Families with young children have special requirements. If you ever want to feel like you’ve been eaten alive at the end of a program, organize it so that it ignores the young kids and pretends they don’t exist. Alternately, make the children feel like stars, and both they and their parents will walk away feeling elated (Mind you, you also have to avoid alienating the child-free people. That’s a delicate balance, and we’ll take about it in another article.)

Seniors have requirements. (And there are many different segments of seniors, with many different needs, interests, and abilities. More about that below.)

There’s no sense in putting together an elaborate escape-room program if your visitors aren’t able to do all the challenges in it. There’s no sense in writing and producing a whimsical costumed interpretive drama about snakes if your visitors are already learned herpetologists. Young families would love it; academics might feel insulted by it. (Mind you, having spent a few years doing adult programming in a conference setting, I can attest that after two beverages, those academics would be singing and dancing along.)

The logistical parameters of the programming venue

If you are in a high-volume site, where hundreds of people per hour have paid good money to take part in a program, you’re probably not going to specialize in small-group, 90-minute facilitated dialogues (though you could always try those as an add-on to your high-volume programs.) 

If you are in a natural area with rough, dangerous terrain, you probably aren’t going to do too many free-range scavenger hunts for young children. Not without a lot of careful supervision, anyway. 

Theatrical interpretation and interpretive “shows” evolved for venues where hundreds of people expect to be entertained and educated in a single group. Experiential (culinary, paddling, yoga) programs evolved in areas where people with money arrive in small groups and expect a high-end treatment. 

If you’re working in a historic property, visitors expect to see the property. You need to facilitate that in some way, and you are restrained by the conservation constraints of the environment. You’re not going to do interpretive paint ball in a Victorian salon, are you? 

Part of the challenge of interpretation is working with the site, not against it. And when that gets frustrating, always remember that constraints inspire creativity. Interpreters are some of the most creative people in the world. 

Your organization’s mission and brand

When we talk of brand in this context, we’re not talking about your logo or your website’s colours. We’re talking about your organization’s personality. Before an organization gets to logos and colours and look and feel, they identify their brand attributes (what do you do that defines your business and sets you apart?) their brand personality (“In everything we do, we are welcoming, cheerful, energetic, and slightly cheeky”) and their brand essence. (“Inspiring Wonder”.) 

In the heritage sector, particularly in the nonprofit world, an organization’s brand is a reflection of its mission and its values. 

Your program structure and style needs to be on-brand. The entire visitor experience, from wishing to planning to arriving to visiting to departing to remembering, must all reflect the same brand, the same feeling, the same organizational personality. 

More about brand here:

Your skills and passions as an interpreter

One of the most energizing things about being an interpreter/educator is that you usually have license to use your creativity, skills, and talents as you see fit. Are you a good singer? Then sing your theme; sing your program plan; sing your passion. Are you a good builder/maker? Then construct props and interactive games and visual metaphors for your themes and stories. Can you juggle? Believe it or not, I have seen interpretive juggling and it was genuinely inspiring. 

Are you a compassionate listener? Are you good at drawing stories and thoughts and feelings out of people, and making them feel heard and validated? Then go ahead and become a master of dialogic interpretation; it is one of the most powerful tools we have, and many are still hesitant to use it. 

Are you a subject matter expert? Are you your organization’s go-to person for your site’s content? Then take yourself back to when you were a newbie, identify the epiphanies and triumps and mentor-moments that led to you to becoming an expert, and lead your visitors along that path, inspiration by inspiration, revelation by revelation. Use your subject matter knowledge to provoke, reveal, and inspire.

Summing it up

Want to structure a program that meets your goals and the audience’s goals too? Start by taking stock of your theme and the tone of program it implies; take stock of your audience and their needs and interests; be conscious of your brand and organizational style; work with the logistical constraints of your venue; and make the most of your passions and skills as an interpreter.

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Get monthly (ish) updates via email from Don Enright. I write about interpretation and visitor experience. I never sell or share my lists.

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