What is Experiential Interpretation?

I’ve been spending a fair bit of time researching and pondering what “experiential interpretation” actually means. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Interpretation is experiential when the interpreter uses a recognizable activity as the structure of the program, and imposes passive listening on the audience less than 10% of the time. It uses traditional activities, like snorkelling or cooking or whiskey tasting or birding, as a basis for uniting visitors with an interpretive theme.

Experiential interpretation has measurable goals: affective, behavioural, learning, satisfactions, revenue, and so on. It’s the learning part that sets it apart from purely recreational tourism.

And it’s the learning part—getting that part right, without being droningly didactic—that is hard.

North Coast Trail, Vancouver Island

Other qualities of experiential interpretation

Experiential interpretation often involves the acquisition of skill along with the acquisition of knowledge.

It expands personal horizons for the participant, creates a sense of accomplishment and can facilitate personal transformation.

It has high memorability. The memorability results from:

  • challenge (as audience appropriate);
  • agenda fulfilment (meeting the visitor’s expectations completely)
  • elements of surprise and delight
  • social exchange among the participants and with the interpreter
Whiteshell, Manitoba

It honours essence of place; it brings that essence to life through activity. It connects people to place.

It is polished and professional throughout the visit cycle, from wishing to planning to execution to remembering.

It is high-yield and low-ratio, with relatively small groups, usually paying a relatively high price. This quality makes it an attractive tourism product by that industry’s standards.

It is personal: the interpreter establishes a relationship with individuals, not with the group as a generic body.

It often includes meaningful encounters with the local community.

It often incorporates food or beverage as a way of facilitating group bonding and fostering an element of surprise and delight.

It is multi-sensory.

It may use post-activity interpretive dialogue as a means of debriefing, making meaning, and fostering interpersonal bonding.

It facilitates remembering though mementos, shared photography, and/or through a continued relationship among the participants after the event.

It is environmentally and economically sustainable; it adheres to principles of sustainable tourism.

Photo: Raphaël Chekroun, creative commons

When Good Interpreters Make Bad Experiences

In looking at the above and pondering my long career, I’ve started looking back at when I’ve succeeded and when I’ve failed. I’m not gonna lie: the failures are many. Where have I gone wrong?

It doesn’t work when we use the activity as a tagged-on reward for sitting still and listening to the interpreter.

School programmers are notorious for this (and I say this as a former full-time school programmer.) You get the group in the great outdoors, all dressed for the weather and ready to go, and then… sit them down on a rock and talk at them for 25 minutes as if they were in a classroom. Fail. Not experiential interpretation; not good interpretation of any kind.

“But I need to get the theory across first!”

Sure… so you could establish the theory in your pre-visit package… OR you can construct the activity in such a way that it illustrates your theory, without passive listening. Easy? No. Interpretive? Hell yes.

If you’re imposing passive listening on your audience, you’re not doing experiential work. And you’re not making the most of your visitors’ precious time with you in the outdoors.

It also doesn’t work when your theme and your landscape are working against each other.

When we fail to match our landscape with our theme, we often feel the need to fill in the blanks with verbal presentation augmented by interpretive media. Also a fail. And I have been so guilty of this in the past.

Does this sound familiar?

Your manager assigns you a bird walk at 2:00 pm on an August afternoon. (Your manager has never spent six minutes birding in their entire career.) Desperate for something, anything, to offer the visitor, you bring recordings, pictures, an iPad loaded with video… and you stop every few minutes on that utterly-bird-devoid trail to talk about what isn’t there. The experience is essentially no different than what you could offer in an amphitheatre or in a blog post, except for the mosquitoes and the uncomfortable standing position that your visitors are in.

This is not experiential interpretation. It’s not good interpretation in any form, but we do it all the time. We hold wildflower walks when the flowers are well past bloom; we lead history walks on nature trails that have zero evidence of history because, well, we have history in our interpretive plan and that trail is really close to the campground and it’s really convenient and we’ve got lots of great pictures so…

Nope. This isn’t experiential, and it is just crappy, lazy interp.

Guide Will, chopping fruit, Bora Bora
Beautiful Bora Bora

When your landscape doesn’t bring your theme to life, you either need a new theme, or you need a different landscape.

You will never facilitate experiences until you reconcile the two.

Can a history walk qualify as experiential interpretation? Sure, if the landscape itself is bursting with evidence of your history, and if you come up with creative, active ways to allow your visitors to discover it. Archaeological digs, for example, can be highly memorable and satisfying (and profitable.)

Can birding be experiential? Of course. Picture a morning bird walk with the birds fairly dripping off the trees, or an evening experience with thousands of geese thundering in against the sunset. Picture yourself challenging and encouraging your visitors through their observations. Picture yourself and your guests, with a cup of espresso or wine afterwards, rehashing it with them. Picture yourself sharing photos with them weeks after the experience.

Experiential interpretation begins by finding the authentic touchstones in your landscape that bring your theme to life. It unites those touchstones with a compelling theme and a relevant activity.

Steve van Matre describes the interpreter as the choreographer or stage manager of a carefully-designed experience. The work of the interpreter is largely done behind the scenes, before the guests arrive. The art of the interpreter lies in the concealment of the art. For those of us with big egos (hello, me) it can be a hard pill to swallow—until you see your audience fully engaged with their activity and their landscape. Then you feel like a freaking hero.

Does the above ring true with your experience? Am I missing something I should be including in my definitions of experiential interpretation? Please feel free to comment below.


  1. I think you make a lot of good points about making interpretation more experiential and I’m glad you cited Van Matre, one of the unsung best books on interpretation. The only thing I would reframe just a bit is the presented dichotomy between landscape and theme. Interpreters are not always in the situation where they have a great landscape with obvious elements to light up a theme. Often times they may have only a classroom or theater to work with or a bad weather day and an interpretation center. So I would suggest that the less you have to work with in the landscape, the more work you have to do with representational objects, guided imagery, storytelling, and a host of other techniques that can make even sterile classroom environments highly experiential in the hands of a great interpreter. Interpreters should remember that experiences don’t occur in landscapes, they occur in people’s minds. Therefore any place can result in a great experience, but the interpreter must be even more skilled at provocation, oratory, and activating the audience’s imagination.

    • Hi Jon- there is no dichotomy between landscape and theme; in place-based interpretation, theme is inspired by the landscape. But not all thematic interpretation is experiential by any stretch of the imagination—my point is that far too much of our work is presentational, not experiential.
      My point is that yes of course you can do thematic interpretation in a theatre or in a classroom or in a gallery. Yes of course you can do thematic interpretation standing in the landscape holding props and visuals and orating to beat the band—but I wouldn’t call any of these examples experiential by any stretch, and for visitors who have traveled to experience an authentic landscape we are cheating them by giving them what is basically an indoor talk while standing outdoors. It’s bad interpretation.
      Experiential interpretation uses active experience with the landscape and its resources—including communities—and reduces or eliminates reliance on props, visuals, recordings, and oration. It forces the interpreter to step out of the limelight, close their mouths, and facilitate experience.
      And I will go so far to say that the idea that we can facilitate just a good an experience for the visitor using props, visuals, and our own wit as we could by facilitating authentic, active experience with the resource is, well, one of the lies we’ve been telling ourselves for three generations.

  2. Hi Don,

    To me, one of the most valuable and universal statements about communication is that “the medium is the message.”

    One of the biggest struggles I have as an interpreter is in drawing back from the idea that I, or my program, is the message. I prefer to think of myself as a facilitator leading folks through the dialectic conflict that occurs when the imperfect spirit (subject) is confronted by a new perspective on an infinitely elaborate idea (object). I prefer to think that the medium should be doing most of the talking, and I am just there to help it (but not necessarily do all the translation.)

    The thing I would like to add is that the value (and goal) of experiential interpretation , I think, is that it is a catalyst to let a place (medium) speak for itself and promotes visitors to hear their own message (which is likely more meaningful than mine would be.)

    TL;DR: I enjoyed this, and agree!

  3. Done N’ Right!
    Is that your name real?

    i’ve been an interpreter for years, sometimes ‘done right’ and other times not.
    It’s great to read your material and I would love to take a course of yours one day.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.