The World’s Worst Interpretive Themes

Writing great interpretive themes is not rocket science. Why do we make it so hard?

mute swan

“Mute swans are assholes dressed as angels.”

In the world of interpretation, we refer to messages as themes. The word ‘theme’ has different connotations and meanings. Sometimes I wish we didn’t use the term at all; it’s confusing, and this is one area that we really need to get right. Let’s see what the dictionary has to say:

Theme:

  1. an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature
  2. the subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person’s thoughts, or an exhibition; a topic: the theme of the sermon was reverence, a show on the theme of waste and recycling.

In interpretation, we use the first meaning: the pervading idea. Unfortunately, the rest of the world uses the second: a subject or topic. And so we spend countless hours training our new staff, our managers and our designers about what we mean by the word theme. Honestly, I’ve started using “message” more and more.

Here’s another great word that might help clarify the term:

Thesis:

  • a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved: his central thesis is that psychological life is not part of the material world.

In interpretation, theme equals message equals thesis statement.

When Good People Write Bad Themes

Case Study 1: Stretching a Thin Verbal Canopy Over Unrelated Ideas

“Simpson House is where Native Americans, settlers and passing migrants met, worked and did business within the rich and fertile three-season agricultural environment of the Tri-Cities, today a vibrant business centre for the region and a great place to visit.”

Seriously. This is not a theme. This is four themes, mashed together, and it promises a vague and dilute visitor experience.

The point of crafting strong themes is to ensure that we create holistic, relevant, strong experiences for our visitors—experiences with thematic integrity. We are trying to create experiences where content, design, the resource itself, writing, programming, even the souvenirs in the shop are all singing from the same page.

Take a stand. Have a message. What is your point? Find one. You don’t have to say everything; you do have to say something, and say it well.

Case Study 2: Stating the Obvious and Crushingly Banal

“This is a boreal forest.”

Yup. It is. Um hmm. Zzzzzzzzzzzz….

In my earliest days as an interpreter, I had a mentor whose favourite question was simply, “So what?” I have never forgotten it. It’s a boreal forest? So what? Why should I care? What does it mean to me as a visitor? How about… “The boreal forest has as much diversity as the Amazon; you just can’t see it.” How about, “The boreal forest is a war zone at night.” How about, “There are dinosaurs living in the boreal forest; in fact it’s their favourite place in Canada.”

Case Study 3: The Fill-In-The-Blank Theme

In Lisa Brochu’s excellent interpretive planning method, she decries the fill-in-the-blank theme: themes that are true virtually anywhere and therefore irrelevant.

“The Jefferson Watershed is nature’s wonderland.”  Yeah… pretty much any natural area is.

“The lives of tigers and humans are intertwined.” Um-hmm, but that’s true of virtually any species today. How are they intertwined, specifically? Why is this noteworthy?

“Fort Leger is a crossroads of history.” Sure, but virtually all historic sites are. That’s why they’re historic sites.

“We are all touched by climate change.” Yes, we are. At home, abroad, and at your site. So what do I need to know here, now? What is unique about the climate change story here?

Case Study 4: The Interpretive Cop-out

“Glaciers are cool!”  “Flying Squirrels are amazing!”

Another great mentor of mine, early in my career as a writer, told me I had a budget of exactly three exclamation points per year. It was the best constraint I’ve ever gotten. (And if you can master that, try writing interpretive text entirely without adverbs. It’s really very tremendously difficult.)

Once you remove the crutch of the exclamation point, you’re forced to actually lead the visitor through experiences in which they end up (figuratively) inserting their own.

Yes, glaciers are cool. But face it: you’re an interpreter. You can make anything cool; that’s your job. You should be able to make pocket lint cool! (Oops, that’s one down for 2016.) So how are they cool? How about: “Yakoot Provincial Park is where glaciers sculpted masterpieces, and hid their signature for us to find.” How about: “Flying squirrels shouldn’t even exist.”

Don’t just tell me stuff is cool. Tell me why, and tell me why I should care. Say something. Have a point.

Case Study 5: The Heavy Hand of Management

“Natako State Forest is where you keep campgrounds clean and wildlife wild.”

Yeah, great. Would you like us to paint the picnic tables and cut the lawn too? I have written previously about the call to action in interpretation, and the role of interpretation in fostering behavioural change and commitment to conservation. Sometimes we’re so anxious to effect behavioural change that we forget to connect our visitors to the resource first.

The interpretive theme should illuminate what is important and why visitors should care; the call to action follows. It explains what the visitor can do about it.

yellow-headed blackbird

“You’re looking at the Donald Trump of the wetland.”

Proofing Your Themes

  1. Is it compelling?
  2. Is it focussed? Does it actually take a stand and have a point?
  3. Does it provoke the reader (or listener) to sit up and say, “Hmm. I’m intrigued. Tell me more. Prove it.”

Writing great themes is not rocket science. But it does require equal parts thought, creativity and discipline. Fortunately, most interpreters are really good at two out of three.

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Posted in Interpretive Media, Planning, Visitor Experience and tagged , .

9 Comments

  1. This is an excellent article! (Oops, I used up one of my exclamation marks.) I’ve seen people really struggle with this. It’s key to good programming.

  2. Great points, Don, on what to avoid. Couldn’t agree more. I would add to the atomic-scale budget of exclamation points and adverbs, also weak adjectives such as marvelous, great, wonderful — and the most evil of them all — important.

    But I do differ somewhat on what you consider good themes. I think the most important (oops) criterion of a strong theme is crystal clarity, not cleverness or mystery, or poetic construction. If a theme is to be useful the interpreter and his or her staff must be crystal clear of what the idea really is, otherwise, their confusion will be transmitted to the audience. Second, a truly strong theme provokes due to the nature of the idea itself, not how it might be cleverly crafted. Of course a super strong theme both has an inherently provocative and clear idea and also is well written. That’s asking a lot and perhaps approaches rocket science more than we might like. Thanks for the blog, I’ll repost in my blog.

  3. Thank you for a great article. I agree with you – the question of words to use: themes or messages or thesis is indeed a tricky and confusing one. There is one aspect in the choice that I think matters though that I reflect on in training. To me a message is something clearly directed from the interpreter to the audience. Something to be transmitted. A theme (as with the themes in music and literature you refer to) is something you can invite your visitors to share with you, a “place” to meet, knowing that they sometimes might interpret your theme completely different from what you intended. That in turn implies a more symmetric communicative situation than the message transmission one. And for me that means that there is a difference between the words that have implications in how we ourselves understand the communicative situation we construct and how we choose to meet our audiences.
    But when making the point of the difference between themes and topic in training I think that you also need words like messages and theses or the “so what” of interpretation.

  4. Don, thanks for this article. I’m using the ideas in this article to help a group of us to come up with a main message for a campaign. It’s helping me help everyone else with the hows and whys of a central message.

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