Goldilocks in the Park

One of the challenges interpreters face is to relate to tour groups on just the right level. Some folks may already know a little something about the topic of your interpretive program, while others could need a very basic refresher. It’s kind of like the tale of Goldilocks – how to let everyone in on the unique features of your site, without coming across as patronizing to some visitors – finding that spot that is “just right”?

Goldilocks cartoonOver the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to visit quite a few national parks, national monuments, state parks, museums and government buildings with my husband as we wind our way through the snowy southwest, ending up in Denver this weekend for the National Interpreters’ Workshop. When I travel and experience interpretive programs as a visitor, I always take away observations about individual interpreters’ methods, tools and styles! It’s a wonderful way to learn and grow, in addition to NAI workshops and other official professional development opportunities.

On this trip, my husband and I were part of a tour group at a famous National Park. On the cusp of the winter season, a few intrepid visitors had braved the cold. It was a very international tour group, with visitors from Australia, England and Asia along with a few Americans. What a challenge to appeal to everyone in this group on the tour! The guide did a nice job, but I noticed a few missed opportunities to engage the different knowledge levels in our group. Here are a few of my observations of what worked and what didn’t.

What works:

  • Let visitors fill in the blanks and share what they know (“Does anyone recognize that plant behind us?”), then share a basic level of information with everybody.
  • Ask visitors from far away if they have anything similar in their area; see what they can teach each other!This can also help folks relate to the resource you’re interpreting.
  • Stick to a clear theme and let details fall in place in visitors’ minds.
  • Make folks comfortable at the very beginning with asking questions. Some terms that we may, as U.S. interpreters, assume that most folks know were mysterious to some of the international visitors on the tour we took recently, such as what the CCC is and whether poison ivy is poisonous to touch or to eat.

What doesn’t work:

  • Making jokes at previous visitors’ expense. As much as we love to laugh when we’re together about the crazy questions visitors ask (you know the type – “When do you turn on the waterfalls?” etc), by sharing one of these gaffs with a tour group and laughing, you may inadvertently embarrass them if they had been wondering the same thing. If you do bring up one of these questions, allow the group to chuckle but also provide the true story without judging those who aren’t familiar with it.
  • The “drag and brag,” as a professor of mine used to call it. Most of us know this is not the best technique. I think one of its downsides is that you risk losing folks who don’t know much about the site while coming across as patronizing to others.

How do you walk the fine line to engage as many of your visitors as possible? Have you seen any great examples? Please share them below!

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