Monthly Archives: April 2015

State Gatherings; Free Easy Way to Strengthen Your Interpretation

Feeling inspired comes in handy when creating and delivering quality interpretation, but finding the zone where creativity flows is key.  That spark can be elusive.  Some professionals have rituals to get the juices going.  My lucky Lakers socks have always come through for me, but even they are no match for the power of networking.

Conferences and workshops often leave us enthusiastic and motivated to put new ideas into practice and help us gain fresh perspective on the successes and challenges of our own work.  They help me feel the passion I have for my own resource and the joy I get from sharing it with others that sometimes takes a back seat to budgets, emails, deadlines, meetings, and the like.

Formal professional development does have its limits though.  Money and time are not always abundant in the workplace.  Enter the NAI statewide gatherings.  Here is a chance to meet like-minded, talented folks doing similar work with much less obligation than other networking opportunities.  Who doesn’t want to spend a few casual hours sharing ideas and seeing another site and still get home for dinner?

In states like North Carolina, this was geographically impossible, until recently, when changes to the structure of state gatherings were made to accommodate multiple sectional get-togethers.  I am super excited to get to meet more folks in my area, both NAI members and others.  I hope you are too.  Stay tuned for info about gatherings in your state and take a day to get energized.

Save the dates: NC Mountains- August 26; NC Piedmont- September 15

Categories: General | Leave a comment

Tattoo You

One day in the early eighties I was flipping through albums at a local music shop. Back before the Internet it was a common way to pass the time and to see what music was out there. One album cover in particular caught my attention. It was the album Tattoo You by The Rolling Stones.

While many albums had outlandish covers, this one had a person with his neck and face covered in tattoos. I was not a prude by any stretch of the imagination but that image struck me. I am a child of the sixties and in my youth very few had tattoos. Most who did were like my father and got them in the military and the tattoos were symbols of their service. Others who did were not looked upon favorably by society. Generally speaking, folks who are older (forty something and older) don’t have a positive view of tattoos.

Fast-forward to the present and the situation has changed. I teach at a small university in northwest Tennessee. Many, if not most, of our students across campus have tattoos. I am no longer surprised when I see them but I do have concerns. While social norms may have changed, some agency/company policies have not. Many still have regulations/rules stating that tattoos are not to be visible. I worry that tattoos (or piercings for that matter) may hobble a student’s ability to be hired.  What do you think?


Categories: General | Leave a comment

We sell ugly houses

Ugly House

Original rock work still intact.

You’ve probably seen those commercials that shout “We Buy Ugly Houses!” They buy unwanted, unattractive houses and turn around and sell them. Realtors have a special way of making those ugly houses more attractive. Listings may read “open air floor plan” meaning no windows or walls, “environmentally friendly green roof” means plants are climbing over the roof, “pet-friendly neighborhood” means dogs and other animals are spotted walking in the streets. Interpreters, sometimes like realtors, have to put a spin on things to make ugly or controversial topics more attractive to our visitors and program participants. Here are a few examples that I encounter in my job as a naturalist.

From my experience, when introducing a topic that may be reactive, people may shut down or start contemplating their counter argument instead of listening to what I have to say. One example I have encountered during our rock program is how old the Earth is. Some may not agree that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. I have been asked in advance of a rock program to say thousands rather than billions when referring to the age. Instead of disagreeing or trying to sway their opinion, I make the compromise by spinning my language. I say the Earth is old and was formed long before humans existed. Another example, is the word evolution. People react to the word more than when given an example of evolution without using the word or use the word adaptation instead. Making those small changes don’t compromise my overall message and the audience is more open to buying what they may have considered an ugly house with the words that would have turned them away.

Our most recent spin is for our managed forest project. Most people are resistant to change. That resistance is even greater when people don’t understand the reasons behind the changes. Many of our visitors don’t see anything wrong with our forests. They don’t know that the plants that stay green all winter are a variety of invasive species that are out competing our native plants. Our goal is to educate people before we start to make any on the ground changes to help prepare them.

Habitat Improvement

Managed Forest Improves Habitat.

We will be clear cutting, thinning, removing invasive species and using prescribed burning to help improve the habitat of the area. We are being up front and promoting our plans by incorporating them into all of our programs when we can. From our experience, words like clear cut will elicit a reaction. Instead of focusing on the techniques we are using to manage the forest, our focus is on the overall outcome, habitat restoration and improvement. This area provided an old field habitat 20 years ago that no longer exists on our property. Over time, succession has changed those fields into overgrown forests with diseased trees and a plethora of invasives. By making these changes, we will provide a better home and food source for animals. We will provide habitat for species that may have not been here in the past 20 years. Hopefully through this project, it will help visitors to see that the state of our forest currently is ugly and we want to demonstrate what a healthy forest looks like over a period of time, even if it may look ugly to them in the process


Most people visiting our sites are going to have preconceived thoughts and perceptions. It is our challenge to find a way to reach out to them and break through what they may believe is wrong. Selling our messages by putting a spin on the language we use will turn those ugly houses into beautiful homes that they can’t wait to see more of.

Categories: General | Leave a comment

Interpretation for the Technology World: 5 Quick Tips

An app developed for the Alabama Birding Trails

An app developed for the Alabama Birding Trails

Okay, you’re an interpreter. You love helping people understand, opening their eyes to the world around them and giving them a passion for something you hold near and dear.

Good thing, too! Because in addition to interacting with visitors, you probably get charged with handling lots of other projects. Bigger facilities may have a whole team of people devoted to developing their “brand” message, to creating apps and websites and innovative tech approaches to enhancing the visitor/user experience. Smaller facilities, not so much. Interpreters often play double and triple duty. And even in large facilities, there are many benefits to involving interpreters in the entire process. Why?

Because who better to work with others to interpret and showcase the place or thing that they have devoted their lives to improving?

A few tips for working with technically oriented people.

  1. Do your homework. Gather examples of things you like—and a couple of things you hate! Developing a smart phone app that will let visitors learn more about your site? Find other apps that you like that do the same things. Find ones that you like the looks of, too.
  2. Share your vision. Sit down at the beginning of the project and give them a genuine overview of what you hope to get out of the project. Be realistic. Give the technical team the big picture—make sure they see your facility the way a visitor does. But give them an understanding of how YOU see your facility, too.
  3. Pay attention to detail. Does your site use the same colors for everything? Make sure you let them know the colors you want used. Give them examples of the colors (never tell them light blue, dark green, etc–give them a real life example). Same goes for fonts, logos, pictures, etc. The more you give them at the outset, the less back-and-forth there will be. And a reduction in revisions can translate into cost savings.
  4. Learn the language. No, you don’t need to learn the entire programming language to interact with programmers. But having a basic understanding of a few things can really help. Think of it like going to a foreign country. If you make the effort to say a few words in the native language, people always seem much happier to help you understand what they are saying.
  5. Be specific. Do you want to make sure the end user provides feedback. Tell the developers on the front end—as soon as possible—that you need it to do that! Want to show multiple photos for each item? Let them know NOW! More information early is the best. Explain how you see the app/display providing a benefit to the end user. Explain how it should be able to take a task you normally do and make it easier. Most of all, be explicit in your instructions.
  6. Bonus round: Be specific. During the revision process—and there will be a revision process—be sure to explain in detail what you want changed. Too much room between two paragraphs of copy? Don’t tell them that there is too much room. Tell them it needs to be 20% closer together.

These are just a few ideas to make the process of working with people who don’t necessarily share your passion for interacting with others easier. The bottom line is to remember that you are an interpreter. You need to interpret the project for the programmers. It isn’t magic! It’s interpretation!

About Joe: Joe Watts is a passionate proponent of nature tourism in Alabama and is currently working with the Birmingham Audubon Society on a redesign of their current website, putting together his interpretation skills and his web development skills to create something that communicates with bird lovers. He also regularly works with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development on several tourism-related projects, including a recently completed website for Southwest Alabama, He became a Certified Interpretive Guide in 2013 and still remembers being enthralled by the stories of a Park Ranger during a visit to Alcatraz Island 20 years ago.

Categories: Technology | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: