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.
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.