Monthly Archives: June 2016

Ask a Stranger, and a Co-worker

You can learn a lot from a TV show. No really. Silicon Valley on HBO is a favorite show–mostly because it is hilarious, but also because it really hits the reality of the tech world, and the world in general. Last week’s episode was a particularly brilliant example of reminding me to think about who I ask to review my work.

The premise: the characters in Silicon Valley have built an amazing platform that compresses videos and other large files. It works better than anything in existence, and all their tech friends LOVE it. It works flawlessly, but no one is using it. Why? The interface. They had only their tech friends review the way it functioned and, because they were all tech nerds, they understood it perfectly.

The solution: don’t turn to those who are in the same industry as you are for review. It is a great idea to include co-workers and people with insider knowledge. There is nothing like a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh brain from someone who understands what you are trying to accomplish. But when that perspective is the only one you get, you make a huge error.

Working on an identification poster for birds in Alabama for a project called the Alabama Birding Trails over the last month, I’ve turned to some of my close friends at the Birmingham Audubon Society for review and comment. We worked carefully through bird lists and photos to come up with the best of both worlds in terms of what birds you might be able to see here most readily and the best photos to showcase them.

And it has been fantastic working with such knowledgeable birders who give so freely of their time. But to rely solely on these expert birders would be to miss the point. We headed quickly down a rabbit hole by trying to include whether the birds were birds that breed in Alabama, when they arrive and when they depart. Throw into the mix a couple of birds that spend their summers here but do not breed here and others that only visit a small section of the state and confusion started to set in.

At that point, I backed away and rethought the end-user. After tracking down a librarian who doesn’t have any background in bird-watching, we got the project back on track.

In interpretation, as in everything else, remember who you are trying to reach. If all you need to reach is other interpreters, that is the opinion you need most. But, if, like most of us, you are trying to reach a larger audience, make your review team a larger audience as well. For the poster project (see below for an unfinished draft of the poster), I divided the review team into 3 categories:

  1. Birders
  2. Graphic Designers
  3. End Users

This way, we had the expert backing of the birding community, confirmation that the project was readable and attractive and, most important of all, filled a need with the end-user community.


I live with my wife Ann, three Burmese cats and one adopted tabby Siamese mix cat in one of the historic neighborhoods of Birmingham, Alabama. I’ve worked in several fields, including a reasonable stint in the publishing industry, working for Southern Progress as a food editor and general writer for several magazines. I’ve been a non-profit executive director and I’ve worked for myself as a web developer, graphic designer, writer, tourism consultant and occasional freelance photographer since 2000. I’ve been a birder since the late 1990’s and I’m the incoming president of the Birmingham Audubon Society. I became a Certified Interpretive Guide in 2013.



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An NAI Certification with No Class Required?

Did you know that you can earn a certification from NAI without attending a class? It’s true! And it’s called CHI – Certified Heritage Interpreter.

Now, don’t let the word “Heritage” fool you. This certification is not just for historical interpreters, it’s for all of us. I don’t know why it’s called “Heritage.” Probably for the same reason our field is confusingly called “interpretation.” Someone just likes to make things hard to understand! J  But this certification is a great option for interpreters several years into their career, especially if your situation doesn’t allow you to easily attend an NAI training course.

Here are the basics:

  • The CHI (Certified Heritage Interpreter) certification is designed for front-line interpreters who already have some job experience (not college students, for example).
  • The requirements include:
    • A multiple-choice literature review exam
    • 4 essay questions
    • Submission for review of 2 examples of non-personal media you have helped create (brochures, signage, articles, etc.)
    • Submission for review of a 20-30 minute interpretive presentation that meets NAI’s professional criteria
  • No in-person course required!!!

I wanted to bring attention to this certification because this was something that I learned while attending a Certified Interpretive Trainer class this spring. Almost all of us students had no idea that this non-class-required certification was an option that NAI offered. And it’s such a great option for folks whose workplaces might not be able to send them to a training, but who have the self-motivation to pursue this on their own.

Also, the CHI goes a step beyond CIG (Certified Interpretive Guide), with its inclusion of a longer presentation and the non-personal media. It shows that you have not only learned the basics of interpretation (what CIG shows), but that you have been practicing professionally long enough to have samples of your work.

Now, one word of advice if you try to look up information about CHI on NAI’s website: It’s pretty hard to find! You have to dig deep – I only found it on page 12 of the PDF of the Certification Handbook:

Maybe this is one reason that not very many interpreters are aware of or pursue this great certification? Personally, I think it deserves more attention. CHI is a very practical option for a lot of professionals.

If you can make the time and effort to take the written test, complete your essay questions, and submit the other required materials, you can earn a nationally-recognized professional certification that can strengthen your resume.

So, I’ll keep this short and sweet. There’s such a thing called CHI. It’s a great professional certification for front-line interpreters. You don’t need to attend a class. You should check it out!

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A Different Kind of Interpretation

As an Environmental Educator it is always important to have “that feel” for the audience. Reading body language is super important. Smiles, stares, eyes following
your every move to see what will come next are all positive signs that your audience is engaged.  Eyes wondering, fidgeting in seats, children beginning to act out on one another, (poking, tickling, and teasing), are all signs that you better quicken your pace, become more animated, or change your tactics NOW! Helena_blogpostAdults who chit-chat, fold arms or spend more times on their cell phones texting are a sure sign that you have lost their attention. Some adults even pull their children from the crowd and move on to teach their kids themselves even if the information they are conveying isn’t always correct. Then you know at this point you blew it! Knowing how to pace yourself in conveying information to reach your subject is super important.  Moving on with the next interpretive animal or topic just before you lose your audience is key.

Let’s look at the other end of things….literally! I am a Search and Rescue dog handler. I train hard with my partner, a beautiful little Bassett Hound. We work hard to help each other obtain the same goal, finding a lost subject. Training takes place in all kinds of weather, at all times of the day and with all kinds of road blocks, complications and problems to figure out. Now what does this have to do with interpretation you ask? A ton! If you cannot read body language, you will not obtain your goal – reaching the subject.

During training there are key body signs you look for from your dog to keep you on task just as there are key signs in reading your audience. Does the dog have forward motion? Is the dog’s head down and is he/she focused on task? Is the tail up? Do you hear “snuffling” sounds to indicate that the dog is still engaged in the task? Is the dog’s head up and are the nostrils quivering in the wind trying to find scent? Has the dog’s body relaxed and the tail down? Is the dog ready to roll in whatever pile is left out there? Did the dog’s head turn at an intersection of a trail to indicate that maybe the subject turned in that direction and the scent is there….and then the dog casts in a circle to that same point to continue on the trail? Is your dog too hot? This is indicated by the slowing down of pace and the beginning of heavy panting but the determination is still there to get to the end to get its reward. You need to know when you dog is “dog-tired” so you can take a break and give them water as well as cool them down before continuing to reach your subject. Dogs are so eager to please their handler they will go to the extremes.

Much of this interpretation is done from the tail end of things. I am hooked to my partner by a fifteen foot lead, watching for signs that her body language has changed. I need to know when she has the scent and when she has run of scent and I need to do this quickly as in the end there is a life on the line. I need to keep her on task, I need to move her along and keep her interest peeked in the task, or like the audience, she will begin to wander. If this happens, and I cannot grab her attention and focus quickly all is lost.

Interpretation is key. Some say to “Trust your dog”, the best advice is to “TRUST your TRAINING”. Just as it is in interpretation, standing in front of an audience, “Trust your Training” — know when to move on, when to change up the tactic and when to throw in a twist or two. This will keep your audience engaged. It will help entertain them and it will keep them focused on the task you have at hand….presenting the best information possible in the most engaging way to reach your subject. If you practice your skills you will help the audience succeed in taking away some key points on your topic.

As for me and my partner Clover, her take away is praise, a toy, and at the end a treat. Finding her subject is the main goal and I know we are close by reading her body language.  When her tail starts to wag and her back end wiggles, we are very close. Her bounce in her step and the pull on the lead are signs in having success to our goal. Interpreting all her body language is key. Training and practice are important. Whether reading your audience or reading a dog in training, the training is the same, observing body language is key and knowing when to move along so there are no distractions from the goal is paramount. Keep training, keep learning and most importantly keep observing. This will help you succeed in your mission interpreting valuable information to have a successful outcome. – Helena Uber-Wamble

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Charlie the Interpretation Dog


charlie and me

Day 1 of our adventure.

Our new goal should be to become Charlie when doing interpretation. He is a dog, by the way. “So wait, you want me to be a dog? Who is this crazy guy and why is he equating being an interpreter to a dog?” Well, let me show you…

For those of you who don’t know, two months ago I adopted a rescue dog name Charlie. He was a stray, then rescued, surrendered to animal control, and finally taken in by me. In those two months, I have learned a lot about caring for a dog again (it has been 16 years since my last one, sad story) along with being more cognizant about how people react to a strange dog. In those months, people have ONLY talked to the dog, coming up to Charlie in the truck window at the gas station while I am filling up on the other side to pet him, even stopping next to me in traffic to ask about his health since he was wearing the cone of shame. Little kids point to him, saying “Puppy!” or “Doggie!” which usually leads to an impromptu petting session. A few negative reactions have been cataloged too, with people retracting from the sight of a dog coming towards them or simply giving him a wide berth.  Usually the fear can be calmed with “He is really friendly,” but some people are just afraid of dogs.

After watching all these behaviors, I saw a parallel to our work in interpretation. Visitors either engage with uniformed staff, avoid them at all costs, or children want to be like them when grown up. Staff in living history clothes also garner a different level of attention since they don’t look like “official” staff or the “man,” leading to a completely separate type of engagement. However, not everyone is willing to hear our story, or they are afraid of being out in the woods, or don’t want to learn about the science or history we are there to protect and share.

How do we reach those people? Dressing up in a dog suit? …Candy? We find common ground between us. All of the different techniques we use (living history, active engagement, videos, digital) work to meet the audiences on their terms. We seek to bring our content out into the world for the public to consume, desire to learn more, and possibly even visit your site one day.

One new way I have been learning more about over the past few years is digital interpretation. At the Black Belt Museum, we started a Facebook page approximately 3 years ago. Two years ago I took over content creation due to inspiration from friends in the National Park Service Interpretive Development Program. In those years I have learned A LOT, but we have grown in our reach dramatically to people who may not get to see our interpretive programs, but also cannot visit our museum due to it being under construction. Two weeks ago, after consultations with Museum Hack (check out what they are doing, it’s freaking awesome) we started an Instagram page to target a new audience: millennials, especially the 1500 students on University of West Alabama’s campus. Over the summer, we plan to grow and learn about the app; then when students return in the fall, we can be ready to offer special tours, etc around the app. We have moved online to meet a new audience in order to garner more interest in our museum while pointing out the incredible aspects of our region.

Our lessons learned to be more like Charlie the Interpretation Dog:

1.) Be approachable! Body posture, actions, and demeanor all dictate how people are going to interact with you. Charlie greets people as if everyone is his friend. Shouldn’t we do the same?

2.) Point  people in the direction of what is important; don’t just tell them all the facts. Charlie, to my knowledge, does not talk. Yet I can tell when he has something important to “say”, if there is danger nearby or if something new and/or interesting is present.

3.) Be happy! Charlie goes towards the people he meets and always has a smile on his face. Similarly, we should all be happy about our positions. Every one of us chooses this career for our love of the outdoors, science, history, etc. – not to be rich. Why not share the passion with the visitor? It is contagious, after all.

So let’s be all like Charlie the Interpretation Dog this summer and let him inspire us to be better interpreters. #charlietheinterpretationdog


Charlie waiting for the next visitor to greet.

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