Author Archives: joeinalabama

About joeinalabama

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 became a Certified Interpretive Guide in 2013.

A New Year Brings New Hope–and Old Stories

As someone who develops interpretive materials on a regular basis and does periodic presentations to groups from under 10 people to over 100, I struggle with exactly what to present. (Sort of like I struggle to come up with something to say today, January 2, 2018.)

I’m torn, really, between a desire to develop something new, exciting and innovative each time I develop an interpretive package. I struggle to tell a new, compelling story each time I offer a presentation to a new group.

But the common thread exists–and it exists for a reason. There should be continuity between the things you create. With most architects, there is a similarity to their designs. With writers, one book is certainly different than the next, but the style, the flow, the way characters are developed, all those things bear a similar feel.

Just so with interpretation–be it design, writing, or story-telling. We are individuals and our individual way of telling the story is what gives us the power to make a connection, to make a difference, in the lives of those who listen, who read, who see.

The fine line–and I’m not sure it is that fine–is understanding when to use the best, most developed material you have for your story and when to sit down and develop new content. If most of the people who see or hear your material are regulars, that clearly means mostly new content. But, even then, people hear only part of what you say and they forget much of that.

The more challenging choices come when you provide content to new people on a regular basis. Do you use the same content day after day? Do you come up with new content?

One of the best presentations I’ve ever attended had a spontaneity like no other. It was a slideshow (back in the day when people used actual 35mm slides) through a projector. The presenter showed slide after slide and gave amazingly researched, effective commentary for each image. It was extraordinary.

In the middle of this clearly practiced presentation, he interjected a slide of his young son in a field of pumpkins to show the importance of open spaces and of unique places. He talked about visiting that field with his son earlier that fall. The spontaneity of that moment seemed to lift the more fact-filled parts of the presentation to new heights.

Everyone clapped profusely at the end and left the workshop with a newfound sense of purpose. It really is one of the best presentations I’ve seen, marked by several moments of what felt like perfectly spontaneous moments.

Flash forward about 3 years. The same speaker came and presented to a new group at a workshop. The workshop is the same each year, but with different attendees. He started off the presentation exactly as he did the last time. Of course, that makes sense, as it was a finely tuned presentation. Then came the slide of his son in the pumpkin patch. And so did the same “spontaneous” story about family and the importance of open spaces and unique places. That moment of spontaneity I had reveled in 3 years earlier was exactly the same “spontaneous” moment this time. It, like every other part of his presentation, was carefully calibrated to move his story along.

I tell this story because, honestly, there was no reason for the presenter to change the story. It was a new group of attendees. The presentation had the same impact–everyone left talking about how wonderful the presentation was. Everyone left inspired.

I tell the story to illustrate something I struggle with. Even in this new year, with all the fresh new ideas it brings, sometimes it is better to tell the story as before. If you have developed a wonderful interpretive story of “your” place, feel proud to share it again and again. The more you share it, the stronger it becomes. Polish is often better than spontaneous.

So, in this new year, take time to look over your interpretive stories. Refresh them if they need it, but don’t feel obligated to change your story just to make it new. The story’s the thing.

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Recertification: It Isn’t Complicated, But Prepare Along the Way

Well, 4 years ago this month, I became a Certified Interpretive Guide. It was a great workshop, learned a lot and met some wonderful new friends. I now find myself ALWAYS pointing out the restrooms and exits first whenever I open a meeting.

What a treat it was to be in a room learning practical things with a group of people who love doing the same things I do. That was 4 years ago. Why is 4 years such an important timeline? If you don’t remember, you haven’t been through recertification lately!

Consider this a reminder. I didn’t even think about certification for the first 2 years. I didn’t keep a journal of those things that would qualify. I didn’t gather and file agendas for the workshops I’ve attended. I didn’t save my registrations. Basically, I didn’t save anything!

For the last two years, I’ve been more careful. I’ve been thinking about my recertification a little and squirreling away documentation. It isn’t hard. And it doesn’t take that long to gather enough for 40 hours (the requirement for CIG), but it does take doing it.


Birmingham Audubon Mountain Workshop 2017 (Birdwalk)

I’m preparing my package to send off to NAI later this month. From the Birmingham Audubon Mountain Workshops I’ve attended the last several years to a National Audubon Society Conference this year, an Alabama day-long NAI retreat and a statewide Scenic Byways workshop on historic assets, I’ve got what seems to be more than enough information gathered.


Alabama Scenic Byways Workshop Training (Using Your Historic Assets Wisely)

The sooner I start for the next cycle (tomorrow), the sooner I can cross that off my list of things to worry about and get back to what I enjoy doing–namely, helping people better understand the natural world in Alabama and all the things our state has to offer.

But gathering the information really provides an opportunity to reflect and redirect, where needed, what I do to educate myself and keep up with what’s happening in the world around me!

NAI’s Guide to Recertification can be found here.

More information about certification and recertification can be found here.

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Partners, projects, working through issues and building consensus

By Joe Watts

Projects, whether they are about interpretation, design, mapping, or anything else, require attention to multiple levels of details. Moreover, they should always involve working with strategic partners. Concentrating only on one side of the details can be disastrous. Missing an opportunity to work with a partner can be damaging to the individual project and to projects in the future. The design can be great, but without buy-in from partners, you are doomed to failure.

Case in point, a recent series of posters developed for the Alabama Birding Trails project.

The first poster started straight-forwardly enough. Choose the 50 (it turned into 49, but that’s another story) birds of Alabama most commonly found here and create a poster. This had been done before. Simple, right?

Well, what really are the most common birds? How do you rank them and why? Simply based on numbers and ability to see them anywhere and you immediately begin to fill your precious space with European Starlings, House Sparrows and House Finches (all invasive species). Worse yet, you’ll certainly have to include Pigeons. And, if you’ve ever parked your car on a city street only to discover that the shade provided by the nice street tree is also a rest stop for these rats with wings, you know that including a pigeon is not the best way to endear casual bird fans to the intricacies of birdwatching!

The good news was that, with 49 species and working with partners from both birding groups in Alabama (the Alabama Ornithological Society and the Birmingham Audubon Society), we came up with a rationale for inclusion and a list of interesting bird species, not just the most common birds. The list included such common birds as American Robins and Blue Jays, but also birds important from a conservation standpoint such as Snowy Plovers and Least Terns. Robins and jays are everywhere; plovers and terns really occur only in a small part of Alabama along our coastline, but they are important for everyone to understand.

There were missed opportunities and there were birds that should have been included that were not, but mostly, the process we used to determine birds to include worked. There were a few quibbles here and there, for sure. But, the process worked because we included many of the people that might have had an issue with the poster otherwise. They had a voice in making the poster. They made it better. Everyone had, at least to a degree, ownership. So, when the time to find fault came (ie, the day after printing), the main partners were all happy with the product.

The lesson here: Inclusion. The more people you can involve in a project before completion (and, honestly, from the very beginning), the stronger the project will be. And, of course, the more bulletproof.

And the end of the story: the poster proved so popular that we received funding to develop two additional, smaller posters highlighting other birds found in Alabama. After working with those same partners, we developed a plan to include a Birds of Prey of Alabama and a Wading Birds of Alabama poster.

Since we worked so closely with partners, we were able to develop these lists quicker, and with more concrete reasoning, to explain why some birds were included and others were not. (Several people wished a rare bird for Alabama–the Saw-whet Owl–had been included. Others wondered why we included Oystercatchers and not Sandhill Cranes.) But, the research and cooperation with partners left a solid trail of evidence to explain both choices and, for the most part, offered a satisfying answer to the critics!


The first in a series: The Birds of Alabama Poster


Wading Birds of Alabama (this poster includes three birds not classified as waders, but often found near them)


Birds of Prey: missing from this poster are several extremely uncommon birds, like the Saw-whet Owl and a rare hawk.

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Telling Stories, Telling Truths and Avoiding Politics

It isn’t easy, sometimes, to come up with an idea for a blog post. There are times when the idea hits right away, months in advance, but other times, I struggle. But then, out of the blue, I remember the bravery of my friends in green, the good folks at the National Park Service, and I feel heartened. I usually feel good after I think about the NPS, but now, more than ever before in my lifetime, I feel excited about the goodness that comes from these folks!

The atmosphere surrounding the U.S. political scene is about as heated as it has been in 40+ years, and interpreters are on the front lines. For better or worse, we’re entrusted with truth, or at least we’re traditionally expected to tell the truth. Telling that truth has become a challenge as “alternative facts” are the new normal. Much worse, there is what looks to many to be an active campaign to stop the flow of science and truth. People feel their careers are on the line should they choose  to speak out. But some are choosing to speak out regardless.

Mind you, speaking out isn’t always the right approach for interpreters. Or, for that matter, anyone. If speaking out about something you find to be true, but your bosses don’t, you really must weigh the situation.

“Is my speaking out serving my personal beliefs or providing people who visit the location with important context to understand what’s happening?”

If it is just for your sake (even if you feel it is what is best for the world), keep your opinions out of the workplace. Speak out. Go to rallies. Send letters. Do what you feel to do, but do it on your own time.

But, if it impacts the story of your site, find ways to weave the story into your interpretive activities. Context matters. Content matters. Sensitivity to others matters.

Telling the story of bird migration certainly doesn’t require telling the story of today’s political actors. But it does require telling the story of climate change. The migration patterns are changing, and that’s just observable fact.

Telling the history of racism in the deep south doesn’t mean blasting current leaders about their political opinions, but it does provide opportunities to relate topical experiences to historical ones–not so much to showcase any current political evils, but to connect with our audience in a real and meaningful way. You know, like an interpreter should!

So far, I’ve been delighted by what the good folks at the National Park Service have been doing during their off-time. For good measure, there’s also a great “alt” NASA account and an “alt” EPA account. If you haven’t, be sure to check out these sites:

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You Wear Many Hats. How about One More

In a world where things are often decided from far away, the public face of your location is often your website. People visit many online resources to find out more about your location before they visit. They can continue to learn about your location after they’ve gone home, too. One of the first online stops they will make will almost undoubtedly be your website.

If you already have a website, great. That’s a start. Many locations do. You may be ahead of the game. However, don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. Have you made your website all that it can be, both for potential future visitors from far away and those who live nearby? Read on and see if your website lives up to the basic goals that all nature facility websites should strive to achieve.

Getting Started: Homework

Understand your goals. A website can be many things. It can (and should) be a useful tool to lure visitors to your location for the first time. It can be a way to reach out to the nearby community to let them know what is available. And, of course, it can be a great educational tool offering teachers, students and those interested in learning more.

Don’t misunderstand. A website for your location can (and should) be more than one thing, but it helps to understand your basic goals in advance because those goals will influence the design and function of your website. A simple way to start the process of deciding is to look at what is already available for your location or for those locations in the surrounding region. The approach here is to create a small team of staff and volunteers to help steer the project. This isn’t something that one person needs to take on – there are way too many variables and too much work. Choose people who love your location and who have an understanding of what you might need.

With your new team in place, review other websites with goals similar to yours. Take a look at websites for locations similar in size to your location–similar budgets help too. Different locations have different budgets, so don’t expect a web developer to be able to give everything you might want for a specific budget; however, it never hurts to point out things you like. Some of the most complicated looking aspects of today’s websites are extremely easy to develop; some of the simplest looking parts of websites are often the most complicated and time-consuming. Don’t limit your review to just locations that are nearby or that are your size, though. Aspire to greatness. Look at locations similar to what you want to become. And don’t just make a list of those websites: pick  3-5 items you like most about each one. In addition, name the one thing you really don’t like about each one.

Gather the content you think is important for your location to reach the goals you’ve set. Find the best photos – and remember to secure permission to use the photos in writing. Based on your goals and the review of other websites, start to make a rough draft outline/chart of your website. Identify the language you already have: history, description of services, information about exhibits, trails, etc – whatever you want to include. Gather all that information and put it into documents that you can edit and change. Read it carefully. Edit it. Update it. Make it fresh and exciting. Consider hiring a copywriter to review and edit or find someone with those skills who is willing to do the work pro bono. Always remember: your website is the public face of your location. Make it look good. And more importantly, make it accurate and easy to read.

Gearing Up: The How and Who of Building Your Town Website

Platform is important. In today’s world of web technology, the general consensus is very much to build your site using a content management system (CMS). Doing this separates the appearance of the website from the content and allows you to change the look of the website with greater ease in the future. It also allow you much more freedom to edit the content without compromising the website.

What’s the right CMS for you? That’s a choice you should make after some research. There are a few open-source options: WordPress (26.4% of the top 10 million websites), Joomla (the second most popular CMS after WordPress) and Drupal (with 2.2% of websites) are perhaps the largest three. Weebly and Wix are two additional options that some consider potential and there are even more that are in use. Pluses and minuses exist in each system. But, when making the choice, whatever it is, look at the direct support your developer can provide coupled with support that you can get from the larger community of developers.

The wider the use, the easier it can be to find someone who has already created something that does exactly what you need your site to do. Sometimes, these are paid additions; other times they are free. There is no need to create everything from scratch. Need a calendar? Don’t have a developer build one, use a pre-built calendar that you can pay a small price for. Want to create a form for your visitors to let you know about trail conditions or ask questions – use a form builder created by someone else. There is no need to spend precious resources to recreate the wheel.

Finding the Right Developer/Designer. Once you’ve decided tentatively on a content management system, you can begin to look for the right person or firm to help you develop your site. Designers typically specialize in one content management system, though larger firms often have someone on staff who can work effectively in multiple systems. From one person developers to large agencies that have teams of developers working on projects, there’s a developer to fit your needs. From the in-town person who built a site for the local dog park to out-of-town agencies and even developers in faraway places like India, many people are interested in building a website for you.

How do you choose a developer/designer who will be right for you? The skill set is critical. Demonstrated ability to create something similar to what you want is important. The complexity of your initial inventory of assets and the collection of potential content should give you an idea of how complicated your website will be.

Even more important than skills is the ability to effectively communicate. A good developer can build a functional site that doesn’t include any of the things you want. A good designer can build a beautiful site that doesn’t work well. You need both, coupled with someone who understands what you need and who communicates well with you. Don’t make the mistake of choosing someone solely because of their technical abilities – they need to be enjoyable to talk with and understand the needs, and limitations, of your community and your budget. The process of building your website – or rebuilding it – should be informative and help everyone have a better understanding of your community.

Finishing Up and Moving Forward

Once you’ve developed your goals and created a foundation of content for your site, chosen the platform and hired a designer, the real choices begin – which will involve some direct and mindful conversations between you, your committee and the designer.

Then, before bidding farewell to whoever developed the site for you, there are a few things you need to be familiar with such as:

Hosting. Where does your site “live?” Websites are hosted on computers and your domain name tells the internet which computer to look for just like an address or a phone number. There are two parts to making your website live and functioning: the host and the domain name. (We’ll talk domain names shortly.) The type of web host depends on a lot of things. Managed hosts are typically somewhat more expensive, but you end up with a much faster website that is more secure than otherwise. Ask your web developer about this. Find out if you have full access to the account. Find out what the cost will be for future years. Be clear about who from within your organization will have access and be particularly sure to nd out about how your site is protected with backups. Daily backups can mean the difference between a problem that gets fixed in five minutes and one that is a complete disaster. Backups are good!

Domains. Simply put, you should register your domain name ( and it should be in the name of someone with the town’s staff, retrievable by others in case that individual leaves. Domains must be renewed periodically – the default being each year. Don’t miss this deadline. It can be very costly.

Security. See hosting above. But also talk with your web developer about security features and be sure to implement them. Safe, remote backups are a good fallback for if your security procedures fail, but having strong passwords and regularly updated les is the rst line of defense. Ask for information about keeping things up-to-date.

If you follow these steps (or if your current website lives up to the steps outlined above), your site will be well on the way to providing important, useful information to everyone, from potential visitors to nearby teachers planning a site visit to your location!

When he isn’t busy building websites, Joe is a passionate proponent of nature tourism in Alabama. He regularly works with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development on trails and tourism-related projects, including websites for the Alabama Birding Trails (, the Alabama Trails Program ( and others. He became a Certified Interpretive Guide in 2013. He’s been building websites since 1999, including several sites that include interpretive resources.

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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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Interpretation in Print


A recent interpretive panel for the Alabama Birding Trails project.

Interpreters are often considered to be the “Jack of all Trades” at a facility. From interacting with visitors to planning events to developing exhibits, the hats we wear can be quite large and, sometimes at least, fit a little awkwardly.

For some interpreters, standing in front of a crowd and inspiring passion comes naturally, but staring at a computer screen trying to develop an interpretive panel or even a quick handout to that will be available when you aren’t is a disaster.

In a perfect world, this would not be an issue. After all, everyone has a large budget and can afford to hire people that do one thing and depend on them to do only that one thing. For the rest of us, we’ll continue to wear our multitude of hats, move heavy objects, tell people about the cultural significance of one thing and identify the beautiful bird perched 50 feet in the air, all while organizing a fundraising event so we can do it all again. Oh, and we’ll be putting together a handout to have at the front desk if we aren’t available.

To hopefully make those moments a little easier, here are a few tips/suggestions to help you through the process–some are interpretation-oriented, but many are tips based on experience with working with print material.

Remember the 3-30-3 rule. This is almost always a good rule to follow. a. Make sure you have something that catches the eye (3 seconds). This may be the only thing someone learns. b. Provide some useful and visually appealing content that provides educational opportunities (30 seconds). This is about the amount of time many people will spend on something before they move on to something else. Pull-out quotes, boxes with short declarative statements and simple graphics work wonders here. c. Provide content for someone who wants to dig deeper (3 minutes). You can really tell your story here; this is the content for the person who really wants to learn more. Provide some well-written content, informative graphics and really focus on the story. But remember to make it accessible and easy to read.

Use active voice when writing. You’d never start off an active interpretive moment with a passive voice, now would you? The same rule applies to the written word. “Jack rode to town on a donkey,” is much more exciting and visually appealing than “A donkey was ridden into town by Jack.” Active voice also typically means shorter sentences, too.

Use quality graphics. Get permission to use quality products. You shouldn’t be snagging content from the web for many, many reasons. Copyright infringement is certainly the biggest reason, but you also want a graphic that will print well. If you can see the pixels, you should not be using the graphic. In other words, stay away from most .gif files. They may look great on the web, but they won’t look good on paper. There’s an old rule in printing: any graphic you have should print at 300dpi at the size it is printed. Basically, 300 dpi means 300 dots per inch. If you have a 5 inch x 7 inch photo that is 300 dpi, you can, based on this rule, safely print at 5 inches by 7 inches. Truth be told, you can often get by with half that resolution–if printing digitally. Ask your printer friend…. An awful graphic is much worse than no graphic at all.

Proof-read. (Okay, I’m breaking a rule here.) Take a moment to read over what you’ve written. Take another moment. Have a co-worker do the same. Maybe have a friend do it. If you are printing a panel that may be up for a few years, have another co-worker and another friend read it, too. Someone just caught a typo in a bird list that I hadn’t seen because I knew what it was supposed to say. Yellow-rumped Warber is NOT a bird. a Yellow-rumped Warbler is.

Choose a font or two and stick with it. Try a serif font (like Times New Roman) for longer copy and a sans-serif font (like Helvetica)  for headlines and bigger quotes. The serif on the font (the little ends that make the letter start to point to the next) makes reading paragraphs easier. Sans serif fonts offer clean lines and are often easier to read at large size. Avoid using script fonts unless you have a really good reason. And resist, please, please resist, the urge to use Comic Sans or Papyrus.

White space. Learn to love it. Sure, the story you have to tell is important, whatever it may be. Or you probably wouldn’t be telling it. But, you want people to read it. Don’t crowd the margins to the edge of the paper. Add spaces between paragraphs. Provide places for the reader to take a break and rest their eyes. If you are lucky enough to have “real” layout software–InDesign by Adobe–I have always found that 11 point font over 14 point leading or 12 point font over 15 point leading makes things infinitely more readable. (Leading is the spacing between lines–so named because printers once used pieces of lead to put space between the rows of letters.)

About Joe: Joe Watts is a passionate proponent of nature tourism in Alabama. He regularly works with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development on trails and tourism-related projects. He became a Certified Interpretive Guide in 2013. He loves seeing the daffodils in bloom even though his allergies don’t agree. Before finding his path along the interpretive world, he was a writer and editor for Southern Progress Corporation, home to magazines such as Southern Living and Cooking Light.


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Geo-Caching and Interpretation

The holidays are happening and sometimes I’m at a loss on what to write, but after listening to a geocache aficionado discuss the joys of finding that hidden treasure the other day, I had a question to all those interpreters out there: “Are there sites or projects using geocaching in their interpretive practices?”

What I’m really hoping is that, in the comments section, interpreters will leave ideas based on some of their models. I’m certainly not sure this will work–but it depends on our Sunny Southeast folks to help out and give us some fresh new perspectives.

Just what is geocaching in case you’ve been tucked away working on more traditional interpretation ideas for the last few years?

From “Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the geocache (container) hidden at that location.”

The idea of geocaching just seems to enticing not to be using–what better way to have visitors explore than to put down a line of breadcrumbs located at important locations around a site and then fill containers with bits of interpretive goodness?

Anyway, please take a moment to share your geocaching successes–and failures–with everyone.

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The Story is the Thing

I’ve been involved with telling and listening to stories my whole life. I came from a rich background of stories. At an early age, my mother took me to Selma, Alabama. You’ve heard of it—been in the news a lot these days. But we went for an annual event, just getting started when I was growing up, called the Tale-tellin’ Festival. It still exists. Storytellers, interpreters if I dare, gather from all around the United States to tell stories. Ghost stories, of course—the event is held in October. But stories of all sorts are told—stories of time and of place. True stories; fiction; and, of course, the stories that fall between.

I fell in love with stories long before that first festival. My mother could tell a wonderful story, all circular in logic and difficult to follow as a child, sometimes. But wonderful stories about her time growing up during the Great Depression, of eating chicken only on Sundays when the preacher came around, of light and happy moments and rolling marbles in the dirt and of darker times when trouble stood just beyond the door. The things that tied it all together? The place and the storyteller.

Just what makes a story powerful? The telling of it. And that’s just what interpreters do. They tell the story of a place, of a thing, of a time.

But back to my story about my mother’s stories. The story itself matters. Who is telling it and their skill at telling it matters. And, that last elusive piece, the most important part many times, that bit that connects us all and really makes an interpreter so powerful is the connection felt with who is telling the story.

Do we trust them? Do we feel that they have first hand knowledge? Do they care? Are they passionate? All these things flow through you, the storyteller, into the story you tell. Whether you tell the story standing in front of a crowd, by producing a fancy multi-media interactive app or create a simple tri-fold brochure, it is your passion that makes the connection.

The passion you have for telling the story, of living and breathing the place or the person the story is about is what pulls the story together and makes it magic. And that’s exhausting. But, if you do the sort of job that my mother did, what you are providing is really timeless. Make your stories count—and make them live on for generations to come.

This isn’t so much written to give anyone a lesson or to really teach anyone anything. Take it for what it is, an unabashed surge of joy about interpreters and the work that they do. Stories really are the thing—and the storytellers bring them to life.

Want to preserve your stories, the stories of your loved ones or, really anyone’s stories? Check out an app by the folks at NPR’s Story Corps.



About Joe: Joe Watts is a passionate proponent of nature tourism in Alabama. He regularly works with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development on several tourism-related projects and just finished redesigning a website for his brother-in-law’s pet project that has cataloged 500 historic and nature-based sites in southwest Alabama ( He became a Certified Interpretive Guide in 2013. He fondly remembers those hot summer days of childhood when he could forget about the sweltering heat, even for a moment, by reading “The Call of the Wild.”

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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.

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