Interpretation tools

Creating memories through stories

tildenI am not a great story teller but I sure love listening to friends recall their memories through stories.

Last week and the NAI National Conference in Corpus Christi I had the opportunity to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. Most conversations were a lot shorter than I wish I had time for. We hugged, laughed, and recalled a few memories, some were a couple of years old, some are over a decade old.

Walt Dabney was the keynote speaker on Thursday, he worked for the National Park Service when at age 23 was assigned as Freeman Tilden’s assistant. Their assignment was to meet with stakeholders to identify the role for the NPS to play through its interpretive programs. They traveled over 50,000 miles across the country holding meetings and became good friends.

If you have ever been on a road trip you will get to know your traveling friends very well. Walt shared great stories about two co-workers who developed a life-long friendship and created wonderful memories.

Whenever you have the opportunity, create your own memories, and tell your stories. As interpreters this is how we connect with our audience.

As outgoing Director of the Sunny Southeast I have had the pleasure to meet new people and great friends who will be in my stories for a very long time.


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Assumptions can be deceiving…

Let’s talk about assumptions. I’m going to make one right now and assume you’ve all heard of the famous saying regarding assumptions. I’m going to move on with my blog post, blissfully unaware that I may be leaving some of you behind, confused and bewildered. You poor souls grin nervously and look around as the rest of the audience smiles and nods, clearly understanding my reference perfectly. You think that surely you know this saying, everyone else does, why shouldn’t you? You rack your brain, desperately trying to recall anything about assumptions and you miss everything I’m talking about now. By the time you give up and mentally check back in, it’s too late. The rest of the group has moved on and this post is now an utter failure to you. And I say an utter failure to you because I, as the poster and interpreter here, have failed you.


As educators, we love talking to people and teaching them everything we possibly can about our favorite subjects. For the educators at my Nature Center, this means we’re constantly talking about snakes and turtles, trees and lakes, hiking trails and canoeing. However, when talking to our visitors, we make certain assumptions about them: their level of education, their prior knowledge, their ability to process certain vocabulary words. This is a common occurrence that happens nearly everywhere you go. But as interpreters, we need to step back and reevaluate these assumptions. You cannot assume that everyone possesses the same seemingly basic knowledge that you might have. When presenting a talk on snakes, for instance, I cannot simply assume that everyone in the crowd knows what reptiles are. No, I have to start at the beginning for each and every group by building a solid foundation of knowledge for my talk to build upon. Yes, this takes more time and yes, I don’t always get to cover as much as I want to about the snake, but my audience walks away with having understood everything in my talk.


Appearances can be deceiving and can lead an interpreter to make embarrassing mistakes; never trust your eyes! Looking at me, a young person in today’s society, you might assume that I know all about every new piece of technology that appears. Not so! To this day, my personal phone is one of the old-school flip phones. The first time I was handed an iPhone by my organization and told to turn it on, I sat there in mute befuddlement until the IT Tech took pity on me and taught me how to operate the phone. Had he taken the time to speak with me beforehand, he would have known that technology and I have a very rocky relationship. When looking at participants for a program, you as interpreters cannot rely on what your eyes tell you. Your lecture hall could contain visitors who don’t speak English or speak it as second language-have you provided visual stimulation and interpretation for them? Your hike could include participants who have non-visual medical conditions or physical disabilities-have you planned an alternate route to allow for slower hikers in the group? Many times, our programs can hold participants we never expected! And what about your surroundings? As an interpreter whose programs mostly take place outside, I have learned NEVER to make assumptions about the environment around me; a fascinating plant that was on the path a week ago may not be there today. And a sunny day on Thursday could easily devolve into a hurricane on Friday.


As interpreters, we are constantly faced with challenges, some harder to overcome than others. Sit back and take a look at your site: what assumptions do you make about your visitors and program participants every day? Are there ways to reevaluate those assumptions or test their validity? Work with yourself and your team to shake up those preconceived notions and develop all-inclusive programming to open up opportunities for all of your visitors, even the ones you didn’t know you had! And remember, nobody likes being made an a**, especially not you and me.

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Making it FUN!

Soall my years of schooling. The classes. The conferences and special trainings. The Continuing Education courses, the planning, the research, and it all comes down to this: I wonder if my coat will fit over my wings?

It was February 13th and time for the annual Fairy House Festival at Latta Plantation Nature Preserve. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this event, it is hosted every year by the Latta Plantation Nature Center, part of Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation, and it is one of our most popular events. It wasn’t in the job description I had seen when applying for the job, but assisting with special events like the FHF falls under the “unwritten duties” part of being an Environmental Educator for Mecklenburg County. Dressing up for the event, on the other hand, is just plain fun. And so I found myself standing once more upon the shore of Mountain Island Lake, dressed in my fairy finest, glitter bombing five year olds.

It may seem silly and childish to dress up like a fairy, but let me the first to assure you that it is a great teaching tool. All too often, interpreters are too afraid to be a little silly with their programming. We’re so focused on getting our message across to the participants that we tend to forget about making the message fun. And as we all know, a fun message is a memorable message. You may be asking yourself “Okay, but what do glitter and fairy wings have to do with environmental education???” To which I reply: everything. My department uses events like the FHF to introduce the public to habitat preservation, the basics of recycling, and native wildlife. Our overall goal for the event is to get people out to the preserve and expose them to nature. Now, a five year old child might not remember Miss Christine, Environmental Educator, telling her all about taking care of the woods. However, this same five year old will definitely remember a giant fairy asking her to help take care of the woods. When the message is delivered in a fun and exciting way, the message is made memorable!

Making the message memorable can require a little extra creativity on our part as interpreters. Standing up in front of group and lecturing them for an hour or more isn’t fun, it’s boring. And a boring message is easily forgotten. Ramp up the fun and excitement by engaging all of your audience’s senses. If you’re discussing trees, take them outside and let them touch smell, see, listen to, and (in some cases) taste the trees! If you’re talking about habitats, have them build their own shelters in the woods! If you just want to expose people to the outdoors, have a fairy house building contest! Five year olds won’t remember all the facts and figures from a program like the FHF, but they will remember visiting the woods and enjoying themselves, which is what we wanted in the first place.  So when planning a program, remember to loosen up and have a little fun!

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Speaking Specifically

by Cindy Carpenter

Sometimes in frontline interpretation, what we convey to our audiences is not what we intend. I’m always grateful for a visitor’s question during or after a program that gives me the opportunity to correct or clarify a take-away message. Being aware of how a sentence can be misconstrued has helped me communicate more concisely.  Speaking specifically takes practice. It also requires questioning on the interpreter’s part, and research that can separate folklore from fact.

I’ll give a specific example. Congress in 1968 established my interpretive site in the Pisgah National Forest as the Cradle of Forestry in America. A unique combination of forestry firsts occurred here. This is where forestry was first practiced in America, where America’s first forestry school was founded, and was the first tract purchased under the 1911 Week’s Law for a National Forest. Orientation materials and the first tour guides I spoke with made the point that poor logging and farming practices resulted in worn out land that needed a trained forester’s hand.

While there is truth in this broad brush approach to the site’s history, specifics reflect a true historical integrity.  I’ll address the statement about the condition of the land. To do so I need to give you a bit more history. Today’s 6,500 acres designated as the Cradle of Forestry in America became part of George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate when he purchased them with about 100,000 more acres in 1895. He named the vast tract Pisgah Forest. As he had done with his 7,000 acre Biltmore Forest near Asheville, North Carolina in 1892, he placed Pisgah Forest under the care of a forester and a regular system of forest management. And this is where a difference comes in.

Much of Biltmore Forest, close to the city of Asheville and Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House, had worn out soils and needed care while holding potential for beauty and profit. Eroded slopes needed healthy young trees. Overgrown farmland could be thinned to provide Asheville with firewood while making room for a thriving, natural forest stand. But miles to the southwest, Pisgah Forest was in pretty good shape. Subsistence farms dotted the valleys, creating edges even the first foresters understood as important on a landscape. Most mountain slopes held high quality timber and beautiful forest stands. Simply making this distinction in geographical areas paints an accurate picture of the historical landscape and the forester’s work.

I know there have been times my words did not convey compellingly enough the significance of my site’s stories. Continued study and critical thinking, from our sites’ earliest interpretive plans to new perspectives gained, helps us organize program content with specifics and deliver a richer visitor experience.

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The Importance of Knowing Your Audience

Over the past ten years in the field of interpretation, I have worked with nearly every audience:   pre-schoolers, school-aged kids, pre-teens, teens, young adults and families.  Each audience has provided a new and interesting challenge for me and it has been very rewarding.  So this year, when the opportunity to provide nature programs for a senior center arose, I decided to take on this new endeavor with gusto.

My first task was to learn more about my audience.  The old days of whipping up a simple yet entertaining blurb about an upcoming program were now behind me.  I needed to learn how to market to seniors in a different way.  To help me achieve this, I sat down with the director of the center to get insight into how to best provide programs for them.   It turns out that what they crave is routine; knowing that the same person will come on the same day of the week at the same time was helpful for them.  Time of day for this group was also crucial:  late morning.  To meet these needs, I set up the schedule to ensure that I would be there every Tuesday at 11:00am to provide a 50 minute presentation for them.

The structure for the overall series was also key in its success.  I set it up so that each topic ran for four consecutive weeks.  During the first three weeks, each presentation built upon the one before it.  The fourth session was a field trip to a local business or organization that summed up the overall topic for the series.  This format has allowed me to build a relationship with the seniors, which is important for this audience.  Topics so far have included backyard birds, birding basics, native wildlife myths, backyard habitats, composting, water quality, and organic gardening.

To market these programs and ensure success, the program descriptions were tailored to specifically address the concerns of seniors.  For the lectures, it was important to explain whether or not it would be held indoors.  For the field trips, they needed to know how much walking was involved, availability of seats/benches along the way, potential sun exposure, proximity to restrooms, etc.  By doing this, I was able to address Maslow’s Hierarchy within the write-up in order to best serve this audience.

Each presentation is thematic, drawing each sub-theme back to the overall theme of the series.  I try to instill that nature is accessible and they can experience the beauty and benefits of it in many different ways.  Whether watching birds at the feeder from their window, taking a hike, or planting some native wildflowers along a small patio.  My group of regulars loves conversation, and they add a lot to my knowledgebase as well.  This rewarding experience has allowed to me ‘grow my branches’ into a new style of programming.  That’s the great thing about this field:  there’s always something new to learn.

This picture is from our recent field trip to a recycling center.  The trip was the fourth installment of the Green Living Series.

This picture is from our recent field trip to a recycling center. The trip was the fourth installment of the Green Living Series.

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Keeping Things “Cool” with Help from Our Young Staff

No matter what set of standards you use, one of the prime guidelines for effective interpretation is to make your programs “relevant.” To relate your message to your audience and their experiences. To frame your message in a context that helps your audience connect with it. At my place of work, the Woodlands Nature Station in Land Between The Lakes, we have found that tapping into pop culture works well as a way of making our programs relevant.


And we have also found that our youngest staff members are the most helpful when it comes to knowing what is “cool” in the world of pop culture.


During our most recent program calendar planning meeting, where we brainstorm ideas for the next year’s public programs, our younger staff told us “old fogies” (I’ll turn 40 in a few months) what was likely to be popular with kids in 2016: The Jungle Book, Frozen (yes, again, welcome the Frozen sequel), The Avengers (yes, again, ditto), and March Madness (we are located in Kentucky, you know, and have a live resident bobcat to boot), to name a few. In the past, our younger staff members have clued us in to trends like cooking contest shows; Survivorman, Man vs. Wild, etc.; reality talent shows; The Lorax movie; ninjas; and the list goes on.


So, what do we do with this information? The key is to find ways to tap into these popular trends that help you communicate the messages you want to communicate. In other words, we don’t change our messages just to fit the whims of the moment, but we capitalize on these pop culture trends to help make our programs more fun and enticing.


As a native wildlife center, we do a lot of programs that focus on topics such as the food chain and animal adaptations. Back when Iron Chef was popular, we created a program called “Iron Chef Animal,” which mainly taught about the differences between herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores. In recent years, this has evolved into “Chopped: Animal Edition!” To teach about adaptations, we have come up with twists such as “Nature’s Ninjas,” where we learned how predatory animals use stealth and surprise, and the kids even learned one ninja move to go with each animal. In a similar vein, we have offered programs such as “Animal Avengers” and “Animal X-Men,” which compare animals and their adaptations to superheroes and their powers.


Other examples include a puppet show for young children in which Olaf from Frozen visits Kentucky and meets native Kentucky animals (and makes funny comparisons between them and the cold-weather animals he is familiar with); an outdoor skills program called “Kid vs. Wild;” a puppet show version of The Lorax, followed by a hands-on activity about the human and animal uses of trees; and a birthday-party-like “Happy Wolf Day Party” to celebrate Wolf Awareness Week (birthday parties are always cool with kids).


Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m still a huge fan of good old-fashioned outdoor experiences like nature hikes, pond dipping, creek walks, and kayaking. But like it or not, there are lots of people who would never consider attending a program like that. But something called “Dancing with the Animal Stars” (coming in Spring 2016) might get their attention. Or “The Hunger Games: Wolf Edition” (that was so 2014).


The first step of communicating our message is getting people to want to come to our site in the first place. And a good way to figure out what might appeal to the masses, in my experience anyway, is to start by asking your youngest staff what’s “cool.”


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BioBlitz Dance, a dance to celebrate the National Parks and outdoors

by Eliezer Nieves Rodríguez, CIT, CIM

During 2015, PLT International coordinators meeting in Saratoga, New York, we learned what was the BioBlitz Dance, thanks to the Hawaii coordinators, a dance to celebrate the Outdoors, And it is during the 3rd DRNA Summer Environmental Workshop in Puerto Rico, with kids from 6 to 14 age, that after a month full of adventures and field trips through the wetlands of the island that we completed this already famous dance.

We invite all Interpreters with kids program, and with a awesome staff to do and record your dance.

Here is the Tutorial by the creator of this dance, John Griffith and the video of the first BioBlitz Dance of Puerto Rico.

Enjoy it and dance to celebrate your sites!


1st Puerto Rico BioBlitz Dance:

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Fear Not!

It’s not public speaking, heights, or bugs and snakes, it’s children’s programming!

According to a Chapman University Survey reported in the Washington Post (2014), Americans’ fears range from needles and blood to ghosts and zombies. In my experience training interpreters, however, our biggest fear is interpreting to children. If you shy away from this audience, it’s time to get in touch with your inner-child!

Think like a kid! Watch a few episodes of the Magic School Bus. Ask to shadow at an elementary school and observe classroom interactions. Use these interpretive techniques to get and keep your audience’s attention!
• Alliteration
• Riddles and rhythms
• Jokes
• Discoveries
• Solving mysteries
• Secrets
• Silliness and songs
• Stories
• Super heroes, super powers and the super natural (dragons, fairies and unicorns Oh My!)
• Activities and high energy experiences

Keep it FUN! Keep it FAST! Keep fascinating even the youngest of audiences!

Categories: General, Interpretation tools


by Ashley Bradt

Right now, at the South Carolina Aquarium, it is definitely intern-palooza! Every summer, we have a group of interns that take over the Aquarium floor with vibrant energy and youthful smiles. I manage a group of ten high school students and it is my favorite time of the year! This generation of millennials are so important and vital to our future. We are instilling values in them that will shape their future and impact their decisions for the rest of their lives.. how powerful. Our High School Internship Program is one of the most competitive and rigorous programs around, which I am proud to be a small part of. We usually receive over 100 applicants, interview 50, accept 20 into the 5 months of training classes, and then accept 10 of those to participate in a paid internship during the summer. We truly have the best of the best by the summertime.

Millennials are the next generation of people that have a real possibility of making positive changes in our world. It is refreshing and hopeful to see such passionate young adults, eager to learn and to educate all of our guests at the South Carolina Aquarium. It is vital, as their supervisor, that I instill the power of education in them and just how much of a difference they can make.

During their internship, the students are members of the Education Department. Their job is to help guests make connections with the animals and habitats of South Carolina in a way that they will remember… a.k.a. “interpretation.” They bring out animals for the guests to touch and get an up close look at, they bring out artifacts that the guests can hold in their hands and feel, they help guests touch marine animals in the touch tank, and help guests come “fingers to fins” with sharks in our new Shark Shallows exhibit. Two weeks into the program, they are already creating a positive experience for our guests with their presence on the floor. What they probably don’t realize yet is the impact that they are making from every moment they are interpreting with guests.

We teach the interns the art of interpretation and encourage them to be creative when communicating with guests. Giving them this freedom allows them to think outside of the box and make real connections with the guests. One of the interns, sharing his experience in a blog, wrote “Carlos and I had out the humpback whale rib and vertebrae and its baleen, showing them to guests just entering the aquarium. A small boy was checking them out and commenting on how huge they were when out of nowhere he mentioned that he had a pet gerbil. Carlos, his parents and I started to chuckle a little bit, and trying to work in a connection, I asked if his gerbil was as big as a whale to which he immediately responded that it was, with complete and total confidence. It was just a fun time talking to him and his parents and seeing how interested he was in the whale bones, especially since he made an instant connection to an animal he is familiar with, even if it wasn’t as big as he though it was, and clearly having a fun time.”

After I read that, I thought to myself.. “He gets it.” Although they are just high school students, they are beginning to understand the power of interpretation and how it can impact visitors’ in lasting ways. I am so proud to be able to teach these young minds their importance and the positive ways that they can change the world. =) What a rewarding summer this will be.

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A juicy peach

"Gaffney Peachoid" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

“Gaffney Peachoid” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Have you watched “House of Cards” on Netflix? Remember the episode during the first season when Congressman Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, has to return to his home district to settle a controversy over a giant peach towering over the town of Gaffney, SC?

Maybe, like me, you’ve driven by this Southern landmark many times on your travels through the Sunny Southeast, or maybe you even live nearby, but you and I (and the producers of House of Cards) probably have this in common: we see , in this roadside peach, an object “ripe” for interpreting (pardon the pun).

Personally, my thoughts don’t go first to the peach growers’ industry (and the startling fact that the Palmetto State grows twice as many peaches as the Peach State), or a Roald Dahl story, or even the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company who built the peach in the 80s but “isn’t in Chicago, doesn’t build bridges and doesn’t use iron.” Though these are all intriguing, my own connection to the Peachoid lies underground.

In my day job, when I’m not webmaster and blog coordinator for the Region or volunteering at the Cradle of Forestry in America Historic Site (the place that got me interested in interpretation), I’m Assistant Director of a small nonprofit called Clean Water for North Carolina. I wear many hats, including a few that involve outreach and education on that most unsexy of topics: groundwater.

Groundwater model

Modeling groundwater contamination in a classroom.

Many resources have an instant “wow” factor, something to provoke a sense of curiosity and grab the audience’s attention right away: surface water woos them with waterfalls, streams, and lakes; forests have trees and wildlife, mushrooms and hidden trails; rocks and minerals can be handled and observed. People naturally gravitate toward that which they can see, hear, touch, smell. Those of us who interpret groundwater belong in the same category as oceanographers and astronomers – we have to find ways to shine light on the distant, the unseen, the dark depths. Groundwater educators are often relegated to classroom tricks: pricy mail-order model kits, demonstrations with sponges and jugs of water; the ever-present blue and red food coloring.

And that’s what makes the Peachoid so “juicy” to me. Like other water towers (though with much more sweet southern flair), it is one of few visible signs of the vast, underappreciated, precious water resources beneath our feet. The columns of water reaching skyward remind us of the plentiful water underground but also of our utter dependence on it. Once tainted, even our human ingenuity may not be enough to clean it up again.

So next time you’re driving by the Peachoid with others, strike up a conversation. Yours might be about agriculture or iron; mine would go something like this. “Hey, look! A giant peach! What could it be doing in the middle of upstate South Carolina? Have you ever seen something like this?” Before you know it, we’ll be deep in conversation about the aquifers that millions of southerners rely on to supply water to their taps.

What landmarks near you are jumping-off points for interpretation?

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