Interpretation tools

Props to a Parkway

by Eli Strull

Studies show most people don’t read signs, but those that do will be the better for it at Graveyard Fields on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was up there a few weeks ago and, being an interpreter, I pay attention to interpretive signs. Each one I saw impressed me.

Interpretive writing is not easy. I have done it for years and it is still challenging to be compelling, brief, make an impact, and tell a story. It becomes even harder when the audience includes anyone who visits a park and reads or can be read to. Still, the signs I saw did everything right. They had place-based context, interesting information, connections to people’s personal lives, and messages that were relevant and could appeal to a wide range of people. They were also eloquently worded and easy to understand. Attractive and accessible design elements tied it all together.

It is easy to take a good sign for granted, but when you have millions of visitors and no other way to reach most of them, a strong interpretive element could make the difference in meeting the goals of a site’s mission. It certainly enhanced my visit and I am grateful for it. Thank you, National Park Service, Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, U.S. Forest Service, and all others involved in the effort.

While looking for pictures of the signs because I didn’t have a camera with me, I found this link about what I saw. It turns out they were installed just a year ago. I have been there many times over the years and it did not occur to me they were new. I think this is a testament to their ability to fit into the landscape—another important design feature!

Sign at Graveyard Fields

One of the signs, as pictured in the Mountain Xpress article linked above, courtesy of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.

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Chicken Soup for the Interpreter

I don’t know about your site(s), but here at Latta Plantation, we participate in something called an ARD. And an IDP. And weekly TIPS. Oh and the ABC123, no wait…that’s a Jackson 5 song, my bad. The point is, we love acronyms almost as much as we love feedback. We have annual review dates, and individual development plans, and interpretive planning groups. We plan and review and critique everything. Rather than professional interpreters, sometimes we feel like roaming reviewers.



In addition to group sessions, each employee at the Nature Center sits down with the manager on a regular basis for a 1-on-1 meeting, in which the two can chat about life, the universe, and everything. It’s a valuable opportunity for the manager to offer advice to the interpreter, for either programming development or personal growth. It’s also a time when the interpreter can provide some of their own feedback for the manager, perhaps on how the center is running or a way the manager could provide better support. This is a vital part of why we are successful and absolutely a two-way street: when you feed your interpreters, you feed yourself.


Now, when I say “feed”, I’m not talking about food. Although you should never pass up the opportunity to bribe reward your staff with treats. If you’ve ever met an interpreter, you’ve probably noticed…we’ll do anything for food. Especially interns, whose stomachs resemble nothing so much as a bottomless black hole. What I actually mean is you should feed your staff with feedback, advice, and compliments. Just as food allows one’s body to grow physically, feedback allows us to grow as people and in turn, feeds your site with renewed, excellent interpreters. After all, it isn’t just the stomach that needs fed, it’s the soul too. And, yes, the ego. We all cherish that pat on the back, that “Well done!”, and especially that performance based pay raise! But we *need* that piece of constructive criticism, we have to have a little bit “That was great but…”, and we’ll never grow without a little pruning now and then.


Managers, in case they didn’t teach this in that secret manager night school, make time to talk to your interpreters. See how they’re feeling. Watch their programs and help them grow! Interpreters, watch your mangers (but don’t be creepy about it, okay) and let them know how they can help you! We all need support and we all need feedback, no matter how long we’ve been in the game. And we all need to remember to count our fingers after feeding the interns.



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Summer Reflection

August is here and summer is slooooowly drawing to close. Some of you may be done with summer programming and others may be still working through a few more weeks of camp (schools starts soon, right? RIGHT?!?). As we wind down what is, for most sites, an incredibly busy season, take time to rest, recharge, and reflect. This might mean going on a staff field trip to celebrate surviving the summer or hiding under your desk for a well-deserved nap (for my managers who may be reading, I promise I have almost never done this). Be sure to take some time to think back on camps and/or summer programs. This is your one chance to remember and write it all down before diving into the Fall season! Consider….

  • Which programs/camps worked?
  • Which did not?
  • Why didn’t they work the way I wanted them to? Should I change my parameters (age, space, time) or my focus (the topic rocks but do I need to address it differently)?
  • Why did they work the way I wanted them to? How can I duplicate this radical success next year?
  • Did I remember to lock up all the canoes?
  • How did my totally awesome co-workers support me this summer? How can I plan to support them next year?
  • After I planned for everything, what issues came up that I didn’t plan for?
  • What was the best part of the summer for me? How can I try to replicate this feeling next summer?

Every day(camp) offers a new learning opportunity, even for the most jaded interpretation professional. Take what you have learned, use your experiences, and create something even better for next year!

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by Eli Strull

Hobey Ford moved with focus. He was dressed in a relaxed way, all black. The backdrop was black too and the stage sparsely decorated. As I settled in for the puppet show with my children and parents, I realized quickly I was watching a master.

One thing I like about our profession is that I run into inspiration in unlikely places. While a skilled puppeteer who builds all his own creations was captivating an audience and celebrating the animal world, I was watching interpretation without words. It started with mime and moved to decorated foam animal figures moving effortlessly in an imaginary world he had painted with just gestures, movement, and music. Certainly thematic and universal concepts a plenty. Cool stuff!

So I have been thinking about ways to engage an audience beyond words. We all do that but a main focus for me is often the language I use. Have I been overlooking opportunities? I look forward to learning.

Hobey Ford can be found on YouTube and the inter webs.

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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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