It’s been said that after purchasing the land and building the facilities there’s only one thing left that can attract visitors and keep them coming back: interpretation.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” is true. It’s easy and comfortable to do our research, present our programs, hear the good words from the visitors, and be that quiet person in the background. But …out of sight, out of mind … if you’re out of mind you, and interpretation, will not be part of decisions. Budgets, construction, acquisition, and funding will always be high priorities, interpretation—not so much. Like Avis’s old ad, we must try harder. We must be visible.
1—Get serious. “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” and “The Main Thing” are two of my earlier blogs that are particularly relevant to this discussion. Interpretation is purposeful and that purpose is related to the site and agency mission and connecting the visitor with the resources that tell that story. Before your interpretation can be perceived as more than mere fun and games, merely entertainment for the visitor, you must identify your deep messages. This knowledge can give your work the importance of purposeful interpretation. Interpretation planning can identify your essential experiences and compelling stories. Knowing which stories are your most important can define your site experience and reshape your interpretation strategy. Each site should have this first phase of interpretation planning in place, for with that you have something of value to push uphill. You have gone beyond being the park jester.
2—Invite your supervisor and others in the chain of command, even those way off in the central office, to your programs and events. Not every program, but selected ones. Be sure you let them know you understand they are busy and let them also know that you have something pretty special going on and if they can make it you’d like them to attend. You understand that they can’t attend everything, but an occasional invitation lets them know what you are doing and puts your work in their sight and mind. You become visible.
3—Use the manager’s meetings. Most organizations have a monthly staff meeting and many have annual workshops. Be sure you, or the topic of meaningful interpretation, is included. It’s easy for these meetings to focus on budgets, buildings and maintenance and omit interpretation – underscoring the outdated concept that interpretation is merely an extra, just entertainment, not really important. It’s up to you to communicate with supervisors when the meetings are being planned and get on the program. Several years ago I got approval for a 1-hour session at the annual superintendent’s workshop where I recognized five of the best interpretation programs in the park system. I helped select the programs, based on quality and the program’s ability to set an example of a best practice program that others could model. But I didn’t present the programs, the superintendent had 10-minutes to tell why the program was successful. This meant they had to talk with their interpreter, learn how the program was conducted and why it was successful. This single hour focused on interpretation made good programs visible and that means a lot, and it became one of the most popular parts of our annual superintendent’s training, and continues today.
4—Create an awards program. This can start at one site, or at an annual interpretation meeting or volunteer banquet, or as part of a national or regional organization, or as part of a system like state parks. There are many benefits including that all important visibility factor. In addition to visibility, this is another way to recognize best practice programs, which then become models for others to emulate. Plus, these are fodder for the news media and that means positive visibility for your site.
5—Start an interpretation newsletter. This doesn’t have to be difficult and doesn’t need a mailing list of 100…maybe three is OK, so don’t let it get away from you. It can be a one-page newsletter, or a blog, intended to communicate positive information and best practices about interpretation to in-house staff. It can expand as you wish and might include volunteers or be something your visitors can sign up for to keep up with events and programs and to plan future visits. Plus, as a courtesy you send it up the chain of command. The point is that this is to be positive: stories of success, good programs to model, visitor comments, interpretive resale ideas and success, interpretive income, and praise for interpretation and interpreters. Also, this doesn’t have to be a monthly document. Think about producing it quarterly. That’s not so often and you’ll have plenty of information to choose from.
6—Speak their language. Know the benefits of purposeful, resource-connecting interpretation and be proud and confident in what you do. If you want supervisors to listen and to appreciate interpretation, then know your audience and use their language and appeal to their interests. Interpreters have made a living off of little platitudes like making people feel good, helping people like nature, creating good experiences, patting the bunny and doing cute things. Those are OK, but that’s not the world managers live in and those cute things aren’t going to garner much respect. You’ve got to know how interpretation makes your supervisors’ world better, and it does. Get off those feel good, tree hugger things and talk business: talk money, talk visitors, talk protecting the resource, and talk generating repeat customers. Briefly, good interpretation brings people to your site, fills lodging and restaurants, promotes the site, generates revenue, makes friends for the site, and instills a sense of deep meaning and value to the site.
It’s been said that after purchasing the land and building the facilities there’s only one thing left that can attract visitors and keep them coming back: Interpretation. No other part of management comes close to the good you do. Know it; talk about it; be visible. Be in their sight and in their mind.