Archive for April, 2014|Monthly archive page

Growing Interpretation Through Innovation – Audience Comments

In Uncategorized on April 8, 2014 at 9:01 PM

Keynote address to the NAI Region 9 Conference

Chico, CA

April 5th, 2014

ethan keynote chicoThis presentation was a dialogue on how to keep interpretive programs relevant and alive in a rapidly changing world. There was a high level of audience involvement with small group discussions facilitated by students from Humboldt State University and California State University at Chico. The audience consisted of about 100 interpreters from museums, parks, zoos, historical and other sites.

The talk was organized into the following sections:

  • Speaker led – “Building The Foundation – The Current State Of Our Changing World”
  • Small group discussion – “What Changes Do We See At Our Parks And Facilities?”
  • Speaker Led – “3 Examples of Innovation In Interpretation”

-> Reaching new audiences – California Department of Health Service
-> New funding ideas –Aquarium of the Bay
-> Innovative use of technology – Monterey Bay Aquarium

  • Small group discussion – “How Can We Innovate At Our Sites?”
  • Speaker led – “Tips” For Growing Programs”
  • All group open discussion –
  • Speaker led – Closing thought

Each group facilitator recorded notes from the small group discussions.

As you read these notes, please keep in mind:

  • Each group recorded in a slightly different manner. Where site or individual names were included, I have included them here.
  • Not all comments were captured
  • The value of the presentation was in the experience of being in the room – this is a mere snapshot of what occurred, what was discussed, and what was felt.


Question 1:“What changes have you seen in your park or site in the past 5 years as far as types of visitors or the way visitors use your facility.”

 Alternate Question: (for students or those not currently employed in the field):

“What trends or changes do you see in society that may impact interpretive programs?”

Marshall Gold Discovery State park

  • Variety of ethnicities
  • Use QR codes
  • More local visitors with downturn of economy
  • Overall decrease in visitation
  • CA does not pay for funding in historic parks
  • Histortainment – not teaching but entertaining


  • More ethnicity
  • More families getting out


  • Demand increases in tour
  • Want behind the scenes
  • Very diverse – with high demand of use, but limited access


  • Bay Area movement –> gets kids outside
  • Lack of awareness of what is offered and find rangers unapproachable
  • Lack of diversity in types of programming
  • Need more outreach –> in and out of parks


  • Have audio tours in 10 languages
  • Like the cell phone idea
  • “We don’t know” – think they would go if they knew
  • Local schools are coming –> willing staff but limited funding.
  • Boat fee is limited –> platform for education is there but not utilized

Gold Discovery SHP

  • Have handouts in 22 language –> it works –> they appreciate it
  • Need to innovate more frequently
  • No advertising in what they offer downloading maps/brochures


  • They use smart phones
  • It not about technology: it’s about experience


  • Technology –> hikes w/iPods
  • Does it ruin interaction?
  • Access to field guides

Bre Glaze

  • Pop-culture and media way different from upbringing
  • Ipad in field to show birds & birdsongs gets students excited

Ryan Spencer

  • From slide projector to PowerPoint to PORTS video conference on green screen
  • Depends on funding to determine level of support
  • No longer “stuck” in old ways, pressure to change from lower rankings

Jenn Tarlton

  • Diversity of students have changed dramatically, especially with Hispanic students
  • Demographics of people outdoors is changing
  • Technology dealing with students on phones during tours
  • Have aps or sites to access field guides to help keep them engaged
  • Environmental Education competition
  • Students understand more while others struggle to stay engaged –> educational gap

Leticia Padilla

  • Groups of students really influences parent participation
  • Socio-economic status determines who can come
  • Having nature not a part of their reality.
  • Fisherman illegal catching fish possibly because of language barriers and lack of information


  • Common theme is lack of connection to nature and having students get outside


  • Less interest, more into water resources
  • Must use different methods to attract people, i.e. floating campsites


Santa Cruz

  • Increase in Mtn bikers/extreme use visitors
  • Increase in young families; want more “fun” recreation opportunities


Golden Gate National Recreation Area

  • More multi-cultural, being more inviting, i.e. multi-lingual signage
  • Hiring more multi-lingual employees
  • Site-specific multi-lingual signage and verbal interp
  • Need to tailor programs to specific demographics that visit specific sites



  • Technology with cell phones
  • Young children with cell phones
  • Changes in ethnicity
  • Inner city people have less opportunity to recreate -> Frame messages toward this group
  • Visitation is same over the year possibility because of gas prices
  • Diversity of visitors
  • Slight decline in student visitors
  • Decline in wilderness area visitors
  • Increase in confidence because of new equipment
  • Address the equipment – need more survival skills
  • May take extra risk
  • People panic when there is no cell phone reception
  • More visitors that are not English speakers
  • More technology – shiny thingitous
  • Multigenerational visitors (East Indian, Iranian, three generation families not from America) really seem to take full advantage of the sites)
  • Some know more about the parks than the people who live nearby.
  • Technology shifts and expectations of technology in the parks from visitors
  • But where can you put communication towers in a natural setting?
  • Everybody uses the internet, Google maps etc., has become a part of our culture
  • Using sites for special events (baby showers, bachelor parties, etc.) is occurring more frequently
  • Broader awareness in cultures/traditions is happening

o   Ex: Christmas/holiday presentation provided an experience that was unique to visitors from countries who don’t celebrate the holiday

  • Knowledge of audience is changing
  • Is there a higher respect level from visitors who are foreigners?
  • Beautiful parks in different countries that utilize their land
  • Ex: Medicinal plants and gardens in some parks in India
  • Connections to the land that the US is just now looking at
  • What can you utilize the land in the US for that still conserves and protects it?
  • In other cultures, for example, Mexican/Latino, there is an expectancy to use the site
  • internet, instant gratification, quick easy access to info
  • gas prices, people stay closer to their homes, local regional interest
  • Smart phone provides access to info about the park.
  • Perhaps an interactive tour with the cell phone.
  • Are parks pushing the iphone or tech and apps onto people or vice versa?
  • People are still interested in personal interpretation and that desire that personal contact.
  • Visitors remember park interpreters
  • Visitors are used to interacting through digital tools and they help them to know what to expect at that park
  • App helps further knowledge
  • Instagram is a really big app and people are “bragging” about what they do and parks are one of the things they brag about on Instagram and other social media
  • Park can have Instagram and visitors can hash tag (#) the park.
  • Buzz feed experience check list and show that park off
  • Tech is a chance to inspire people through applications and social media
  • Meld between social media and personal interpretation
  • Rural sites that don’t have access to networks can’t participate in the social media tools
  • If they miss personal interpretation they miss a chance at interpretive connections. Unless there are signs.
  • Some parks don’t allow for Facebook and Twitter
  • Tech provides pre visitor research and possibilities
  • Include QR codes in visitor guides
  • Create Park Hash tags (#) or twitter feeds and have visitors “follow them” à popular with youth
  • Cameras everywhere (in Monterey Bay Aquarium); people rely on them for safety -> they leave their children unattended, assuming the museum is a safe environment
  • Opening age ranges of education (programs are no longer for either children or adults, but both)
  • Family adventure focus [does not stop, talked about in the car ride home]
  • Changing Expectations – presentations (interpretation) are expected by visitors in parks. They don’t just want what they can get online, they want more
  • Interp/Staff Involvement; more interp training is involved. Interpretation includes ownership and meaning making by the interpreter. Meanwhile, budget cuts are cutting staff to the most passionate workers who will not leave despite pay cuts
  • Increased attendance of 20+ age group, and a larger group of Russians and Native Americans visiting
  • The ‘old guard’ of interpretation is worried about being the “Last Child in the Woods”; they want to bring in new people to take over, but they don’t have the funding. The ‘old guard’ also questions if the virtual trend is bad, because the virtual experience is not real
  •  Need for electricity: more disabled visitors; need more wheelchair access
  • Technology: delivery of programs
  • Interactive/panel display desires: with QR codes on signs to further interpret the surrounding environment
  • Need of sensory, spirituality in interpretive signs
  • Diverse crowd increase: more accessibility for multiple racial groups
  • New generation has shorter attention span, need of incentive to visit or read all content
  • Staying away from negative reality: the want of the agency to have visitors experience only the beautiful parts of nature as opposed to the harsh reality – (for example: a trail that would bypass a landfill as well as a sewage treatment plant)
  • Difficulty translating information to be interpretive with new methods of interp.
  • Technology: Expected by guests, presence on social media, literacy and keeping up to date.
  • Dependence and panic when not available. Need to balance this with natural settings
  • Interest groups: balancing needs, increase in organizations and how different groups use an area
  • Bureaucratic barriers: school fieldtrips, transportation issues lead to walking, budget, testing, environmental educations restrictions
  • Young minds: school group’s college students, pre-k- grade school have different expectations and needs at sites. They are the future of interpretation (audience and employees)

Question 2

“What new ideas and strategies could your agency or site employ to attract new visitors, better serve current visitors, or raise new money? Assume money and staff are not limiting factors.”



  • Social marketing to reach under represented that are illiterate or distrustful and share resources to gain relationships
  • Trying to create bonds between people and the underwater world to pull up videos to build emotional connections
  • Restoration work to work with community involvement
  • To raise money -> “watch your plant grow” through live feeds to instill ownership


  • CA Dept. of Public Health did needs assessments – needs assessments task force of local governments
  • Develop partnerships
  • Make message more approachable to all, since visitors are diverse
  • Brochures in many languages
  • Pre-recorded interpretive talks – good use of technology
  • Make apps for parks about trails and wildlife hazards
  • Social media
  • Outreach to diversity of cultures to pull them into parks
  • Partnership with NASA (or other companies with lots of money) and innovative technology for education
  • Partner with outdoor equipment companies that sell equipment for educational programs
  • Unitize technology for children outdoors – QR codes to guide them for what they are looking for
  • Seafood App (currently available)
  • Have alternative for different types of visitors
  • Use hash tags – Snapchat, twitter.
  • Have a bilingual staff that can relate to the culture/visitors better
  • Hands on learning
  • Internet access
  • Newer technology
  • Applications for phones don’t necessarily need internet connection in order to work -> Example: iNaturalist
  • Agencies are behind the time
  • More staff of websites, knowledge of computers, graphic design, and social media usage
  • Maybe more staff with marketing skill sets
  • “Photo of the day” contests
  • “Monument stewards” in Sequoia are an example
  • Have to be strategic about where time and money is placed
  • One example of raising money: Utilizing the fig trees to make fig ice cream in the park -> it connects visitors to the resource
  • Innovations in transportation might allow people to access incentives to participate within regions. National parks/other services reach people in recreational settings with interpretation
  • People who want recreational experiences also want to learn which requires the leader to be a naturalist
  • Outreach to those who are unfamiliar
  • Inspiration from one site could encourage others -> cater to different groups with common interests
  • Vouchers for different destination
  • Commercials about parks online and TV, reach through media
  • Reach new audiences in museums. Themes events based on common cultural concerns of the community.
  • Outreach based on their interests.
  • Cater to certain groups, particular audiences to attract participation based on community
  • Universal themes, family, love, safety
  • 5th grader gets in free pass, community snow bus funded by local events
  • Get kids into the resource by catering to their needs
  • Problem with new visitors to Alcatraz because of the boat cost being so high ($30)
  • Free boat would really help
  • Maybe partner with other orgs. Maybe charge 10 cent fee to every boat ticket that could go to a fund that could then reduce boat ticket prices
  • Alcatraz friend group help with other funding regimes to get around gov’t policy barriers
  • Innovation to transportation
  • Partnering with organizations for festivals. E.g. Black Diamond Park in Antioch. à Unknown to a lot of community members.
  • Could serve as a venue for festivals to gain new audiences and get involved with the community more. Could attend more community events to do outreach
  • Music and beer festivals to reach more audiences
  • Mobile education into communities. Regional, state and national scales. Use a mobile visitor center that can be taken to events and serves at and outreach tool. Ideally each and every park has a mobile outreach operation so they can bring the park to the people during community events
  • Transportation is an issue
  • Children and transportation issues with schools. They no longer send children to park fiend trips
  • Need to find funding to get children into nature and our parks at least 1 time/year.
  • Some schools do not allow parent drivers -> find grants to fund busses since schools don’t have money to do this.
  • Park should have more free days. Some already do this
  • Target underserved communities. There are legal boundaries that prevent some outreach to target underrepresented communities. Raffle free tickets for everyone but then target outcasted/underserved neighborhoods
  • Use PORTS more
  • Stay in touch with the world around us and quickly it moves and changes
  • Partnership Dependency; need an efficient use of resources. [Why make the same program twice? why have more than one sign making agency?]
  • Focus on Mission & Goals, but are those goals universal? How do we make them universal?
  • Recreation trend evaluation could lead to more focused/worthwhile investment
  •  Evaluation; need more front end/backend evaluation
  • What are 4 great evaluation questions? How do we have effective evaluation?
  • Improved global communication (technology) also amplifies mistakes. It can also broaden the message conveyed by the park as the message is interpreted by park staff. This can be good because it creates a more diverse message, and minimized normalization
  • Park Staff is having a problem being believed by visitors and administration
  • How is park staff to convey problems to agency through bureaucracy? Appeals for training include;  “how do I make effective elevator messages?”
  • Add cell phone service as this is a limiting factor
  • Partnerships!!! We need funding, help increase visitation
  • In classroom enthusiasm, excitement that child brings home to parents to encourage parents to come
  • Volunteer opportunities in order to meet high school graduation requirements or other organization requirements – for example: trail clearing, removal of invasive species, counting of species etc.. maybe offer a shuttle service?
  • After school/Jr. ranger programs and put on uniform to feel what being a ranger would be like
  • Parents chaperon/volunteer on field trips in order to see the children’s excitement
  • Google glasses
  • “Boot camp” to train interpreters in uses of technology
  • Holding phone up to see what a site looked like x years ago
  • Ask new grantees for money
  • Need to meet people where they are instead of imposing an outdated ideas on what their experience should be
  • Create a theme such as “picture of the day” and let visitors know at the entrance to take a photo of their favorite part of the park. Have them upload the photo to the internet via social media (Twitter or Integra) with a certain hash tag for that park. The park will then use those photos and incorporate them into the campfire program at the end of that day. It will be a good way to connect the resource to the visitor. Have an option where visitors can order their photo with a special frame from the park at their home before they get back from visiting the park.
  • Incorporate a “park hopper”. Have information about other parks for a particular order that the parks should be visited in. Incorporate some sort of achievement system online where people can show off what park hoppers they have been on. For example, going from Redwood National Park and then going to Six Rivers National Forest and then going to Yosemite National Park and naming that certain route that people can then post on the achievement system. Have an automated system for park interpreters or park staff to address people who plan on going to the National Park or protected area and encourage them to check out certain places within the park and what park hoppers are currently available. People like earning achievements and this would be a good way to incorporate another type of audience who may not visit parks.
  • Think long-term with ideas
  • Pick partners with like-missions, not just lots of money
  • Ranger badge where kids can pick up a badge that they design online at the park when they arrive. A good way to connect the visitor to the resource as well and have kids get excited about something ahead of time.
  • Incorporate some aspects of cultural tradition/events into programs.
  • People need to feel a part of re-greening the planet. Incorporate some way that people can feel like they are a part of improving the site, making it better for future generations.
  • Default ways we reach people is through signage and pamphlets – Instead: form a task force
  • Cooperation with technology against visitors – text messages to alert visitors to features
  • Boosting technology in appropriate areas
  • iBeacon: use of GPS to link with features
  • Audio tours
  • QR codes to link to online brochures
  • Needs assessment: visitor set goals
  • Unitize partners and cooperation with other agencies
  • Outreach to bring awareness and accessibility
  • Increase in college students for technology within the sites


Jenn Tarlton

  • Office of Education to get funding
  • Having interpreters more informed about marketing, knowing audience and addressing visitors.
  • Be proactive instead of reactive.
  • Training to implement new ways, especially with technology

Ryan Spencer

  • PORTS program does good job of partnership
  • Evaluation/data collection instead of instinct or intuition learning demographics


  • Being unplugged when going into nature can leave visitors irrelevant -> “Suck it up”
  • Remain open minded to taking technology outside to improve self as an employee
  • Interpret communication with other agencies to have people “buy in” to environment

Bre Glaze

  • Stepping out of the box to work on technology



Click HERE to download a PDF version of these notes.

Click HERE to download a PDF of a condensed version of these notes.


Related Article

Interpretation In The Real World

Copies of the evaluation forms are available – they provide valuable insight into audience reaction to this presentation. For more information on the presentation, if you have corrections to these notes, or are interested in having this presentation offered at your region or worksite, please contact Ethan Rotman at





Interpretation In The Real World

In Uncategorized on April 3, 2014 at 7:05 PM

Authors note: Interpretation the art of presenting information in a manner that inspires and provokes listeners, allowing them to find new meaning in what is presented.

The term “interpretation” was coined by park rangers in the 1950s. iSpeakEASY teachers interpretation as a communication tool – one that is very effective in both the public and private sector.

This article was published by the National Association For Interpretation in March, 2014.


Interpretation In The Real World

I believe that interpretive principles, when properly applied, can work to change attitudes, behaviors, and they help audiences see things in a new way. To realize the full benefits of interpretation, we have to apply it every day.

I have seen few approaches to communication that are more effective than interpretation. By engaging the listener, interpretation provides information that is relevant and important not just to the speaker, but to those listening. Interpretation helps open the mind of the listener and can change the way one looks at and understands the world.

Too often, interpreters practice interpretive methods only when I see interpretive professionals express a belief that interpretation should be practiced only when leading a program or speaking with visitors and, not during other communication encounters. We may not say this outright, but we show it with our actions. We do a great job with visitors and fail to apply our skills when speaking with staff, coworkers, family, or friends. In these latter situations, we tend to share facts and information and put too little emphasis on provoking, inspiring, or revealing. We save our best behavior (and skills) for guests instead if for those closest to us.



Interpretive conferences often provide such evidence, as some of the worst presentations I have seen have been at these events. Highly talented and skilled individuals stand in front of fellow interpreters and tell, explain, and give facts about their programs without using the more effective methods of revealing, relating, or provoking.

Let me share an example. Recently I toured a new interpretive center with a group of interpreters. We met with a woman whom I know to be an outstanding member of our field and profession. I have seen her in action and know her reputation is deserved. What was delivered that day though, was a rather uninspiring overview of the nuts and bolts of the operation. She showed us the buildings, took us outside to see exhibits and trails, and described programs. It was interesting as it is a beautiful site and a brand new program, but the presentation fell short of what it could have been. I did not get a “sense” of the place, or feel the excitement of this site and project. I wondered why she didn’t incorporate the fabulous interpretive skills I know she possesses.

I shared this thought with other members of my troop and they didn’t agree my observations. “It was not an interpretive presentation” they said. “She was just showing us her site”. But in my mind, her presentation was a showcase of missed opportunities. She had the chance to “wow” us with her skills and abilities and by doing so, inspire us to use new ideas and methods in our programs.

The talk provided the chance to engage with her audience on the role of interpretation and the opportunities this new site offers the agency, the region, and the profession. In doing so, we all could have been inspired to raise the bar of our own work and find ways to weave our programs together for the betterment of our agencies, the public, and the resource we all protect.

This woman’s shortcomings that day are not unique. Too often we save our talents and skills as interpreters for the trail or museum floor and forget to use them in meetings and conversations. By doing so, we fail to show our co-workers the best we have to offer.

I began my career in parks and other traditional interpretive venues. While I continue to work for a governmental resource management agency, I have taken these skills into the private sector – training people to interpret the value of their work, their product, and their services even though their line of work doesn’t involve parks or museums.

These individuals learn to relate their ideas in a relevant manner with the intent of provoking thought. They are encouraged to motivate the listener to change a behavior, belief or attitude. People in the private sector are learning to use interpretation every day and then feel the excitement as their programs and businesses flourish.

The results are amazing: increased sales, increased public and political support for projects, less conflict in the workplace, and smoother transitions to new systems. These clients are learning more effective ways to communicate so they can bring about the change they are seeking.

As interpreters, we have the skills to bring about change and we clearly have the passion and drive to do so. Why is it then that so many interpreters forget to use these skills in everyday life: in the places where it really matters the most?

The next time you have to speak to your boss or a subordinate, find yourself speaking to a customer service rep about the problem with your order, present information at a meeting, or find yourself in any more “routine” speaking situation, remember to engage the interpretive skill set you have learned. Take a moment to think of a way to present your thoughts in a way that inspires and provokes thinking. Guide your listener so they see things in a brand new way. Afterwards, take a moment to evaluate your “presentation” by the response you elicit from your audience.

Hone your skills to enhance the listener’s experience every time you speak. WOW your audience even if the audience is “just” a group of co-workers, peers, or your spouse. You may be surprised at how effective you become.

Interpretation is a great tool for use in parks and museums – and it has applications every time you speak with the intent of helping someone see the world in a different way. Keep interpretation in parks and museums, and apply it to your life every day.



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