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Spontaneous interpretation.


Does the idea of spontaneous interpretation make your hands sweat? Even some of the best interpreters, who research, write, and present incredible programs, freeze up at the idea of roving interpretation. Many people think that the ability to interpret a resource, anywhere, any time is a gift. Some people have that gift, but the rest of us can learn to do spontaneous interpretive programs.

We all work in settings that demand us to multitask. I have yet to meet an interpreter who did not have other, non-interpretive duties assigned to them. These duties often put them in contact with visitors anyway. Working the front desk, working around the facility, cleaning up and gardening, trail work, maintenance work--all of these public area activities offer chances for spontaneous interpretation.

Quality interpretation can happen any time, anywhere. All it takes is knowledge of the resource, knowledge of the audience, and appropriate technique to take advantage of an interpretive opportunity. Sound familiar? (KR + KA) x AT = Io.

The National Park Service's interpretive equation gives us the outline for how to put together quality interpretation, but just how does that work outside a formal setting?

Spontaneous interpretation differs from formal interpretation by being conversational. Instead of the interpreter being on the stage and the focus of the program, think of spontaneous interpretation being a chance encounter to chat about resource related topics.

I work at the Ozark Folk Center State Park. We are an Arkansas State Park where the mission is to perpetuate, present, and promote the Ozark way of life in an educational and enjoyable manner; through craft demonstrations, musical programs, the Heritage Herb Garden, workshops, and other special events. There are more than 20 heritage crafts such as knife making, broom tying, quilting, spinning, woodcarving, pottery, and more created and demonstrated at the park.

As craft director, I get to work with more than 50 craft interpreters who demonstrate, create, and sell their crafts in the park. Some of these folks are naturally outgoing and jovial. others struggle to smile and greet people who enter their workshops, but they are all excellent interpreters and incredible demonstrators. They don't do regularly scheduled programs. They spontaneously interpret whatever they happen to be doing in the process of creating their craft to any visitor who walks in the door. We get many comment cards about how friendly our folks are and how people love to spend time with each crafts person. When I asked them their secret for creating that connection, I got similar answers.

"I smile and speak to each person I meet and ask if I can help them or offer to tell them about what I am doing," said Rusti Barger, fiber artist and printer's apprentice. "If I'm spinning or printing they're frequently drawn to the machinery. Everybody loves wheels that go round! Then I give them a brief explanation and give them an opportunity to ask questions."

In my daily work, I travel the park from one little shop to the next, running messages or paperwork or whatever our interpreters need to make sure the visitor has a quality experience. I have a generally sunny and outgoing disposition, so it is easy for me to smile, greet visitors, and direct them to the bathrooms or the music show. But when my fellow interpreter, John Morrow, arrived in the park as our new superintendent, I learned how to take those skills to a new level.

During his first week at the park, I watched as John engaged the visitors in his new park. He smoothly greeted them, asked them what they were interested in, shared information, and after less than five minutes left the visitors happy, headed to the craft workshop that interested them most, and feeling they were a part of the Ozark Folk Center State Park. I was amazed, and determined to learn how to engage visitors like that. could I learn to do that?

According to John, there are three key components to spontaneous interpretation: opportunity, approachability, and message.


opportunity can be created or exists where you least expect it. You know where to find the people in your park. Go find them, or be on the lookout for openings with visitors. Opportunity often arrives as a question: "What tree/flower/ animal/geographic feature/culturally significant object is That Thing over there?" Answering that question with a simple identification is not enough to count as spontaneous interpretation. While you might be able to drown the person posing the question with facts all about That Thing, instead try one interesting fact and then work on relating That Thing to you, the site, and the person.


How can you achieve approachability? This varies with visitors from differing cultures, but a universally understood greeting is a smile.

"Smile, be present and attentive without being overbearing," said Tina Marie Wilcox, chief herbalist and interpreter at the Ozark Folk Center State Park. Greet visitors with your local or site-accepted form of "Hello." Eye contact and a smile create the best approachability, and are the basic building blocks of hospitality.


Just because spontaneous interpretation is informal and impromptu does not mean that you can forgo the basic tenets of interpretation--theme, organization, and call to action. How do we put this together into spontaneous interpretive programs that connect visitors with our resource? How do we get that stranger on the sidewalk to love our site so much they want to protect what we are passionate about?


Go back to the familiar territory of the NPS formula, where the first part of the equation is "Knowledge of the Resource." Spend time out in the park. No matter what your area of responsibility, make it a point to explore the rest of your site as a visitor. Find things that pique your interest and look them up. When you wear the name tag of a site, you are expected to be an expert on it. Visitors won't understand that your facility is just one part of the bigger whole. In their eyes, you interpret the site.

What does this take?

"Lots and lots of research and practice," said Dona Sawyer, craft interpreter and resident stained glass artist at the park. "Plus loving what you do." Love is a good universal.

"Knowledge of the Audience" is the second part of the equation. How do you learn about your audience when they are people you have never seen before and you are just walking past them in the park? Ask questions. Ask them what they have liked about the site so far. Ask them if there is anything they would like to learn. Ask them if they've been here before. As you practice this skill, you will learn the questions that give you the information that helps you put together a relevant, spontaneous program.

"I try to identify types of people like shy types, curious types, and so on, and speak to their interests," said Mark Henderson, instrument maker and wood craft interpreter. "Get them talking and sharing, then show them what you have or do that might interest and excite them."

The opportunity to ask questions goes both directions. Interpreters use questions to learn about visitors, and visitors use questions to understand what they are seeing, hearing, and experiencing in the park.

Denny Maynard, long-time Ozark Folk Center wood carver said, "I ask them if they remember the old days. I like to learn from the visitors. Listening to them gets them involved. I don't like to ask them where they are from. I like to ask questions that direct folks back to the craft."

Which brings us to "Appropriate Technique." The skills you need to do quality spontaneous interpretation follow on programs that you have prepared and given before. Like all programs, you need a theme, beginning, middle, and end with a call to action. As you combine your knowledge of your resource with your knowledge of the audience you've just gathered, backed by your mental library of official programs that you do in your park, you can mentally link this knowledge with a theme. From there you can adapt a "stage" program to any situation. Like all programs, it takes practice and study.

"I watch the other crafters and try to emulate the best part of their interpretations, applying that to my own craft," said Bonnie Mergl, potter's apprentice at the park.

Practice and get out of your comfort zone. It feels awkward, but set up times with others at your park to role play spontaneous interpretive moments. Most interpreters self-identify as introverts, yet do a good job of speaking for the sites that we work for and love. To take that to the next level, we have to reach out to visitors. For most of us it is easier to plan a program, set the stage, and present the program in one place to visitors who have been invited. It is comfortable to put on that "interpreter mask" and step into the role of park expert. But most visitors will never come to the programs we offer. We need to take interpretation to them, out on the trails, in the exhibits, or at the lake.

Start today. Go roving, wipe your sweaty palms on your cargo pants, go find some visitors, and enjoy spontaneous interpretation.

Jeanette Larson, CIT, is the craft director at the Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View, Arkansas. She can be contacted at
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Author:Larson, Jeanette
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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