In August of 2012, an in-depth study of live interpretive programming in the United States National Park service was released. Titled "Identifying best practices for live interpretive programs in the United States National Park Service" (available for download here) all of us involved with delivering interpretive programs would be well served by taking the time to read this study.
There are many points to get out of it and I think its findings deserve more attention and discussion in the interpretive profession. Written by Dr. Marc Stern from Virginia Tech and Dr. Robert Powell from Clemson, the report asks two fundamental questions:
1. What are the most common practices employed within National Park Service live interpretive programs?
2. Which practices and approaches most consistently lead to more positive outcomes for visitors?
This study does not seek to provide empirical research for the efficacy of interpretation in general, nor does it try to answer its questions by studying a single program or even a single site. The authors and their research team attended 376 live interpretive programs in 24 units of the National Park Service. The units chosen show a good cross section of the places the NPS does interpretive programming. They are diverse in scope, location and resources interpreted. Sites range from the Jefferson Expansion Memorial to the Grand Canyon and from the National Mall to Badlands National Park.
Outcomes measured included Satisfaction, Experience and Appreciation, and Behavior Change. Of these the results showed a high degree of satisfaction approaching an average of 9.0 on a 1-10 scale. Experience and Appreciation scored a 4.3 out of 5 indicating the visitors found that overall their park experience was enhanced by the program and made enjoyable. However, behavioral intentions scored lower. About 40% of visitors reported an intention to change behavior as a result of the program. Still an impressive number.
It would seem that either the quality of live interpretive programming in the National Park Service is exceedingly high or we satisfy visitors and enhance their visit simply by showing up. If these measures were what determines good programming then the parks are in good hands. But the research goes further through an in-depth analysis of its data to identify 15 “best practices”. These are program characteristics that were shown consistently to result in a positive outcome.
I was struck by the fact that seven of the fifteen related directly to the person delivering the program. These seven are as follows: Confidence, authentic emotion and charisma, appropriate pacing, audibility, organization, verbal engagement and an avoidance of uncertain assumptions about the audience. It should not be surprising that the person delivering the program has such a large influence on the outcome of the program. In the retail sales world, it is well known that in places where the sales staff is more engaging, aware of the customers’ needs and genuinely sincere and comfortable with the product, sales will increase. You are more likely to buy from a good sales person than a snarly, distracted, nervous and uninformed sales person, regardless of the quality of the merchandise.
When we train interpreters for front line programming we would be well served to remember the lessons of customer service from the retail sector. We are after all providing a value added service to our visitors and like the sales clerk, we wish to “make the sale”. Only in this case the product is a sense of stewardship for our precious resources. Nothing could be more important.