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  • 9 Apr 2018 11:10 AM | Anonymous member

    By Don Enright

    For those of us who work as front-line interpreters, the chance to sink our teeth into an interpretive writing project can be equal parts exciting and terrifying. It can be so very rewarding to think that your work will be seen by hundreds or thousands of people; that it will be professionally edited; that it will have a graphic designer’s touch; that it will be printed on fine-quality paper or beautiful high-pressure laminate.

    But there are big, scary challenges with interpretive writing, and one of the biggest is trying to define the scope of the project you’ve been given. Everybody has a different definition of what interpretive writing is, and you need to ask a lot of probing questions before you take on the work. Here’s what I try to ask:

    1.      By interpretive writing, do you mean interpretive planning? Do you want me to identify your target markets for you, define your project goals, set out a thematic framework, and figure out where this writing project fits in with your greater vision and mandate? Because that’s a lot of work, and it would be really helpful if you had some of that work done ahead of time.

    2.      By interpretive writing, do you mean research and writing? And if so, do you expect me to track down primary sources? Or do you mean word smithing, where you have a subject matter expert put together a set of source documents for me to write from? Because A is really time consuming, where B can be done on the quick.

    3.      By interpretive writing, do you mean writing and graphic design? Am I expected to lay it out, choose the fonts, find the images and so on? And who will do the fabrication and installation? Because that’s a lot of legwork, too.

    Fortunately, you have a few tools at your disposal to help you take the bull by the horns and avoid wasting time faffing about with uncertainty.

    First, ask for a project brief. It’s a standard project management tool that includes the goals or benefits of the project, a project timeline, an analysis of risks, constraints and assumptions, a task list and a responsibility assignment matrix.

    “Now wait,” I hear you saying. “My boss would sooner sing opera on a unicycle than produce a project brief for me.”

    I hear you. Managers sometimes have trouble assigning work clearly and efficiently. I don’t know why it’s such a problem to them, except that for a certain type of manager, parting with useful information somehow compromises their power and control.

    So if that sounds like your boss/client, you’re going to have to write that project brief yourself. It doesn’t have to be onerous—it just takes a little time (and trust me, time spent clarifying a project at the beginning is going to be time, tears, and sleepless nights saved on the other end.)

    As a freelancer, I do this all the time with my clients: “Would you like me to write up a little proposal and timeline? Then you can tell me how it fits in with your needs and schedule.” Boom. Done.

    In that proposal, I’m always careful to write it in such a way that it highlights a) work I like to do and do well;  b) timelines that I can actually achieve and c) contingencies (a little extra time and money) for things going wrong.

    In my proposal, I break the work down into phases—even for a small project. It allows me to get things delivered early (thus thwarting my own procrastination), and to get feedback early. And I always subdivide each phase into three sections: a) input- what I need from my client; b) output- what I produce for you and c) outcome- what that effort is supposed to accomplish. I build in a feedback period after each phase, so the client (your manager) can sign off on the work before I get too far into the following phase.

    If I’m expected to work as part of a team, I always include a responsibility assignment matrix. These are magical tools, particularly if you have a client/manager who has trouble delegating specific tasks to specific people. Simply write a task list down the left side of a table; put the team members across the top of the table; then for each task, assign each team member a role. These matrices are sometimes called RACIs, because in the matrix, someone is (R)esponsible for delivering the task; someone else (A)pproves the task; someone else is (C)onsulted, and perhaps someone is simply (I)nformed. Everyone has a role, and nobody is confused. (One of the most intelligent rules of project management is that you never assign the same task to two people. Can you imagine how much easier your life would be if your boss always followed that rule?)

    I realize this sounds like a lot of left-brain, Type-A work for a writing assignment that should be creative and artistic and fun. But I find that it’s worth it. The creativity flows a whole lot better when I know exactly what is expected of me, and the feedback sessions tend to be a lot less stressful when I’m confident that I’m delivering exactly what is being asked.

    I wish you every success with your interpretive writing project.


    Project briefs:

    Google “project brief” and “creative brief” (not quite the same but related and useful.) Here are a couple of resources—




    For technical jargon, species names, capitalizations, abbreviations and the like, you need to get to know Termium and its accompanying style guide, “The Canadian Style.” These may be the most under-used writing resources in Canada, and they rock.



    About Don

    Don Enright is a freelance interpretive planner and writer who works with parks, museums, and other heritage organizations to help them fulfil their missions and increase their relevance. Follow Don through his blog at www.donenright.com, or contact him at donenright@donenright.com.

  • 12 Mar 2018 10:36 AM | Anonymous member
    By Lisa McDonald

    If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it. - David Sobel

    Parents and other role models provide the strongest influence in creating a child’s capacity to show empathy to other living things including birds, mammals and insects. (Mary Gordon, 2001)   

    In our staff training we emphasize that every interpretive team member plays a vital role in connecting children to nature. For the last 3 years our team has made it a goal to connect children to nature through their sense of touch.  

    Touch involves our emotion, thinking, sensing and motor systems.  It is so critical to human development that it is the first of our senses to develop in the womb.  When children touch-especially with the fingertips and palms of their hands, they begin to form an understanding of the world around them.  Recognizing the importance of touch we’ve planned our education resource acquisition to connect young hearts and minds.

    We began by supplementing our traditional teaching tools of photos, skulls and bones with small, realistic, whole animal toys. We’ve connected with several artisans that make life-like, soft-bodied, cuddly animal replicas through Etsy, the e-commerce website focused on handmade items.   We encourage even the youngest children to hold, manipulate and closely examine them, and yes, we encourage connecting through play. Items begin to look a little rough and ragged but we consider wear and tear tremendously encouraging and indicative of educational success!!

    Stories can also create powerful emotional connections.  When we encourage a child to think about how another person or animal might be feeling, we are helping them to become kind, considerate and caring.  (Mary Gordon; 2001) Communicating thoughts and feelings through face to face contact is a very important part of being able to understand the thoughts and feelings of another human being.  (Michele Borba, 2016).

    The lemurs in our new walkthrough exhibit sparked positive emotions in our guests and we wanted to take that connection further by creating a large, colorful, community conservation storybook to guide family conversations about lemurs and the forests they live in.  Messages of love, not loss were key to our theme.

    Our community conservation story is told by fictional Malagasy sisters, Tandra and Felona.  They share impressions of their life in Madagascar and we see that they have a mother, father, a baby sister and aunties.  They talk about their love of their home, lemurs and forests. The story, told through illustrations, words and photos is fun, simple and happy.

    Time is so precious to young families on the move.  A key learning for our team has been to lead play and storytime where guests have shade, water and comfy seating. Families and friends can rest, relax and relate while our teams are making inspiring connections with the children.

    Our next step is measuring the effectiveness of our techniques-something that our colleagues at St. Louis Zoo  and Seattle Aquarium are exploring. We think we’re on the right track. If you have any advice we’d love to hear from you!

    Lisa McDonald is the Manager of Visitor Engagement and Interpretive Planning at the Calgary Zoo.  She's currently exploring ways to connect with audiences through empathy development,  conservation psychology and nature play.

    If you’d like to read more:

    Mary Gordon, Roots of Empathy, 2001.

    Michele Borba, Unselfie, Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in our All-About-Me World, 2016.

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