Thursday, July 26, 2012

Storytelling Advice (Complete with Legos)

See? My notes on upcoming
posts. I think in color.
I am drafting a post (well, several) about historic sites using digital media to enhance visitor experiences. I had a goal to write on that at least once a week (and here we are, eight days after my post about Twitter... what can I say? I operate on a Beatles calendar). But then I saw this article about storytelling from Pixar using images of Legos and my "ooh-look-something-shiny" kicked into full gear.

Awesomeness leaks from those photographs. First, they are made with Legos. Second, the ideas originate from Pixar. Third, each one of these story rules serve as excellent advice for any storyteller. Aha! And there is where I tripped up a little, when my shoulder interpreter and my shoulder historian started bickering. Again.

As a park ranger who is not a commissioned federal law enforcement officer, I have had my fair share of visitors ask me why am I "not packing heat." (Their words). I usually respond with a smile, "because I am a different kind of park ranger. I tell stories." That response usually serves as some sort of introduction to an upcoming ranger program or a lead into what interpretative park rangers do. Granted, I have only worked at parks with themes related to history. History is filled with stories, so it is easier to think of interpretative programs as stories (heaven help me if I ever have to give a talk about a tree). These stories told come from many many (many) hours of research and reading and learning and more research. Interpreters take the historical evidence and weave it into a story that engages both the brain and the heart, that connects visitors better to the resources, and captivates attention. It is a craft. It is not easy. I have seen some amazing interpretative programs and am in awe of those who delivered them.

I have found in my short past, however, that historians like what they do and often (incorrectly) assume everybody else will also enjoy history just as much. Historians also like to use a lot of words. A LOT OF WORDS. I am guilty of it, too. That would be when I choose to listen to my shoulder historian who wants to pack in all the information possible. Bam! Surely if we give visitors a thorough and complete analysis, they will walk away with something. And something is better than nothing, right?

Consider the average visitor and their knowledge of [insert related historical event here]. They are visiting the site to learn and experience! But place-based interpretation means historians have to pry their fingers from the abundance of words and consider simplifying. Provide the simple, thought-provoking information. Let the visitor take that information and digest it. If done well, the simple will spark interest that might lead the visitor to read more on the subject (then you can use all the words you want). Let the content be absorbed. Pause after making a statement. How does the detail you consider vital impact the information absorption by the visitor?

I like this idea for interpretive programming. Every ranger program is going to be different, based on visitors (and sometimes those major points you meant to bring up and craft an out-of-order story accidently... it happens). You can obsess over making something perfect or you can give it a "go." Try out your story on a group of visitors. Know that each program is an opportunity to get better. Visitor interactions shine light on what you can do to improve (e.g. what types of questions are generated). You have the gist of your content down, so jump in, and do better next time. There is always room to grow.

Okay, this idea threw my shoulder historian into fits, but it had ninjas on it (so I had to include it, duh). They frown upon your creative licenses during ranger programs when you just make your story up. But that doesn't mean you should ignore the tensions built into the human story. How do those threads of your story get woven into your story to build some tension and captivate your audience? That ties into the next idea:

Identifying with characters! This is important! I think it is vital for interpreters to identify with the characters in order to tell a story that will have the audience also identify with the characters. No, you don't have to dress up and shoot historic weapons in a wool uniform to identify with a Civil War soldier (though shooting muskets is fun). But maybe read a letter from that soldier. Or better yet, read a letter to that soldier. What could they have thought? What could they have felt? Assuming you are at a historic site and people are visiting a place, it isn't too much of a stretch to encourage thought about characters' possible relation to the place. How did the setting impact the story? The visitors' abilities to identify with the human elements of the story will help breathe life into history for them (like I said, heaven help me if I have to give a program about a tree). When people can see themselves in the story, asking "what would I do in that situation?" questions, you've made a connection.

Interpreters at historic sites have a challenge, mining for the historical evidence that tells a story and then telling it in a way that captivates the audience. It can be done. And you don't even have to break out the ninjas.  

*Disclaimer: these thoughts are my own and do not officially reflect that of anybody else's.

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