How to use story to improve your heritage interpretation

Look around, listen, and you will find that story is everywhere – in conversation, in advertising, in business, religion, therapy, arts.

Traditional stories, told and retold through generations.

Life stories – this is part of my mother’s story, as told my daughter, and shared with the wider family.

Business stories – use storytelling to capture knowledge and hold it in the corporate memory.

Story is all around. It’s dazzling. It is powerful. Story is not simply an enduring tradition, it is at the heart of contemporary communication.

Interpretation obviously needs a firm grasp of something this potent in human communication.

So how, in a nutshell, can focusing on storytelling skills help an interpreter – especially one who is writing panels, podcasts or leaflets? Mainly I think by helping us avoid that plague of interpretation – dullness. Dull stuff is dull stuff whether it is in sound or vision, on the page or on the screen. Story, like good interpretation, is about not being dull.

In this talk I can’t detail all the things I have learned about how understanding story can help our work as interpreters. You need to come to a workshop. But here are the most important ones.

  • Characters – all stories have characters who draw the listeners or readers in. Similarly people stories, well told, are gold dust for interpreters.
  • Drama and action – stuff happens in stories, and so it should in interpretation.
  • A cracking beginning – I have become more and more convinced of the importance of this in recent years
  • A good ending – it’s always there in stories, but regularly missing from interpretive experiences
  • Well-chosen words – like storytellers, interpreters have to be wordsmiths. Crafting the words carefully matters, whether they are written or spoken.
  • Pace and tone – interpreters don’t talk about this that much. We should.
  • Emotion, suspense, mystery and revelation –  vital ingredients that we should use to bring our interpretation to life and make it stick in people’s hearts and minds
  • Provocation – Great stories set people thinking, leaving them with a dilemma, a question, or a debate.

New stories – modern storytellers, whatever their medium, know what makes a good tale and a a great telling.

Many, maybe most, of you will recognize these as fundamentals of our craft. If you are less experienced, find out about them (for instance at one of my workshops!).


This is the second of several posts covering most of what I said at the Museums Australia / Interpretation Australia ‘At the Frontier’ Conference in Perth, Western Australia last year

My title was ‘Bridging experience: story as a vehicle for interpreters’. You can read the first part here.

About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
This entry was posted in Australia, Interpretation, Interpretation Australia, Interpretelling, Stories, Storytelling, Tips and advice, Training, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How to use story to improve your heritage interpretation

  1. Pingback: MAIA Conference, Perth, Western Australia November 2011 - keynote highnotes - TellTale

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