Communicate Like an Interpretive Ranger
Originally published in my blog Cavilaciones in 2013.
What are the ways that communicating like an interpretive ranger can help with our education outreach and communication?
During a California Mini-Corps Outdoor Education Program training, our group had the wonderful opportunity to listen and learn from head interpretative rangers at Yosemite National Park. As we walked around Mariposa Grove, they shared their knowledge about the park much like they do with other visitor groups. However, since our group was there to learn from the rangers via their instructional approach, there were moments to “break down” the tips and strategies that help rangers communicate the wonders and information about the park to the great variety of visitors every year.
The rangers shared a “list of 5 tips” to help communicate information. The strategies and approaches are:
- Lead with Questions
- Cool Facts
- Personal Connections
I would add a sixth point: Cultural Context
These points should be recognizable to many educators and communicators. To note, this list is not meant to be a prescriptive or comprehensive approach, but it is important to highlight them because they can be a useful frame whether you are teaching your child about nature in your backyard or if you are a science communicator reaching out to the public.
Suppose you want to develop a lesson plan for teaching in the outdoors, want to make a presentation, or are doing a public outreach tabling event — it could be helpful to check how your work is peppered with these points.
Let us look at these points in detail and share my thoughts on them as well, given that I connect with them from an educator's perspective.
Lead with Questions: This is a straightforward approach that engages one of the brain’s basic needs — curiosity and answer-seeking. Essentially, even if you want to make a statement, it helps if you think in the form of questions. Even if you know the answers or the information you want to provide, frame it as a question so the audience can start thinking about the content and context you are going to provide. One such example you may see is in using questions for the titles of presentation posters. Another example is the title of this post. There are many types of questions, the key is that the ones you use help with the information you are covering.
Cool Facts: Cool Facts are fairly self-descriptive. You are choosing a unique or very interesting fact, or piece of information that brings about a “cool”, “wow”, or interesting note to your subject. You may know that Sequoia trees are big, REALLY big, but did you know that their root system is pretty shallow only about five feet? For one of the largest living things IN THE WORLD, that is pretty cool.
Analogies: This is using the structure of compare and contrast as a bridge between what your audience knows and what you are trying to communicate. You can think of it as context, but more specifically it is that you are providing a familiar frame that compares to your information. A metaphor or simile can also work, just make sure are making the comparison (or contrast) that puts your information into a context relatable to your audience. This can be done with technical measurements, visuals, or verbal descriptions.
Personal Connections: This can come from your questions or prior information about your audience. You can ask your audience what comes to mind based on what you are sharing. For visitors to the parks, it generally starts by asking visitors how they feel being in that place, about prior visits, or the reasons that they decided to visit the park. For teaching your child in the backyard, it could mean asking him/her what they like and why — or even what other family moments it reminds them of.
Stories: This seems like a pretty broad category, especially since the components of a good story can be a whole post in itself. But the important thing is that you weave an interesting narrative pertinent to the information you are communicating — beyond “just the facts”. One example for the Yosemite was the story of how the area was identified as a place to protect (of course within the context of Native dispossession) — and how Abraham Lincoln signed the law establishing Yosemite while dealing with the Civil War. That is quite the interesting story.
Cultural Context: I am adding this one because although it can be a component of the other tips here, depending on your audience there may be a good opportunity to leverage it to make a specific point, or at least provide an access point relatable to your audience. It can also help create affective connections — positive emotive links. In sharing about how a giant Sequoia comes from a tiny seed locked in a cone, I made the comment to a small group: “See, Si Se Puede” because of my knowledge base for these Latino students. It was a direct cultural reference (United Farmer Workers slogan now uses as a reference to overcoming odds) that reinforces the information being shared about how a little seed develops into a giant Sequoia.
These points are meant to be incorporated according to your style (voice, mannerisms, projection, etc). Depending on the audience, you may need to modify as necessary. You also want to ensure balance — relying solely on one point can skews or obfuscate the interestingness of what you are trying to communicate. Focusing just on “cool facts” becomes a list, and you lose the opportunity to make personal connections or leverage the power of stories.
So whether you are leading a hike in the outdoors, teaching your child via gardening in the backyard, or delivering a science presentation, we can benefit by taking some time and see how we can communicate like an interpretive ranger.