Enjoyable or Engaging?

One of the most commonly quoted characteristics of interpretation is “enjoyable.” Sam Ham was one of the first to mention this term as a trait of what he calls the “interpretive approach to communication.” This makes sense to me – after all, if people are in a leisure setting and have chosen to be there, they can just as easily choose not to be there if they are not enjoying the experience. But I believe there is a subtlety that some interpreters may miss if they focus on the usual connotation of the word “enjoyable.” Webster defines it as “giving delight or pleasure” and I’m not sure that’s entirely what Sam Ham and others mean when they use the term related to interpretation.

Certainly, there are topics and places to be interpreted that are not delightful or pleasurable . . . stories of war, genocide, destruction of homes and property by fires or floods caused by human carelessness or natural events are just a few examples of important stories that can or should be interpreted at an appropriate place and time for the appropriate audience. But one would be hard pressed to call immersion in such stories “enjoyable.”

Recently, I’ve spent time in two such places – the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda. These museums have horrific, but important, stories to share. They both do it masterfully. And while I can’t say I enjoyed the experience at either location, I was completely engaged at both places. The stories and the compelling ways in which they were told, using a variety of media that was often simultaneously subtle and dramatically direct, were gripping. I’ve been haunted by both ever since, stimulated to learn more about the circumstances and the people involved. This is interpretation at its finest, engaging the audience in ways that keep the message (in this case, remarkably similar in both places) in the forefront of the minds and hearts of those who go through the interpretive experience.

There’s nothing wrong with using the term “enjoyable,” as long as interpreters and interpretive planners understand that the term encompasses more emotions than pleasure and delight. “Enjoyable” speaks to getting the right side of the brain involved in the experience to provide the necessary context for information to land and stimulate further thought or action. At least, that’s the way I’ve always thought of the term, but I’m aware that for some more literal-minded folks, the use of the term “enjoyable” locks them into feeling they must leave their audiences smiling rather than feeling whatever the audience chooses to feel. I’ve heard planners suggest that there must be a big “wow” factor that involves either an awesome building or some sort of expensive, high-tech media to light people up. Interpreters sometimes turn even the most serious of subjects into a series of slick comments and double-entendres designed to lighten the mood. While these may be the best approaches in some cases, they should not be relied on to substitute for finding more engaging ways to share the substance of great stories.

For that reason, “engaging” is the term we use in our HEART planning model for communities, businesses, and interpretive sites to emphasize the importance of developing appropriate communication strategies that accomplish stated objectives. To learn more about the HEART model and how it can be used to engage people in the stories of your community, business or interpretive site, we hope you’ll enjoy our recently published book, “Put the HEART Back into your Community: Unifying Diverse Interests around a Central Theme.”

– Lisa Brochu

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

6 thoughts on “Enjoyable or Engaging?

  1. I completely agree, Lisa, and think you have put it very well. I share your doubts about the use of the word ‘enjoyment’ in some circumstance. I often use a range of other words, including engaging such as enriching, rewarding, enlightening for all these reasons.

    A couple of years ago I scoured the visitors book Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin because some staff there had raised a concern that some of their visitors (especially those from the UK) might not find the tour that confronts visitors with the disturbing reality of British Rule in Ireland ‘enjoyable’. Sure enough, I don’t recall English visitors writing much about enjoyment. I do recall them consistently recording their gratitude for the experience, often in moving terms, in particular using the terms ‘eye-opening’ and ‘revealing’. (We don’t talk that much about that period of our history on this side of the Irish Sea). I have no doubt that those visitors had been engaged and had found the visit immensely rewarding.

  2. Thanks, Susan. Sam Ham says good interpretation gets people to think deeply. I’m finding more and more good examples of this, but they often deal with uncomfortable subjects and the very things that people would prefer not to think about at all. Yet if we avoid dealing with uncomfortable subjects, and refuse to face the realities of where we’ve come from, we will never learn from our mistakes. Lisa

  3. When I teach interpretation, I suggest “E” stands for enjoyable, engaging, AND experiential. The topic doesn’t have to be pleasant (i.e. enjoyable) for the interpretive experience to be. When people feel involved, communicated with, and respected, the interpretation can be quite enjoyable, even for a serious topic.

    Adding your article and thoughts to my files for future reference on this. Thank you.

  4. I have started to use the word “Edutainment”. Education that is entertaining. And entertainment is not always a rip roaring good time. For instance, the Titanic story is is sobering and dreadful tale. But it is entertaining. We are transported to another time and another place. We feel it. We are captivated by it. We know the outcome but still can”t look away. And yet, when we are being entertained, a little bit of knowledge slips in and we are forever and irrevocably altered.

  5. Great piece, Lisa, though I think in some cases it’s a matter of semantics. What individual people consider “enjoyable” is different. Some people don’t “enjoy” provocation or challenge or new ideas or being forced to think. Others do. To me, that’s what enjoyment means. For example, if I read a newspaper or magazine, or view a network that only agrees with my thinking all the time — I’ll avoid those media. I don’t want everyone agreeing with me. I want to be provoked. And I think that’s what we mean when we use the terms you provide. But I do agree with you that the term “enjoyment” may have too many positive connotations, i.e. — to be enjoyable something must make us feel good. Greek tragedy is a good example (as is the story of Anne Frank). Is Oedipus enjoyable? Or is it the cartharsis it provokes the key to what may be inappropriately called our “enjoyment?”
    Anyway, great piece.
    Doug Capra

  6. Thanks for the dialogue, everyone. Clearly, a topic of interest, and I’m enjoying being engaged in the discussion. I’m pretty sure there’s no one single right way to look at this . . . it depends on your objectives, your theme, and so many other factors. All the more reason to know what you’re trying to achieve before deciding on how to communicate with your audience.

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