Storytellers or Interpreters – Is There a Difference?

Every now and then, I hear or see discussions of storytelling as being roughly equivalent to natural and cultural heritage interpretation. Certainly some interpreters use stories to help others understand places, people and

Costumed interpreters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, use music to share history and demonstrate cannon firing.
Costumed interpreters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, use music to share history and culture.

events. Conversely, some storytellers use an interpretive approach to enrich their work. But I don’t think that storytelling and interpretation are exactly the same thing.

Interpretation is defined by National Association for Interpretation (NAI) in the United States as:

A mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource.


Association for Heritage Interpretation (AHI) in the United Kingdom has the following to say about the work of interpreters:

We bring places, objects and ideas to life. We create thought-provoking and memorable experiences for visitors, and connect people with our natural and cultural heritage. We reveal hidden stories and meanings, so deepening people’s understanding and expanding horizons.

An interpreter at Longwood Gardens might tell a story as part of the experience but uses other media and approaches as well.
An interpreter, like Nancy, at Longwood Gardens might tell a story as part of the experience but uses other media and approaches as well such as this “Can you find” activity.

Both statements emphasize making connections and revealing meanings by the use of varied media. The AHI description mentions stories not to define interpretation, but as part of a process to design memorable experiences.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives these definitions for storyteller:

a : a relater of anecdotes

b : a reciter of tales (as in a children’s library)

c : liar, fibber

d : a writer of stories

Telling stories has a rich history of double meanings. Some people tell stories for a purpose, some to entertain and some to mislead. Interpretation has broad meanings outside of the heritage interpretation field and some of those seem to be less than honest, such as dream interpretation or reading palms.

Wikipedia suggests that:

Ghost walks like this one in New Orleans could be storytelling on a walk or interpretation, depending on the guide's motives to entertain or engage the guest.
Ghost walks like this one in New Orleans could be storytelling on a walk or interpretation, depending on the guide’s motives to entertain or engage the guest.

Storytelling is the conveying of events in words, images, and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation, and to instill moral values.

I don’t want to take anything away from storytelling. As a novelist, I enjoy spinning a story out of thin air, and as an interpreter, I enjoy helping people understand the depth behind a person, place, or thing by sharing relevant stories through a variety of media. Perhaps it’s the use of the word “story” that confuses the issue. In interpretation, we certainly talk about using “stories,” but perhaps we should be using the word “meanings” instead to avoid confusion with the process of storytelling.

In heritage interpretation we reveal meanings with a purpose, to help people understand people, places and events. We encourage an attitude shift. We want them to connect with and care more about the resource, place or event. Ideally they then become advocates, donate money or behave in more thoughtful ways. Motivation matters very much in storytelling also. Storytelling encompasses a broad variety of motivations, including deception, entertainment and self-improvement. Interpretive storytellers likely have similar motivations to other heritage interpreters, but use storytelling as their preferred medium.

We will keep using storytelling as a useful approach to interpreting people, places and events, but recognize it is only one of a variety of communication options that help people understand the world around them. We always hope that a deeper understanding leads to a desire to better care for natural and cultural heritage or provide more support for scientific research and exploration.

-Tim Merriman

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.

3 thoughts on “Storytellers or Interpreters – Is There a Difference?

  1. Whilst I appreciate and in part agree with you that storytelling is just one method that can be used in interpretation and that the two are not the same. However I’m not clear on the case you are making with regard to storytelling. Are you proposing that storytelling is inferior to Interpretation?

    To clarify, the word storyteller is often a confused and misundertood word and from your blog there is a hint that some of that misunderstanding. Your Merriam Webster dictionary quote also has a very strange and limited view of the ‘storyteller’ as well.

    I’m talking from the perspective of the Traditional storyteller and yes storytelling uses improvisiation, but not in the context that things are merely plucked out of thin air as you imply. An immense amount of research and work goes in to preparing for a storytelling, much more than many people realise, including making sure that the ‘motivation’ is clear. This ensures that when a tale is related, we have a broad and stable backdrop that gives relevence to the story being told. When we refer to improvisation, we are talking about the need for a teller to adapt to the audience in front of them. For a historical or environmental telling in the context of interpretation, we draw upon that preparatory work to ensure that if the audience in front of us is not engaging as hoped, we are able to adapt and redirect the story based on pysical cues from the audience (i.e. body language) to ensure the story being told triggers the connection you speak of.

    Whatever the medium of interpretation however, ‘story’ I would suggest lies at its heart. Humans communicate through story, whether we’re writing a letter, commenting on a photograph or giving directions to a stranger. Story is part and parcel of how we make sense of the world. So yes, you may not always want to use a storyteller to communicate your key message, but story (with or without the teller) will be present in whatever other form of communication you choose.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Carl. I do not consider storytelling inferior to anything, especially interpretation. I consider storytelling a specific approach to communication. I value it. I write novels which are elaborate stories and have written children’s plays for school reading texts and as you say, even when they are complete works of fiction, they require in-depth research. Telling stories that have basis in fact rather than creative fiction requires even more careful research, so I am not suggesting that storytelling is somehow a frivolous effort. On the contrary, I have such great respect for storytelling and storytellers that I did my doctoral work in oral interpretation of literature, specifically adapting literature to the stage and reader’s theater. I have used storytelling in personal interpretation and value it as a technique, and I also value it simply as an artistic expression of drama, humor, and many other emotions even if it has no specific purpose in support of a natural or cultural heritage site or event.

      The definition I quoted mentions improvisation. I was trained in the use of improvisation in adapting to the audience and other players to reveal meanings and deepen understanding (Dorothy Heathcote approach). I agree that great storytellers thoughtfully adapt to the audience and improvise in response to what they learn while performing.

      We may have a different definition for “story” in our personal usage. I consider that all good interpretation has a central idea or message, a theme. Themes are specific and interesting ideas that connect tangible things with intangible ideas. They are designed to encourage people to think more deeply about the people, place or event. We use a more specific definition of theme in heritage interpretation in the U.S. than I see in dictionary definitions, largely due to the good work of Dr. Sam Ham and his training and writing related to themes.

      We design interpretive experiences around a central theme that employs single or multiple storylines or stories and we design some that have no specific story but are designed simply to provoke thought as the intention of the experience.

      I am simply saying that interpretation and storytelling are not exactly the same thing. We create subtleties in language for a purpose, to encourage clarity about what we are saying. They are definitely related fields and terms. In the U.S. we have strongly allied thematic interpretation with supporting specific objectives of an organization or agency or community.

      In this blog I was writing in response to recent comments I have heard and seen that suggested that there is no difference whatsoever in interpretation and storytelling – that they are identical. I happen to disagree with that statement. As in most blogs, the views are my own and I never assume I am correct and others are wrong, but I think it is a good discussion to have.


  2. Hi Tim,
    Thanks for the clarification. I better understand where your coming from and yes I do agree with you. I had experienced the flip side of this on a forum where someone involved in interpretation totally dismissed the skills of a traditional storyteller on the basis that he felt all interpreters were already storytellers. Which, as you state is in part true, but also requires different skill sets. Thanks for your reply. Regards Carl.

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