Training Guides to Interpret

We were walking down a path through a beautiful botanical garden many years ago and our guide was talking over her shoulder with only a few able to hear. When she stopped she would start talking and not wait for the group to gather. When asked a question she could not answer, she pulled a notebook out that was tucked under arm and looked up “the facts.” She became one of our examples of “poor guiding practices.”

Hope (left) and Julius Cesar (right) proudly wear their CIG pins after completing the course in Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda in 2013.

Everyone in our group was a professional interpreter or environmental educator and we asked about the notebook. She explained that was the training manual for guides, the big book of facts. They had been trained with content, but not process. Content is important and I think it is fine to have content experts visit with guides or interpreters and provide more meaningful understanding of plants, animals, history, universe or other subject matter to be interpreted at a given location. In fact, good guides will continue to be build their knowledge of content throughout their lifetime, but their process can improve with some thoughtful coaching.

The Certified Interpretive Guide course with National Association for Interpretation (NAI) was designed to teach the process of interpretation and encourage trainers to coach their trainees into better practices. Lisa Brochu and I developed the curriculum of the program in 2000 after a thorough review of other training available through agencies, universities and notable trainers. The resulting curriculum includes many of those sources (used with permission) as well as original material that came from our own background in providing training to interpreters at sites we’d worked as staff or consultants.

Dr. Sam Ham points out that your members of your audience might actually retain less specific information (facts) from a program if you are successful in getting them to think more deeply about the theme of the program. When people are truly engaged in an internal conversation because someone piqued their interest and engaged their desire to understand an idea, they may not even hear what else is being said for moments.

Great guide training should also get individuals engaged in more than memorizing facts. Modeling good interpretation with lots of interactive components will keep trainees engaged. They will have a better experience with the training if it is interactive rather than a straight lecture and so will better understand how to apply what they’ve learned in their own guiding.

Any tour company, park, zoo, museum, aquarium, nature center, historic site or community that employs guides or docents (volunteer guides) has an opportunity to advance their cause by improving guide training. You could send a staff member to NAI’s training to become a Certified Interpretive Trainer or hire those of us who have the credential and can teach the CIG course. We taught the trainer’s course for 12 years but now train Certified Interpretive Guides and Hosts for organizations and communities. Let us know if we can be of help.

-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.

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