3 interpretive hacks to make your audience engage more

Please raise your hand if you have ever felt bored in a museum, visitor centre or exhibition. Yes, it sounded great in the guide-book, and it is a subject you are interested in, but now the endless words on the display, or audio-guide have you feeling sleepy or fed-up and thinking about the nice coffee and pastry ahead in the museum café…

What happened? You were sure you were going to enjoy finding out all about this subject! And now you feel lectured to and uninspired. The information is dense, with technical detail on the events and movements that took place. The story’s context is complex and meandering. There is something missing and you realise what it is…you simply don’t care!

Then another thought occurs – is this how my audience feels about my content?

The good news is that even complex and technical historical stories don’t have to be dull. By adhering to a few simple principles, you can make any story interesting and memorable for your visitors.

Make your content relevant to the needs and experiences of your audience

Human beings are programmed to scan new information for its relevance to them in their own lives. Make your content relevant by talking about the people in the story. This isn’t hard to do, after all, every action in history was carried out by somebody, and that somebody was a person with all of the fears, strengths, failures and triumphs that are universal to mankind.

Whenever possible, include something of the human experience, whether it is

  • the choices your story’s players had to make,
  • the challenges they faced or
  • the successes or failures that resulted from their actions.

The audience, whether they mean to or not, will relate these phenomena to their own lives. Once they have latched your content onto their own experiences, it will become more interesting for them and more likely to be remembered after they leave.

If it’s not already, think about how you can make your material more ‘human’. Is there a person in the story who overcome adversity after a hard struggle? Is there a hero, a traitor or a romantic fool? One or more of these elements always exists, our challenge is to find them, so we can humanise the story for our audience.

Make connections instead of just giving facts

If you present cold facts you will engage a small number of your audience, those who are particularly interested in the topic, or those rare folks who have a head for gathering information in this way. But if you ‘interpret’ your information for your audience, you will cast your net much wider and draw in more people to your story. Here’s a checklist –

  • How many connections have you drawn between aspects of your story?
  • How many connections can you find between the story and the lived experience of your audience?
  • Have you used sound, smell, touch or hearing to enhance the story?
  • Have you been provocative in your use of language or images?
  • Has the presentation got elements which could evoke personal feelings, sensations or memories in the audience?

Instead of teaching – provoke!

There was a time when museums, exhibitions and other presentations were all about education. And most education was based on the traditional ‘you listen while I lecture’ format. The aim was to stuff in as much info as possible in a limited time.

Now we know that the best way to teach people anything is to get them to really engage with it. If they think about it because they want to, they will apply it to their own circumstances or problems they are trying to solve.

This combination of ‘stewing’ then ‘doing’ leads to better retention and deeper understanding. We want to rattle people’s cages, wake them up and get them really thinking about the material we are presenting. The best way to do this is to be provocative.

Use this checklist to examine your material to see how many attempts there are to provoke a reaction in your audience

  • Have you given alternative views of things?
  • How have you presented controversial information?
  • Have you skirted around issues or brought them into the light?
  • Have you used emotional language to describe the places, people and events in your stories?
So that’s it, 3 ways to interpret the heck out of your content, we hope it will help you to look at your presentation from the point of view of your audience and start increasing engagement. Plus, we’ll be uploading a checklist to go with this post, so you can do a quick audit of your displays. Sign up to our blog so you don’t miss it!