The Interpreter's Handbook
Methods, Skills, & Techniques

Designing the Interpretive Program

Qualities of a Good Interpreter

There is an old saying that "By their fruits you shall know them." Certainly this applies to an interpreter, as there are definite characteristics he should have to deal effectively with the public.

Friendliness is, without doubt, the key to all good interpretation. There is something very negative about walking up to a person, and being met with a frown or an emotionless face. Here again, there comes into play another old saying: "First impressions don't wait; they cannot be postponed." The way in which you greet the visitor; the way you act in taking over a group; the way you present a talk; everything you do, in fact, contributes toward creating an impression in the other person's mind. If these impressions are good, the chances are he will be eager to listen to you. If not, he will more than likely tend to draw back mentally, thus blocking out what you are trying to say. There is something appealing about a friendly greeting and smile which tends to break down any reserve the visitor may have, and get you started on the right foot. It is a tough job to get a good working relationship with a person (or group) once you have created a mental coolness in him. No matter how well you know the story you are telling, something vital has gone if he listens with reserved politeness. Of course, being friendly does not mean being effusive and a "glad-hander." This can also create the opposite impression from what is desired. Frequently a visitor is in your area for the first time, and not exactly certain what he wants to do or know. He may be somewhat reluctant to walk up to you and ask questions, even if you are obviously there for that purpose. This is especially true if you are in uniform, as a uniform sometimes has certain implications to the visitor. Thus, if he is met with a friendly manner, he is put at ease immediately, and likely will be receptive to what you have to tell him. The same is true with an audience. When you come out on stage, there is likely to be a feeling of formality in the air; a feeling it is essential to dispel. A smile can go a long way toward accomplishing this. Be friendly, whether you want to succeed as an interpreter, a salesman or a ditch digger! It pays off!

Another important characteristic of the good interpreter is an interest in the visitor or listener. A cool, impersonal approach likely will insure a similar attitude on the other person's part. In my experience almost everyone responds to an obvious interest in how he is enjoying his visit, where he comes from, and what he has been doing while in the area. Many visitors are eager to talk to someone, and all enjoy mention of their home town or state. The interpreter who knows something about the visitor's home region has little difficulty in developing rapport. Naturally, interest in the visitor does not mean being a "Paul Pry" into his affairs. Simply be a good listener as the visitor talks. It is a most valuable asset.

Earnestness and sincerity are vital. There are many ways of telling about something, and the way your presentation is received depends in large measure upon these qualities in you. If the listener feels that you are simply spouting routine, that you have said the same thing a thousand times to others, and are just doing a job, be assured your message will not be likely to receive the interest it should. People know when you are trying to make your message interesting to them.

Be helpful. The interpreter who goes a step beyond what the visitor expects is doing his job as it should be done. Sometimes helpfulness is not appreciated, or you think it isn't, but it can never hurt.

Be neat. This is especially important if you wear a uniform. People expect a uniform to appear well cared for and presentable at all times. A visitor may be hot, uncomfortable, dusty, wearing a dirty shirt or trousers that need pressing, but he expects you to be cool, relaxed and well groomed. A shirt with perspiration rings, a tie that should have been discarded some time ago, trousers that need cleaning—these can badly weaken anything you are trying to do for the visiting public. If you wear a uniform, wear it with pride!

There is a mistaken idea that a good interpreter must be a polished orator. Naturally, fine speaking skills increase effectiveness of the interpreter, but they are not indispensable. A simple presentation, given with enthusiasm for the subject, is often more lasting than a fluid speech replete with dramatic emphases at selected points.

By all means, an interpreter must be accurate in what he says. I well recall my first campfire program many years ago when serving as a naturalist at Glacier National Park. At the end of the campfire talk I invited questions from the audience, and several were immediately forthcoming. One found me with no ready answer. Not wishing to appear poorly informed, I gave an answer, and immediately wished I could recall it. A gentleman stood up in the crowd and politely, but quite clearly, informed me that I was wrong and proceeded to give the correct answer. To say that my credibility with the crowd suffered would be putting it mildly. To say that my ego suffered would be an understatement. At this point I learned the value of saying "I don't know." If the interpreter cannot be sure of his statements he should not make them in the first place. Certainly he will not lose "face" with the audience by admitting that he does not know the answer; he will be crucified before them sometime if he tries to cover up his ignorance with the first glib answer that comes to mind.

An interpreter must know his visitor or audience to be completely successful. All people are different, and have to be treated individually. What is acceptable to one may not be acceptable to another. Some are timid and reserved; others are overbearing and domineering. The same treatment will not work on both. In both cases, tact is essential. If you wear a uniform, some people will show you a deference you do not merit. Others (if you happen to work for a government agency) will let you know in no uncertain terms that you are a servant of the people and that, as taxpayers, they expect special attention! Certainly tact is a real ingredient of the good and successful interpreter!

Many characteristics make up the good interpreter. The above are only a few, but they include the highly essential qualities.

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Last Updated: 01-May-2008
Copyrighted by Southwestern Parks and Monuments Association
Western National Parks Association