The Interpreter's Handbook
Methods, Skills, & Techniques

Audio and Audio Visual Devices

The use of electronic devices in interpretation can be extremely helpful, and goes far toward presenting a well balanced program. There is no real substitute for the interpreter in guided activities and presentation of talks. However, the tape recorder, tape repeater, slide-tape show, and motion picture film can render most valuable assistance. In recent years, the use of radio and television offer additional tools to the imaginative interpreter.

Because these devices are of considerable importance, let us review some of the ways in which they are most valuable.


Not every agency or area can finance full scale audiovisual presentation. For those who must begin in a modest way, the tape recorder can contribute a great deal, and lay the foundation for more sophisticated programs as money becomes available.

Most tape recorders, including the cassette type, can be purchased for a reasonable sum. Once you have one, several ways in which it can be used are at your command. You are limited only by your imagination. However, the following should be helpful:

1. For recording talks.

The recorder is one of the best aids available in helping to train your staff, and yourself, in the skill of giving talks before audiences. There is nothing more revealing than to "dry run" a talk with a recorder and see how you sound. Weaknesses in presentation and organization become obvious as the talk is played back. Often you will find that you have over-used certain words, and that some are not pronounced right or enunciated clearly. Certain speech mannerisms will likely show up. Tone of voice and rate of speaking are faithfully reproduced for your evaluation. If you have one or more interpretive staff members, especially seasonal help, a recording of campfire, amphitheater or auditorium presentations furnishes the best possible basis for review.

2. For reference library.

Often a speaker develops an outstanding program on a subject that would be valuable as reference material or as an aid to other speakers who plan to speak on the same, or closely related, subject. Seasonal help find it most valuable, in preparing a talk, to hear tape recordings of other successful speakers and see how they handled the subject. Most really good talks are well researched, to be sure that all data used are accurate. Thus, the recording will include much reliable information that might not be known to the listener. Such tapes should be catalogued and retained in a library just as any book might be.

3. The taped interview.

There are many reasons why the interpreter should become proficient in carrying out a taped interview. Among them are:

It is valuable as a means of recording "dying" history. People get old, and too often their experiences die with them. Putting memorable events on tape as an early day resident of an area remembers them, recording reminiscences of an older naturalist, archeologist, etc., or recording old time folk tales, are examples of material that can easily be lost for all time. This writer recalls hearing an old timer relate his experiences with grizzly bears and how they reacted to early day hunters and trappers in the late 1800's. The stories were fascinating, but there was no tape recorder at that time! Valuable information was lost. One word of caution: When the interview is to be used as historical reference, never edit the recording by cutting it. Leave it "as is," in proper context. Re-record any sections you may need to use.

The recorder enables the interpreter to preserve voices of important personalities for posterity.

When a person is being interviewed, he will often relate more about himself or his experiences than if he were writing it.

The interview can sometimes be used as a "dub in" for movies or sound script, especially short sections of it. Permission to do so should be obtained first, however.

Here are some valuable techniques to use in interviewing:

Be sure the person being interviewed is comfortable before you begin.

Remember he is the one being interviewed. Direct the conversation through your questions or comments, but let him do the talking.

By all means get him to relax prior to the time for actual recording. If not, allow the interview to pass the "loosening up" stage before getting into detailed specifics.

A lapel or necklace microphone is usually better than one held in the hand or set on a table. He may be a bit overawed at sight of a mike, and the lapel mike is small and unobtrusive.

It is important that the interviewer be familiar enough with the subject under discussion to ask good questions. This may not always be possible, as the person being interviewed may be pulling on his past experience. Thus, the interviewer must be constantly alert to improvise, based on his own knowledge and background. This can usually be accomplished.

Usually the interview comes easy if you center the opening remarks on things that are likely close to him, such as his home, family, etc.

Avoid asking questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no."

Ask any formal or technical questions only after the interview has progressed a few minutes. By this time he is as relaxed as he will ever be.

Be ready to close out at any time that he may seem tired or ready to quit. Nothing is more deadly than an obviously reluctant interviewee.

Record the date, place and name of the person speaking. This can either be placed at the beginning of the interview or after it has terminated. Sometimes it is best to record it after the interview is over, and at a later time insert the recording at the beginning of the tape. This tends to eliminate one element of formality in the interview.

You might find it helpful to check your performance as an interviewer against the following:

Were you friendly?

Did the interviewee respond to your friendliness?

Were you interested in him as an individual?

Were you interested in his remarks?

Were you unhurried and relaxed?

Did you prepare adequately for the interview?

Did he seem at ease?

Did you try to reduce his nervousness or fear?

Did you get him to tell what was on his mind?

Did you give him enough time to talk?

Did you disagree with him verbally at any time?

Did you ask questions that were challenging or argumentative?

Did you listen to everything he said, or did you simply hear?

Did you encourage him to give examples or to elaborate on unclear points?

Did you close on a friendly note?

There are other uses for the recorder. It can be used in making tapes for exhibits, both for use indoors and for on-site. The portable recorder—the cassette type—can be used on guided walks to take along recorded sounds or narrative that you want your group to hear. Bird calls can be put on tape and taken into the field for playback at the appropriate time should the live birds fail to cooperate! Statements by well known personalities about an historic or archeological site, etc., can be used at selected places.


This device is usually associated with sites where you lack the manpower to do the job. It can be equally effective on self-guiding trails. At one time it was not possible to have repeaters on a trail due to lack of power, but this is no longer true, for good battery driven devices are now available. Some use underground cables from a source of power. Most repeaters are not completely all-weather devices, but are largely so.

There are several very definite values to the repeater:

It is very useful where the message is rather lengthy.

The human voice helps attract and hold visitor attention.

People like to activate things, and especially to push buttons.

There is always curiosity to see what the repeater has to say.

It is especially useful in historical and archeological areas. It is in character in such a setting. The voice is not out of place, and can impart drama to the text. Also, drama can be accentuated by sound, such as bugle calls, etc.

The installation and maintenance costs are not high.

As part of an exhibit, it can be changed without great expense.

Naturally there are some undesirable aspects to a device of this type:

Care must be exercised in choosing where it is to be used. In many out-of-door situations, especially in a wilderness atmosphere, it can be entirely out of character.

It can be an intrusion and an irritant. Definitely it does not add to the inspirational and aesthetic impact of a great scenic view. Not everyone wants to hear a voice at such a moment.

It is subject to vandalism and mischief makers. A pin jammed in by the side of the push button can cause lots of trouble!

It requires some maintenance and replacement. Temperature changes may adversely affect its operation.

Writing the message for the tape repeater is not a simple task. It requires considerable thought as to what you want to say and to whom your message is directed. Duration time is very important. Most messages should not exceed three minutes in length, and shorter ones are usually desirable. The location of the repeater has an important bearing on the message, as people tire rather quickly. If the visitor has to stand up while listening to the message, he will want to move sooner than if he is seated.

The repeater message is not just a vocal interpretive sign; it is basically a short talk. Many of the elements to be considered in presenting a non-illustrated talk must be utilized (see Chapter 4). The voice of the narrator must carry the full load, as few aids can be used. In some instances, sound can be dubbed in for background (such as the sound of cannon, voices, wind, etc.), but for the most part the narrator's voice is the central feature. The importance of word selection must be carefully considered. Even good speakers may have difficulty with some sounds; thus special care should be taken not to load the script with words containing the letter "s," as such tends to produce hissing sounds over a microphone.

Three items are basic in writing the message:

It must have an arresting opening. The first few words will either catch the listener's attention, or he will drift on to something else without hearing the entire message. Don't be hammy, but do get his attention!

There must be a quick, meaty story following closely on the heels of your attention-getting opening sentences. This is the reason for the repeater being used at this particular location.

The message should close out with a punch thought or sentence. Don't just come to the end and stop! Leave the listener with a feeling that this message was stimulating; that the subject is worthy of a follow-up. Your objective is to get immediate action on the part of the listener.

The tape repeater can be used in so many situations that its value as an interpretive aid cannot be minimized. When the actual interpreter cannot be had, it is a valuable and effective substitute.


Joining together of the tape recorder and the slide projector under electronic controls is a popular and effective device for short length programs designed primarily for audiovisual room and auditorium use. Its operation is simple. At the push of a button, the electronic controls start the tape, slowly lower the room lights, and turn on the projector. The program then proceeds, with electronic impulses on the tape controlling the change of slides. As the program ends, the lights are slowly brought up again, the taped message is terminated, and the equipment recycles itself, ready to start over again. It is then shut off by the electronic control. Nothing could be easier to do!

There are several basic values to such a device. Some of these are:

It offers the interpretive program considerable latitude and flexibility in subject matter, ranging from simple orientation to more complex subjects.

It serves efficiently where manpower cannot be committed to short, illustrated talks.

It can be operated by the information desk receptionist or other attendant without on the spot supervision. The simple pushing of a button does the entire job.

There are some negative factors that go with it:

It requires careful handling, as it is not damage proof.

It requires good preventative maintenance, which is a matter of constant concern.

Initial cost of the various elements in the equipment is not cheap. However, the machine should last a long time with good care.

Slides must be constantly checked for projection quality. There is always a tendency to overlook gradual loss of color values in a slide, and such things as scratches, dirt and cracked glass on bound slides are often not conscientiously corrected.

Tapes eventually wear, impairing quality of the sound, and must be replaced.

Preparation of script is of prime importance. Basically it must be what you would present on a thoughtfully worded, well illustrated program. There should be good story continuity, tied in closely with the visual material. Simple language should be used, with a minimum of technical terms. There is no time in this type of program to go into an explanation of unfamiliar terms. Slides should come on at somewhat regular intervals, and should be the backdrop for what the tape is saying. Don't write a program about the slides; use the slides to illustrate your story. Normally a slide should not stay on the screen for more than 15-20 seconds, although at times a longer period is necessary. Don't change slides too fast. Likely you will want music to introduce and end the program, but do not have it too loud.


Little need be said about the value of movies, except that sometimes there is a tendency to seek film presentations for the major part of the interpretive effort. Again, it should be recognized that a film cannot take the place of the interpreter himself. A film is static, with little change possible to reflect new knowledge. It is not cheap to buy, and is expensive to produce. All too often the film you find available does not really show what you want. Film maintenance and replacement is a matter of constant concern. Several good manuals are available on the care and operation of projection equipment, so no effort will be made here to explain the steps that should be taken to insure good projection and longer life for films.

With all its problems, movie film offers one of the most universally accepted media for the interpreter's use.


It is unfortunately true that this excellent device is too often overlooked by interpreters. We give talks before clubs and organizations, and work with school groups, but radio is seldom used. Yet this is one of the most effective devices available, and allows your interpretive message to reach scores of people who would likely not hear it otherwise. Possibly the non-use of radio stems from a feeling that one must be a professional at the game in order to produce a good program; or, there is very often real reluctance to use a microphone. The thought of talking to an unseen audience actually scares many a person who wouldn't hesitate to address a visible audience.

A radio station is a fertile field for good, short programs. Every station manager is on the lookout for material that he thinks may interest his listening public. The stories you have to tell are also designed to interest this same listening public. The only problem is how to put the two items together.

Actually it is usually not too much of a problem, and the cost of producing such programs is minimal. All you need is a good tape recorder (not a cassette), and a quiet room with good acoustics in which to make a recording. The program should normally be designed to last about 12—12-1/2 minutes, as this allows for the time required by the station announcer to introduce the program, make any necessary announcements, and close it out in the 15 minutes usually made available by the station. Check first to be sure of the preferred program length.

Three types of programs are easy to prepare and present. Not all are "live," in that they are put on tape for sending to the radio station. One is the interview type in which someone is interviewed on a subject of interpretive value. It is an off-the-cuff, unrehearsed show. Another is the round table discussion involving two or more persons in which one acts as the moderator. He directs the flow of the discussion and poses thoughts for the others to clarify. It is also unrehearsed, although the participants know what subjects will be discussed. A variation of this is the "open end" program in which you do not necessarily come to the end of the subject, but simply pick up the thread of it on the next program. This is especially effective when developing a series of programs on some subject. The third involves one or more persons in which a prepared script is followed. This does not allow for deviation.

A number of points should be considered when making either the interview or round table programs:

Don't try to cover too much territory. You have only a limited amount of time available, and much time will be taken up in comments or thoughts, personal experiences, etc., by the participants. Usually 3 to 5 items are about all you can handle effectively in one program.

Keep some material in reserve to discuss just in case things move along more rapidly than anticipated, but don't cut off a good discussion too soon.

Personal experiences are fine, but don't use "I" too much. Your listening audience will likely not appreciate it.

Don't try to be funny. Good spontaneous humor, obviously not planted, is good, but humorous attempts may sound pretty flat on radio where the voice is everything.

Don't forget that your audience is largely local listeners. Use good, interesting stories, local in nature, to tie your interpretive story together.

Be relaxed. This may not be easy for some, but the listener can usually sense when the conversation is forced. Keep in mind that you can always redo the tape if you make a mistake.

Don't talk too close to the microphone, for hisses may be produced. Usually about 10-12 inches is a good distance. Placing the microphone on a small table between participants on the program allows everyone to be recorded clearly and with proper volume. Necklace or lapel microphones and a "mixer" capable of taking care of them is by far the best arrangement, however.

If by some chance you are running your program outside where wind is a factor, a handkerchief tied over the microphone will eliminate the rumble of the wind going over the instrument.

Written notes can be most helpful for reference. These should be in proper sequence for presentation.

While the most effective types of programs by the non-professional are the interview and round table discussions, there are times when a script is necessary. In fact, some radio stations prefer it. This type of program may place you entirely on your own, or you may use other persons. However, the more persons involved in a formal script, the more care must be taken, and usually some rehearsals are desirable. If by yourself, you have to realize that you are the program and cannot rely on anyone else. The program resolves itself into how to properly read what you have written, and in a conversational tone so that the result does not sound stilted.

Some points worth remembering are:

The projection of your personality is a must.

Be sure you read easily and not too fast. You can record again, if necessary, unless on a "live" show.

Watch the rustling of papers as you shift from one page to an other. Usually it is helpful to fan out the pages you are holding for ease of selection. Then you simply let the discarded page drop noiselessly onto the table or floor.

Watch a tendency to hesitate as you shift from one page to another.

Watch the tendency to sigh as you read. Often the reader isn't aware that he does this.

Watch modulation; your tone of voice must have life in it.

Speak distinctly and not too fast. This helps eliminate hisses. Often there is a tendency to speed up as the program proceeds.

Writing a radio script for programs of this type is similar in technique to that of a good repeater tape message. With good knowledge of your own subject and how you want to present it, you really have the three basics to again consider:

Have a strong opening statement.

Follow with a well-rounded discussion, interspersed with examples and experiences.

Have a punch close-out. In this you are not trying to achieve immediate action on the part of the listener, as is done with a repeater tape message; you are merely trying to develop a desire to do so.

A radio station is required to devote a portion of its broadcast time to public service programs. The interpretive program, if well done, can often find a station manager quite willing to give it air time.


This is naturally an excellent interpretive device if an occasion arises where it can be used. However, unlike radio, there is little if any free time made available by a television station. Techniques vary in developing programs of this nature, so no attempt will be made to suggest what might be the best procedures. This is a specialized field.

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