Tabletop Interpretation

One of the perks at last week’s NAI National Workshop in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was free admission to the Science Museum of Minnesota. There were many other perks as well, though I wouldn’t consider a lutefisk facial one of those benefits.

The museum was an amazing place. Here are some pictures and thoughts that I wanted to share.

The museum lobby also hosts a visitor center for the National Park Service’s Mississippi River National River and Recreation Area. I found this relationship strange initially (not a strange as the combination of fish and lye) but after understanding their proximity to the river as well as the visitation at the museum it made sense.

An overlook adjacent to the museum is highlighted by several wayside exhibits.

The National River site also takes time to interpret the urban landscape, a view a readily available as views of the river. I can imagine a planning meeting discussing the need to interpret the river but resolving to interpret other elements of the landscape. I love the rock pedestals but I’m not sure how well the fit into the landscape.

National River interpretation also spills over into a creative use of tabletop exhibits that are very well designed and an interesting use of space.

Paul wrote on Monday about the use of Twitter hashtags. Here’s the museum’s take on collecting feedback while visitors are waiting in line for their tickets. It sets the stage for visitors to share their thoughts throughout their experience. The questions give visitors something to Tweet about. This helps those struggling for something interesting to say. This is an effective use of social media through interpretation.

Okay, so I haven’t shown you anything from the inside of the museum. More to come in a future post.

Social Media at the #NAI2011 Workshop

I compare the annual NAI National Workshop to final exams. I spend most of my year building to this one week, during which I go sleepless, subsist almost entirely on buffalo wings and nervous energy, and then crash afterwards until someone wakes me for the holidays.

I have been to 10 NAI National Workshops, and I remember each one distinctly for different reasons. There was the 40 Days of Rain Workshop (Virginia Beach, 2002), the “Wheel of Fortune” Slot Machine Workshop (Reno, 2003), the Shiny Horse Incident Workshop (Wichita, 2007), and, of course, the Shorn Head Workshop (Las Vegas, 2010).

Last week’s Workshop in Saint Paul, Minnesota, will always be the Social Media Workshop to me. Smart phones and tablets were everywhere throughout the event, and there was a steady stream of Tweets and Facebook posts from participants. NAI promoted a Twitter hash tag, #NAI2011, which participants used when Tweeting about the event.

For those not familiar with Twitter, a hash tag is a short phrase or set of characters set off with a pound sign (like #NAI2011) that Twitterers use to link their Tweets to other Tweets. In Twitter, you can click on a hash tag and see all of the Tweets that have included it. Being relatively new to Twitter, I was struck by the following effects of the #NAI2011 hash tag:

It generated buzz:

It connected people—in person and online:

It made people feel bad:

It spread the message:

It expanded the conversation beyond the session rooms:

It gave participating organizations a line of communication to their people:

It provided instant feedback:

It highlighted some of the tangential benefits of the event:

And, of course, it encouraged shenanigans:

I co-presented two sessions during NAI 2011, one on blogging with my esteemed IBD co-author Shea, and one on using social media in interpretation with Friend of IBD Phil Sexton. Both were well attended, but in particular the social media session was packed so full we called it Occupy NAI, and our room monitor was turning people away. That session was popular for three reasons: 1. New media is incredibly important to the field of interpretation. 2. People believed me when I told them that Phil is actually Kenny Rogers. 3. I can’t remember the third reason.

I consider the #NAI2011 hash tag experiment a success. It was widely used by participants, encouraged conversation, facilitated connections, and generated buzz about the event.

Now, on to #NAI2012!

Why Blog: The Interpretive Sourcebook Entry

We’re in Saint Paul, Minnesota, this week for the NAI National Workshop. We’ll be presenting a session on blogging Wednesday, which means we had to prepare actual content (something we’ve done only rarely in three years of blogging). Since writing this blog has inspired the content for the session, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share our paper (written by both of us) with you. Here goes:

Why Blog?
You should blog if there is an audience. As a blogger, it’s important to know your purpose and message, along with where your blog is going to fit in (a common problem for us anyway, and also anyone who identifies themselves as a blogger). We started the Interpretation By Design blog (which we now call simply “The IBD Blog”) in March 2009, about five months after our book by the same name was published. We were aware that there was an audience because multiple presentations at NAI workshops were filled with interest revolving around the subject matter (graphic design and interpretation). Post-presentation conversations (face to face, in emails, on Facebook) led us to create a forum for further discussion. The blog also offered an opportunity for discussion with those not able to attend a presentation or conversation.

Knowing your audience is a tenant of the interpretive profession that can be applied to blogging as well. On the internet, your blog has a potentially large, anonymous audience. IBD is a specialized subsection of two professions (graphic design and interpretation), and it occasionally crosses into other areas of interest (baseball). Just as interpretive sites have streakers, browsers, and students, your blog will have readers who will read every word, while most will pass through from time to time to catch up or see if there is anything of interest to them.

Getting Started
The nature of a blog, where someone has to purposefully come to your page on a regular basis, requires the interest mentioned above as well as knowledge of how a blog differs from a newspaper or book. This less-traditional form of media has room for more opinions, fewer facts, and lots of personality. Where a book is typically focused on one subject or topic, blogs can cover a much wider spectrum within that topic. These positive elements can also be negatives if the blog becomes too much of a personal platform that alienates portions of the audience or is inconsistent in topics.

Before you start a blog, ask yourself why you are doing it. Do you want to create awareness of a site, increase visitation, gain public support for political reasons, or sell a really awesome book that sometimes cracks the top million on Amazon’s rankings? The starting point for setting goals for your blog—as with any other media—is that it should support the mission of your site or organization.

If clear goals are established, you will see your audience grow. A portion of that commitment should be introspective towards building a voice through your writing. Just as front-line interpreters represent their sites to visitors, as the author of a blog, you represent your site to a potentially much larger audience. It’s important that you set an appropriate, engaging tone, and that your writing is interpretive (not just informational).

Nurturing and Maintaining Your Blog
Maintaining a blog is a lot like keeping a pet. It requires constant, consistent nurturing and left unchecked, it might make a mess on your carpet. Just as you can’t keep a pet alive by feeding it a lot for three days then ignoring it for a month, your blog can’t survive without regular attention.

Put another way: Blogs are also like romantic relationships. It’s easy to be enthusiastic when a relationship is new. There’s lots to talk about, it’s new and fun, and it’s your primary point of interest. Then months or years down the road, when you have a cold and other work-related deadlines and the kids are screaming for you to take them to Dairy Queen, the blog might not seem like the most important thing in the world. But without constant attention, the blog suffers and possibly goes away altogether.

Here’s how to keep your blog (or pet or relationship) healthy and vibrant:

  • Give it constant attention. Update your blog, at an absolute minimum, once a week, preferably more often. On our blog, we publish without fail (even on holidays and while we’re on vacation) every Monday (Paul) and Thursday (Shea). If you anticipate a busy schedule, write several posts in advance and use your blogging software (we use WordPress) to schedule them to go live at the appropriate time.
  • Don’t write a Russian novel. You’re more likely to get feedback on shorter posts that ask readers to participate. Our experience has been that posts more than 500 words or so are too long. (This does not stop us from writing long posts. We’re just aware that they’re too long.)
  • Mix it up. Sometimes you need to spice things up (the pet metaphor may break down a little here). In addition to regular posts that occur on a schedule, throw in a quick question, observation, or photo now and again. Commemorate a special event (such as a trip or conference) with a week of “Live from [wherever…]” posts.
  • Communicate. Some readers will simply read your blog and move on. Others will comment regularly. And a select few will comment on nearly every single post. Your commenters are there to engage in a conversation that you started, so be sure to participate. We appreciate all of the comments on Interpretation By Design, and try to show that by responding quickly, giving nicknames to commenters, mentioning them in subsequent posts, and taking suggestions. Even the people who just read and move on are also likely to read the comments.
  • Keep tabs on your blog’s health. You can track statistics on your blog through built-in software (we use a WordPress plugin called StatPress) or an online service like Google Analytics. A healthy blog will get higher and higher hit counts the longer it’s around. Some of these hits will come from random internet users (we get a lot of hits from Googlers searching the term “Phillies font”), but you’ll see consistent growth in numbers as your core readership expands. If you maintain a consistent schedule, your numbers will spike on the days of new posts.
  • Communicate some more. Blogging falls under the umbrella of social media, but it is altogether different from sites like Facebook and Twitter. Maintaining a presence on social media outlets is a great way to alert readers when a new post comes along, or to further the conversations you have on your blog.

Going Viral
Once you have established a routine and a regular readership, you never know what might explode on the internet and garner a lot of attention. For instance, our biggest viral event was caused by, of all things, a flowchart. What started as essentially an inside joke—an example of information design intended to help newcomers to baseball choose a team—was picked up by several national websites, shared extensively on the social networks (including being Tweeted by Katie Couric), and even translated into foreign languages and reposted. Ultimately, it crashed our website.

Obviously, your main focus should be on your core readership, but when that unpredictable viral event occurs, it’s a great way to make a huge number of people aware of your organization and its important mission.

Conclusion
Maintaining a blog is an opportunity for outreach that costs little in terms of finances, but requires great energy and commitment. It should have stated goals, a comfortable tone, regular content, and most importantly, reflect the passion and commitment of the interpreters at your site or organization.

Ten Reasons to Join Us in Minnesota

The NAI National Workshop in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is fast approaching (November 8–12), and online registration closes this week. So go to the Workshop website and register now. Do it now!

Every October, I write a post about why you should join us at the NAI National Workshop. The actual reason is that it’s an inspirational and worthwhile professional development opportunity. And not only that, you just never know what sort of fun you’re going to have there. You may end up sharing a meal with a leader in the field, coming up with great ideas for new programs at your site, or witnessing two tubby knuckleheads getting their heads shaved against their wives’ wishes.

With that, ten reasons to join us at NAI 2011 next month!

  1. Saint Paul was established by the first-century apostle Saint Kirby Puckett, patron saint of Twinkies and dingers. (I may have to stop doing all of my research on Wikipedia.)
  2. Shea and I will present a concurrent session about blogging (Wednesday, November 9, at 1:00, for those of you marking your calendars). If you like reading Shea’s 150-word sentences with no punctuation on this blog, imagine hearing them in person! (If that doesn’t interest you, you can see the full list of other sessions here.)
  3. In the course of researching Minnesota culture and customs over the last year, I came across this thing called a Tater Tot Hotdish. If that doesn’t make you want to go to Minnesota, then we don’t want you there. (Photo by SEWilco.)
  4. Shea and I will be auctioneers at the scholarship auction. The event supports up-and-coming leaders in the field, and offers great deals on all sorts of goodies. Bring your own rotten fruit and vegetables to throw at us, free of charge!
  5. The largest ball of twine ever made by one person is located in Darwin, Minnesota, just under 70 miles away. You’d better believe Shea and I will be road-tripping there, and we’ll be singing Weird Al Yankovic’s “Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” all the way there.
  6. The Minnesota Timberwolves have two games scheduled while we’re in town. If the NBA’s not on strike, we may try to win the T-wolves’ “Lucky Fan Gets to Be the Starting Point Guard” contest.* I will take my Christian Laettner Timberwolves jersey** to see if it brings me luck.
  7. Friday at the Workshop, we’ll celebrate 11:11 on 11/11 twice (though the second time will be after Shea’s 9:30 bedtime). Can you imagine celebrating that event with anyone but the IBD Nerd Herd?
  8. If it’s warm enough, we’ll go for a dip in the Mississippi River. We haven’t checked the weather forecast, but we’re going to be optimistic and take our bathing suits.
  9. Saint Paul is responsible for 14 of the epistles in the New Testament. (Sorry, that’s the actual saint, not the city in Minnesota.)
  10. You just never know who’s going to get their head shaved.

See you in Minnesota!

*Our first NBA joke on IBD!
**I actually do own a Christian Laettner Timberwolves jersey.

Saint Paul photo by Alexius Horatius.