Talking with a Twang

A few weeks ago at the lemur center, I was talking to the maintenance guy, Mark, and one of my leaders, Liz. Mark is from central North Carolina, with the Southern accent to prove it, and Liz is from Eastern Pennsylvania, also with the accent to prove it – y’all versus you’ins. In mid-sentence with Mark, Liz says to me, “You have more of an accent when you talk to him!” Her ears picked up what mine did not, that I adjusted the strength of my Southern twang to my listener. I was a little taken with her forwardness, but Mark had my back and was quick to point out that her accent was the odd one out in this region.

Almost subconsciously, I had adjusted the pitch, tone, word choice and strength of my accent in an effort to ensure my message was easily comprehended by Mark.  In that moment, I understood my audience. Good interpretation and communication operates much the same way in any medium. Whether you’re communicating a message through video, photos, social media streams, or live-in-person, good communicators and good interpreters understand the audience they are trying to reach. They also understand the best ways to reach their intended audience and leverage some channels over others. With an understanding of their audience and using the appropriate channels for that audience, they can effectively tailor their message for the most impact.

Interpreting and communicating in the museum begins with understanding the audience for the content. In this I see two positions, who are you targeting and who is attracted. The target audience may not be very specific, but it is important to visualize who you want consuming your content. Presenters at a ScienceOnline session claimed that there is no real “general public” and that when communicators use that term, they really have a type of audience in mind. Think about what image pops into your head when you say “general public.” When I created a few videos for the Duke Lemur Center, I initially thought I was going for general viewers. In retrospect, I had a definite type of viewer in mind: 1) individuals already familiar with the lemur center, 2) some education, enough to know what a lemur is at a basic level, and 3) someone who likes exotic animals. The fact that I produced the films for YouTube precludes some of my audience to individuals having a fast Internet connection. Next, pay attention to who is attracted to your content and message. Ideally, you’ve created targeted content that draws the intended audience, but who else is attracted instead of/besides your target? Get to know your audience. Who is actually visiting the setting, and who is paying attention to the content the museum is pushing? Who do you want to consume your content? You can have many different audiences, too, but have an audience in mind when you create and deliver your content/message. Good communication is about a compelling story and meaningful conversation. Without knowing your audience, it is harder to know what will be compelling and spark dialogue or at least some retention of the information.

Once you understand who your audience is and who you want your audience to be, you can begin to understand what channels most effectively reach that audience. Different types of audiences may utilize different channels to find and consume information and absorb different types of information. Middle aged adults and professionals might use Twitter, while tweens, teens and students use Facebook more. A Twitter campaign might not work well on tweens and teens and a Facebook campaign might not reach as many professionals. Live interpretation – face-to-face interaction – reaches those individuals that have some interest or that like a guided experience. The channels really are endless and many channels reach many audiences.

What do you think about thinking about your audience? Do you have any great examples that you can share about targeting an audience or great ways to get to know your audience? Please share!

Note: Mark and Liz are pseudonyms.

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That’s a Tough One. . .

When I give tours of the lemur center, I can anticipate many of the questions since I have been asked the same ones many times. They are all perfectly good questions that I am always more than happy to answer, like questions about details of animal care at the center or the center’s history. Sometimes, I’ll get more pointed questions for which my answers are not so rehearsed. For these, I do not always have easy answers or easily delivered answers. On a recent tour that I led for scientists and science journalists (a.k.a. people who know how to ask questions!), somebody asked one of those hard questions, in fact one of the hardest I’ve had to answer. I had been talking about natural history traits and the research that occurs at the center when the question came:

Many lemurs are endangered. How does studying lemurs in these cells help them? If your goal is to protect lemurs in the wild, how can what you learn from them in a cage translate to helping protect them?

Ooh, tough question. I stammered, diving into my brain for everything I know about lemurs, research and conservation looking for that good-sounding answer. My initial thought was about understanding behavior within their environment, but as the guest pointed out, the difference between the wild and the cells is big. I tried again and surfaced with the idea that we simply want to know everything we can about lemurs. I added that research also tries to understand primate evolution since we are also primates. Good answer, but not great.

That question has continued to haunt me, probably because I’ve wondered about it on my own. How does a study on the different rates of growth between male and female lorises at different times of their life1 contribute to reducing habitat-destruction, increasing numbers in the wild or ending the loris pet trade? How does learning that the aye-aye’s middle finger heats up while foraging and cools down when inactive contribute to reducing cultural stigma and decreasing forest loss from agriculture?

Answering this question became my personal homework. The truth is that this is the nature of scientific inquiry. The “point” of scientific research is to explore the frontiers of knowledge on subjects which we know very little or nothing about despite the immediate application. We cannot foresee what discoveries, compounded on each other, will lead to breakthroughs in the foreseeable or unforeseeable future.

The variety of research – behavioral, cognitive, biological, genomic, ecological, conservation, and more –  ongoing at the lemur center and in Madagascar attests to this idea. The lemur center is pushing the boundaries of research in many arenas because it is the composite nature of science that will inform the next conservation objectives in Madagascar.  I’ll give a hypothetical example: Let’s say research showed that Coquerel’s sifakas preferred trees with small trunks in diameter for moving around, and a separate study showed that small trees were prime targets for woodcutters looking for charcoal. As individual studies, we might ask why it matters that sifakas prefer small trees based on trials in a cell at the Duke Lemur Center, or that people cut small trees first.  Taken together we understand that with small trees disappearing, sifakas lose their prime habitat, and we can prioritize these areas for conservation. Although I used a hypothetical example here, researchers are putting together the pieces in real life too. Research on chewing and eating particular types of foods2 conducted at the lemur center may one day be correlated with research on the reduced availability of prime resources due to climate change3. Such conclusions would give even more reasons to reduce our carbon footprint. Each scientific study contributes to advancing the body of scientific knowledge; combined, they allow us to take action.

How does studying lemurs outside their natural environment contribute to their conservation? That’s a great question, and I think I’ll be ready next time it rolls around.

Have a question or comment? Leave it here or find me on Twitter @EnvEdChris. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Referenced Works

1: O’Mara, M. T., A. D. Gordon, et al. (2012). “Growth and the development of sexual size dimorphism in lorises and galagos.” AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY 147(1): 11-20.

2: Ross, C. F., R. L. Washington, et al. (2009). “Ecological consequences of scaling of chew cycle duration and daily feeding time in Primates.” Journal of Human Evolution 56(6): 570-585.

3: Wright, P. (2006). Considering Climate Change Effects in Lemur Ecology and Conservation. Lemurs: Ecology and Adaptation. L. Gould and M. Sauther: 385-401.

Free-choice Learning and Interpretation

Learning can often occur when we least expect it, some moment of “magic” when abstract or esoteric concepts all of the sudden become knowledge as if our brains had finally finished building the right synapses and, once fired, we learn.  Many people (even upon reading this idea here) might automatically think of a teacher, a classroom, or school where such learning occurred. When someone talks about learning many people jump straight into a classroom desk and take out their Trapper Keeper, pencil and paper. In fact much of the learning that occurs does not happen in a classroom, or even in a workplace, but in our own leisure time. Most learning is not compulsory, but of our own free choice. Free-choice learning is learning that occurs when the individual has control over what is learned, where it is learned, with whom learning occurs. And, rather than having a curriculum dictated to the individual, the learner’s agenda drives and motivates the degree of learning. This means that free-choice learning can occur anywhere: art museum, zoo, science center, television, the Internet, the list could really go on forever. Almost any place where information is presented and the individual makes the decision to learn could qualify as a free-choice learning environment. And with the variety of information and settings, learning occurs all the time, based on the learner’s own agenda and goals.

Interpreters need to understand the nature of this type of learning. The individual is in charge of what they will learn despite the interpreter’s agenda and message points. Plus, every individual has their own motivation for participating in the program that may not align with the interpreter’s assumptions. As a lemur tour guide, I could not assume with any group that the reason any participated in a guided tour was to learn more about lemurs. Truthfully, many people attend for recreation, for the fun of it. Others might identify as “good parents” seeking offer their children educational experiences. Still, others might identify as lemur enthusiasts and be in the active pursuit of more knowledge on lemurs.  These are examples that my own research bore out and other research has shown that the motivation for participation is linked with an individual’s self-identity. In my own research, individuals often could not tell me what they learned from a program, but with the right questions, a wealth of information poured out signaling that they did learn, even if what they learned was not one of my key message points. The closer an interpreter can align their content with the identity-related motivations and agenda of the visitor, the more open the individual becomes for learning. Interpreters need to be flexible and willing to bend to the potential learners, not in the sacrifice of the information, but in the interest of creating an environment for learning.

I find a very special role for interpretation in free-choice learning. Interpreters offer programs for the public in which to participate, often in settings where the visitor made the decision to visit the location and check out the program. Interpreters fit nicely in the niche of providing content, like a teacher, but allowing the participant the freedom to learn on their own .Participation is not compulsory, nor is learning at all, but by setting the right environment an interpreter can create perfect space for learning that satisfies the intrinsic needs of the learning individual.

Some great resources on free-choice learning come from the Institute for Learning Innovation, and I have listed some reading on the subject below. You can also find my own work here.


Novak, J. D., J. Bowyer, et al. (1978). “A free-choice environment: Learning without instruction.” Science Education 62(1): 95-107.

Falk, J. H. and M. Storksdieck (2010). “Science Learning in a Leisure Setting.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 47(2): 194-212.



Falk, J. H. and L. D. Dierking (1992). The Museum Experience. Washington D.C., Whalesback Books.

Falk, J. H. and L. D. Dierking (2002). Lessons Without Limits: How Free-Choice Learning is Transforming Education. New York, AltaMira Press.

Falk, J. H., J. E. Heimlich, et al., Eds. (2009). Free-Choice Learning and the Environment. Learning Innovations Series. New York, AltaMira Press.


I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Catch me on Twitter as @EnvEdChris, or leave a comment here at the blog.

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Twitter and the Museum

Twitter is a micro-blogging tool, and it’s about disseminating information to start a conversation. In the context of a nonprofit, particularly one with an focus on education like many museum/learning settings, building conversation is critical. For some, I believe, Twitter became a followers contest – success was gauged based on the number of followers. Software programs were built to find people who might be interested in your content, follow them and hope for a follow-back and on a large scale. For example, you could set a search filter to add anyone who tweeted the word “lemur” because if they’re talking about lemurs they might be interested in the content of a lemur conservation organization. Problem is, in the Twitter-sphere “lemur” is also used as a slightly derogatory term to call someone with big eyes or call someone stupid. I found this out by actually reading the tweets over several weeks from a search for “lemur.” In the context of their tweets, they would not be interested in what a lemur conservation organization is doing. This builds numbers, but not conversation about lemurs.

I like to think of Twitter as very organic. It takes time and energy to grow a following, and it’s not something that I think you should fast track. As you are getting your message out to the public, individuals with similar interests will search and follow you, slowly growing your number of followers. If you are putting good content on the Twitter-sphere others will take notice, growing your following more. Don’t think that this method will give you thousands of followers right out of the gate; however, these followers, in more cases, will be more engaged in your conversation and take a greater interest in your content. Rather than having big numbers, you actually have interaction. The mark of a successful Twitter user is one that gets involvement when they tweet, not necessarily from high numbers.

Of course, we all want the message to hit as many people as possible. Twitter helps get your message into the public sphere, but the real power of Twitter comes into play when others spread your message for you – the retweet. You can hit your 2,000 followers’ streams but if they’re not engaged with you, the content stops there. You can hit 500 followers streams, and with an engaged population, you get more retweets and replies, sending the message to all of their followers in addition to yours.

When I first started using Twitter, I read that a great way to gain followers was to follow as many people as you find and get as many follow-backs as possible. Later, you can weed out people from your list of following that aren’t relevant to you so that you have a large number of followers but don’t cloud your news feed with irrelevant messages. Or, you could join conversations that look interesting, follow tweeters you find interesting and produce good content yourself and not worry with those whose information is not important to you. Odds are they may follow you back as a sort of courtesy, but they won’t be involved in your content.  Who you follow should be a representation of people whose opinions you want to see. Use Twitter for your benefit and to stay informed about what’s going on in your world. On the same line, join conversations that you did not start. Don’t just start conversations about your content. Once you’ve found tweeters with similar, or even different, messages, engage with them (politely of course!).

This may sound like a lot of work for 140 characters, and it is. Social media must be managed like any other aspect of an organization. Two quick stories from the Duke Lemur Center to wrap up:

1. I was the Twitterbug for the lemur center while working in education, and we were followed by the US embassy in Madagascar (lemurs’ wild home). One day they asked, if you could talk to the embassy via teleconference what would you discuss? I joined the conversation with a reply of deforestation, wildlife conservation, research and education. A couple of days later they contacted us through Twitter and by email to set up a conference! The lemur center’s conservation coordinator was given audience with a group of embassy officials to talk about conservation and programs in Madagascar. All from Twitter.

2. The lemur center’s twitter account sat dormant for a few months (besides being connected to Facebook, there wasn’t much interaction on Twitter). When I started tweeting for the center again, the conversation picked back up and discovered an individual living nearby that adored the center and its work. The back-and-forth that started built on that interest, leading the individual to write articles about the center for magazines and connect the center to powerful people excited about collaborating in areas of technology and information. It started with content and turned into a conversation.

Join the conversation and start your own conversations. Museums and places of learning have lots of content that people find interesting, otherwise they wouldn’t visit the place. Don’t worry about the number of people following you on Twitter. Think about new ways to engage.

This blog is certainly a work in progress and represents my own thoughts, no one else’s. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Catch me on Twitter as @EnvEdChris, or leave a comment here at the blog.  


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Happy New Year

Happy New Year everyone!

My New Year’s Resolution is to finish reading all those books on free-choice learning by Falk et al. I purchased in 2011.

That’s all. Happy New Year again!

Timing is everything!

I started this blog yesterday after I saw an interesting infographic from Argyle Social. The image outlined when marketers post to social media outlets and when viewers actually accessed the content and were most active on those outlets. The results showed that, depending on the outlet (Twitter vs. Facebook for example) marketers were not hitting time periods of actual engagement. As Argyle Social put it, marketers are posting when they are at work, not when their target audiences are necessarily paying attention. They recommended posting things at times when people are most active in social media.  So, timing is everything.

Having managed part of the social media stream for a small nonprofit, the graphic pointed out that even interesting, eye-catching posts will go unnoticed if the timing is off. Posts to social media rocket through the news feeds, and they constantly change. Unless a user searches for your posts, if timing is off, they’re not likely to see it.

Timing is a familiar principle in interpretation. Interpreters try to create an environment where people are receptive and ready to learn. At a point when their audience seems most open, the interpreter delivers the main message points hoping that the timing was right and all the variables lined up for retention on the participant’s end. This principle works on small and large time scales, too. Within the time period of a visit to a museum or participation in a program, interpreters are crafting experiences to direct learning. On the scale of someone’s lifetime, interpreters build a series of experiences, each experience adding to the one before it, leading the learner to care for the subject of the experiences. Example: The first visit to a zoo, a child enjoys watching the gorillas move about their enclosure and on site an interpreter points out interesting features and aspects of a gorillas life. Later in school, the child reads a book or sees a TV show about gorillas in the wild. Even later in life, the individual revisits the zoo, and now more interested, learns that gorillas are nearing extinction in the wild and decides to donate time and/or money to a conservation organization. The decision to actually care for gorillas (the donation) was not a product of any one experience with gorillas, but rather built up over the life of the individual. Timing is everything.

Museums, zoos, aquariums, art galleries and more all utilize the principle of timing in educational content, and the better they understand the idea of timing, the better they leverage it. Social media is powerful because it allows a community to form around the institution and fosters conversation about the institution. The conversation will grow when the timing is right to reach the most people, and make sure that the messages go out when the potential to spark the “care for” moment is greatest.


The First Post

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Today, I make my debut onto the blog scene. “New Media and the Museum Experience” is about improving the visitor experience on and off site at places where people encounter information. A museum in the sense that I mean could be the traditional perception – an art gallery, history museum, or science center – but also includes places like zoos and aquariums. “New Media” refers to new ways to interface with the public that chooses to visit and participate in the exchange of information at the museum. New media could mean social media – online social conversation and content – and could mean new ways to make an exhibit or informative sign. I am also interested in the role that social media plays in engaging thought, participation and excitement for and about these institutions.

I am an interpreter. Doesn’t mean I speak many languages, but in the same sense I relay information in a way for others to understand. If you’ve every taken a guided tour or hike or watched a living history demonstration, for example, your guide or the impersonator were interpreters.  Interpreters take what’s in front of you and make it relevant and understandable, whether it’s an animal, an art piece or historical events. I have operated as a science and nature interpreter, delivering programs for the general public in state parks and natural areas, state historic areas and a captive animal facility.

The intersection of these ideas is where you find me. As an interpreter, I’m always looking for ways to understand and engage my audience when they’re visiting the site and once they leave. The fields of media and marketing are blossoming with the invention and proliferation of social media; at the same time, new ideas on interpretation, interpretive planning and design, and emphasis on visitor experience at museums are transforming the physical look of these institutions and the way we transmit information. That’s where you can find this blog – what’s happening in new media, interpretation and how they can work together to get the message out there, whatever the museum’s message may be.

I welcome your discussion and feedback!