Dealing with the Disconnected Visitor

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By Kimberly Costa, Independent Historian

The main goal of any first- or third-person interpreter is to engage the visitor on a level meaningful to that visitor. To engage can mean a myriad of things: to capture their attention, teach a lesson, give a point of view, to shock the senses or simply to make the visitor think. Finding the right technique for the right person is the key.


Often the best way to draw a visitor into interacting is through watching an interpreter actually do something with a prop, usually within close range. People love to see things being used. Simply doing or showing something gives the visitor the opportunity to ask the simplest of questions: What are you doing? What are you making?

When a visitor is draw in enough to inquire about what something is, or what is being done, it is the interpreter’s role to not only answer the question but to lay the ground work for either more questions or to relate the object to some universal experience shared by both parties. When answering a visitor’s inquiry it is NOT the time for a one word answer. It is an opportunity to draw the visitor and her family closer into the interpreter’s world. Once they are comfortable they will be more likely to ask engaging and direct questions.


Questions in General

The most simple and direct way to engage visitors is to simply speak with and to them. Asking them questions generally elicits a response from someone in the group. When posing a question, do not be afraid to wait for a response after the question is asked. Remember— it is often difficult to be the first person to ask a question in fear that what you say will be seen as stupid or dumb. A good interpreter will give the visitors time to gather their thoughts before delving into something else.

But what kinds of questions do you ask? The real key is to ask a question for which you really want to know the answer. Do you really need the ten year old girl to tell you that she does not like the color green and do you even care? Asking an elderly man what color he likes tells you nothing, but asking the same man if he remembers his mother knitting green socks for him as a child will evoke an immediate memory response. Either he will remember socks or he will not but he will be drawn back to a memory of his childhood and will, hopefully, now have a connection between the object you are knitting and himself.

Catch and Release

Everyone has a story to tell of the time they went to such-and-such site and had the longest, most boring tour of their entire lives.

Interpreters, whether in first- or third-person, should keep in mind that they do not have to share everything about their character and site with every single visitor. The Walking Encyclopedia Interpreter will bore the pants off any visitor and will have a negative impact on the experience. Learning how to read who is interested in what and when that interest wanes is a key element of effective interpretation.

Seeing any one of these signs means it is time to release the visitor back out into the world: eyes drifting around the room, looking for the door, nudging another member in the party, checking the time, shifting from foot to foot, children yanking on adult clothing, glazed eyes, moving towards the door but still looking at the interpreter, and so on.

A good basic interpretation should be about two minutes in length, or a short period of time of any length the interpreter deems appropriate. After the time period has elapsed, the visitors’ reaction should be gauged allowing those who wish to stay and those who wish to leave to do so.[1]

Whether you are providing a first-person portrayal of Dolley Madison or giving a house tour as yourself, the goal for all interpreters is the same: to make the experience meaningful to the visitor. When faced with visitors who do not wish to participate it can often be a daunting job. By engaging the visitors using a wide variety of techniques one has a better chance of reaching a good majority of the visiting public.

[1]This technique is geared more towards the interpreter who is stationed in a room or section of a historic area. It is not for the first person interpreter who has to fill 45 minutes of a program before she is allowed to release the visitors. This does not mean a timed program cannot benefit from this technique, it just means choosing to change subjects when these signs are present, and perhaps switching the interpretation to a more interactive question and answer rather than stand and lecture format.

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Kimberly Costa, “Making Friends and Influencing People: Dealing with the Disconnected Visitor” in Debra A. Reid, Ron Kley, Jane E. Radcliffe, eds., Proceedings of the 2009 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 119-125.

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