Make Water Provocative: Appealing to Hearts and Minds

As water educators and interpreters, we want our audiences to care about water.  This is seemingly simple – every person on the planet depends on water – but its ubiquity often means that people take water for granted.  How then can interpreters help audiences to appreciate water and care about water issues?

As already covered in this series, interpretive programs should provoke an audience to learn more about the topic, rather than cover it exhaustively.  The interpreter needs knowledge not only of the resource but of the audience being addressed.  The interpreter should appeal to what the audience members already know or have already experienced.  The interpreter seeks to illuminate the bigger picture, using universal concepts, which everyone can understand regardless of background.  Interpreters also work to facilitate connections between audiences and a resource, and these connections are usually intellectual or emotional.

Facilitating “A-ha!” moments

Intellectual connections increase audience understanding.  As the name suggests, they appeal to visitors on an intellectual level, translating what they do not understand to terms with which they are familiar.

Intellectual connections might provoke or inspire:  awareness, comprehension, discovery, discernment, revelation, insight, reasoning…

Intellectual connections may help audiences comprehend new topics, determine relationships, or recognize cause and effect.  For example, many people might not see dripping faucets as a big waste of water.  But, as the USGS points out, one faucet dripping five times a minute wastes 173 gallons a year.  Everyone knows how much effort it takes to haul a gallon of milk up steps – ask your audience to imagine making 173 trips.  By equating a drip to gallons, water waste can relate through memory to effort and trigger a deeper understanding. 

All intellectual connections need to relate the resource to what the audience already knows from their own experience.  This is especially necessary in the water world, which is full of terms and concepts often unfamiliar to non-professionals.  For example, all water interpreters have probably defined what an acre-foot is:  an acre-sized plot a foot deep in water.  But how many people can visualize the size of an acre?  So you might ask your audience to visualize a football field, minus the end zones, a foot deep in water.  This explanation relates the measurement to something the audiences already knows.  Now your audience may have a better understanding of the volume of water held in a reservoir, or the quantity needed to irrigate a field of corn, or the amount that moves through (and wears down) city pipes every day.

Think of intellectual connections as a moment when a light bulb appears above someone’s head.  This is an “a-ha!” moment, when you make a connection and understand the resource in a new way.

Appealing to Feeling

If intellectual connections increase understanding, emotional connections increase audience caring.  An interpretive program might appeal to how audiences feel, as well as think, about the resource or topic – or might seek to change these emotions.

Emotional connections seek to provoke, inspire, or evoke:  admiration, amazement, anger, astonishment, awe, bewilderment, commiseration, compassion, concern, contrition, curiosity, devotion, disappointment, disgust, dismay, empathy, esteem, exasperation, fright, gratitude, grief, horror, loyalty, nostalgia, passion, pity, pride, regret, remorse, respect, reverence, sadness, satisfaction, shame, sympathy, veneration, wonder, worry, yearning…

Emotional connections to water can be particularly powerful.  Few sights are as awe-inspiring as a beautiful waterfall or an immense dam.  A polluted stream can easily evoke anger, disgust, dismay, or worry.  Impending water shortages, which threaten our accustomed way of life, might provoke deep concern or worry, especially if we think nostalgically of our past.

Just as each audience member will have a different definition of a universal concept, each audience member might form a different emotional connection.  When visitors tour a dam and reservoir, they might walk away with admiration, anger, gratitude, pride, or fright.  Your program might shape which emotions are the most common, but each audience member will still form his or her own.

Every interpretive program should provide opportunities for the audience to form emotional and intellectual connections.  Your programs probably provide these opportunities already, but you may wish to think them through more consciously.  Each point of your program doesn’t need one of each, but your entire program should provide several opportunities.  These connections might also help shape your goals and objectives (coming up next!).

next step

– Think through an existing or potential program.  What opportunities exist for intellectual connections?  For emotional connections?

– What emotions do you hope to inspire in your audience?  Brainstorm a few.

– Does your program contain many numbers?  How can you relate these numbers to something the audience knows or cares about?  E.g., an acre of hay requires 1.9 acre-feet of water over a growing season – the same amount required by 10 people living in Denver for one year.

Join CFWE’s webinar, “Interpreting Complex Water Topics” on April 29 to learn more.  This webinar is part of CFWE’s Water Educator Network, which provides tools, trainings and collaborations for water educators.

Read the rest of the series on interpretation:
Building a Foundation
Connecting Resources, Audiences, and Meanings
Measuring Effectiveness
What’s Your Point?
Assembling the Puzzle

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