Make Water Provocative: The Key to Connecting Resources, Audiences, and Meanings

If the goal of interpretation is to reveal meanings, this is because we believe that resources possess inherent meanings. Water, one might argue, is only two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen atom. But most of us would argue that it is more than that. Water is power, art, community, energy, renewal, opportunity – ultimately, it is life itself.


Water has many different meanings, and means many different things to different people. The goal of water interpretation is to reveal these meanings, to facilitate connections between people and water – perhaps even to illuminate new ones.  But for this to happen, the interpreter must relate the resource to the audience’s own experience – and one of the most effective ways to do this is to use universal concepts.

Linking What We Experience With Bigger Concepts

Interpretation is not just based on facts, but on associated meanings. A program might present a concrete resource – something the audience can experience directly – in service to an abstract concept. Examples of concrete resources are objects, people, places, or events. These resources might be connected to abstract concepts, such as systems, ideas, or values. Many of the greater concepts that we wish to explore in our programs are abstract, such as conservation, stewardship, or scarcity. A program seeks to link the concrete and the abstract, the resources and the concepts, to reveal meaning.

For example, a program taking place by the side of a stream has multiple concrete resources: the water, rocks, soil, the surrounding vegetation, etc. The audience can see, smell, touch, and hear (or even taste) these objects. The program might discuss these objects with relation to the abstract concept of watershed health. This concept ties directly to the objects – how does the water look? Is it clear? Is the streambed cluttered with trash? – but the concept of watershed health itself cannot be directly experienced.

Here are a few examples of resources or objects you might be using in your programs:

  • Macroinvertebrates
  • Settling ponds
  • Gunnison River
  • Irrigation ditches
  • Samples of water
  • Wayne Aspinall
  • Photographs
  • 2002 drought
  • Habitat

Here a few examples of abstract concepts you might wish to explore:

  • Water conservation
  • Water shortages
  • Environmental movement
  • Relationships
  • Cost
  • Survival
  • Water rights
  • Biodiversity
  • Climate change

Interpretive programs link the two together, using resources to illustrate (often abstract) concepts, and ultimately reveal greater meanings. One of the most effective ways to connect the audience to to the greater meaning is to use universal concepts. Universal concepts are those that anyone can understand, regardless of background. They hold the greatest degree of relevance and meaning to the greatest number of people.

Examples of universal concepts are:

  • Change
  • Growing up
  • Survival – Circle of life – Death and Dying
  • Separation and loss
  • Making choices
  • Chaos and order
  • Good v. Bad
  • Family
  • Home
  • Traditions
  • Vulnerability
  • Food
  • Scarcity
  • Time
  • Community

Each person might have a different experience with a particular universal, or a different definition. My definition of what constitutes a “family” might be different from yours, which might be different from that of a person from a Polynesian tribe, or an orphan’s, and so on. Each person’s definition or experience of the universal concept will differ, but all will understand it in some way. Universal concepts are therefore extremely powerful, and can foster especially strong connections.

Relate Your Subject to Your Audience’s Experiences

Universal concepts are especially important in helping facilitate a connection between the audience and the resource. Freeman Tilden emphasized this importance in the first of his six Principles of Interpretation:

“Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or being described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.”

In other words, an audience will not make meaningful connections if what is being described does not relate to their own experience. The program must relate the resources and concepts to experiences the audience is familiar with – namely, to universals. A program that describes a stream in terms of ecosystem health might fall flat – but the same program, if it describes the ecosystem as a functioning community, might resonate with more strength.  Community is a universal. By relating the stream’s community to their own, audience members can make more significant connections, and continue expanding the connections on their own.


Here’s how the process might look. Say you’re presenting a program on the Colorado River. The Colorado River is a concrete resource. But it’s linked to many abstract concepts, for example:  ecosystems, power, travel, sustenance, recreation, irrigation, health, restoration, beauty, nature, or destruction. You probably won’t cover all these concepts in a single program, but all of them are potentials. Perhaps you plan to talk about the history of the powerful Colorado River, covering its human uses for irrigation, travel, and hydroelectric-power. You could link this discussion to many universal concepts, such as survival, change, or making choices. All of your audience members can understand these concepts – but they might react in very different ways, based on their own experiences of each universal. Some might see the changes we’ve made to the Colorado River as positive, establishing thriving farms and communities, using nature for the benefit of humans. Others, however, might view these changes negatively, seeing destruction instead of positive progress. Both views are valid. People will not see the Colorado River in exactly the same way, but they are likely to make a powerful connection to it.

Make These Ideas Work For Your Program

The powerful connection is what you’re aiming for, regardless of how you get there. Use whatever process works for you. Just remember the three components: resource (often concrete), concept (often abstract), and universal concept (something everyone can understand or has experienced, regardless of background).

Perhaps you already know the abstract concept you want to cover in your program: watershed health. What concrete objects can you use to support your program? Can you take the audience to a stream? Can you bring river rocks or water samples or an aquarium with fish inside? Can you show pictures? What universal concept can you use to link these objects and concepts?

Perhaps you are starting with tangible resources. You’re going to lead visitors through a water treatment plant. What are they going to see along the way? Why are you showing them these things? What wider concept do you want visitors to take away from their tour?

Many interpreters already link resources, concepts and universals in programs – we just might not be conscious of it. But looking back on programs with an eye towards these concepts can improve a program, and better connect an audience to a resource.


–       Brainstorm some of the concrete resources you can use in your program

–       Brainstorm some of the abstract concepts tied to each object

–       Identify the universal concepts that are tied to both; can these concepts be understood by all people (though their experiences may differ)?


–       Brainstorm the concepts you want to cover in your program

–       Identify the universal concepts related to these initial concepts

–       Brainstorm some tangible objects or resources that you can use to illustrate these concepts

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:
Building a Foundation
Appealing to Hearts and Minds
Measuring Effectiveness
What’s Your Point?
Assembling the Puzzle

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