Author, Interpretation–Making a Difference on Purpose
Interview by William Bevil

Roughly 20 years ago, Dr. Sam Ham released his book Environmental Interpretation. Regarded as a milestone in our profession, it continues to be a go-to reference for many interpreters to this day. While the book built-on concepts and ideas pioneered by the likes of Tilden and Lewis, what really set it apart at the time was that it provided detailed guidance on doing practical thingsplan and present a presentation, lead guided tours, design exhibits, and effectively create and use themes as part of the interpretive method. Since then, Sam has continued to be a leader in our field, pushing the boundaries of how we think about interpretation as a communications tool. In 2013, Sam will unveil his latest book Interpretation–Making a Difference on Purpose, which promises to be another important milestone. Region 7 had the opportunity to catch up with Sam and hear about his latest work.

Book CoverSam, this new book has been a long time in the making. Please tell us a little about why you decided to write it and what sets it apart from your first book. Would you say this is a companion work or something completely new?

Interpretation–Making a Difference on Purpose really is a whole new piece of work, not just a 2nd edition of Environmental Interpretation (EI). I suppose you could think of it as a sequel in some ways. It incorporates and improves upon concepts from the first book, and even includes a familiar face in the form of Ranger Jones! Readers will find the content to be consistent and familiar, but after the first two chapters it really takes them into new territory. EI focused on the practical, how-to aspect of creating good interpretive programs, and it did a good job of that, but it didn’t adequately explore the question of why interpretation works. I knew even as I was putting the finishing touches on the first book that this was a question that had to be further explored. Even so, it couldn’t have been written then because we didn’t have the scientific evidence to back it up. Now we have 20 years of research in behavioral psychology and cognitive theory to work with, and the implications for our profession are tremendous.

This is what you’re getting at when you say interpretation isn’t magic?

Exactly, and this is a big focus of the new book. There are quantifiable reasons that good interpretation is successful, and understanding those principles is critical. Without that understanding, it feels like a magic trick that defies logical explanation. The interpreter really doesn’t own it yet and would be hard pressed to replicate that success in other circumstances. It’s not enough to know that interpretation should provoke thought in an audience; the interpreter must know why it’s necessary. Along the same lines, it isn’t enough simply to know that a good theme helps ensure a more effective presentation; we should know why themes work from a psychological standpoint. Every chapter of Interpretation–Making a Difference on Purpose draws on a body of solid research and makes the case for a shift from relying on luck and intuition to using intelligently applied techniques and purposeful design.

Your new book explores the idea of a ‘Zone of Tolerance.’ How does that concept align with current best practice for interpretation which points to achieving specific, measurable objectives?

Chapter 8 of the book, where the zone of tolerance is discussed, reminds us of Tilden’s assertion that through interpretation we are seeking to provoke new thinking in the audience, and so it would make sense that we can determine how well an interpretive product is working by looking at those thoughts. Using a simple method called ‘thought listing,’ you can gauge people’s thoughts.Put simply, if those thoughts make the interpreter happy, then they’re within the interpreter’s zone of tolerance. If the interpreter feels the thoughts are way off-base, then they are outside the zone of tolerance and it suggests some changes are required in the interpreter’s approach. Often an interpreter’s zone of tolerance will be wide and forgiving. In fact, sometimes we don’t really care what people think about a topic we’re presenting, but rather that they are thinking about it at all. And, of course, sometimes audiences are provoked to think thoughts we never anticipated but with which we’re very happy. In some cases, however, it’s legitimate for the interpreter or agency to define the zone of tolerance more narrowly. For instance, interpretive programs for school groups may be evaluated against state educational curriculum, or you may be trying to influence visitor behavior relating to litter or feeding wildlife. Using a zone of tolerance approach doesn’t mean you can’t set specific objectives.

What were some of the inspirations and key sources that influenced your thinking as you were writing this book?

David Larsen, a dear friend and colleague who died unexpectedly on January 17, 2011, is without doubt the most important influence. We really lost a monumental figure in our profession with his passing. For five years, from March 2005, when I first started this manuscript, until November 2010, David and I spoke almost monthly by phone so that I could hear his thoughts and feedback about where I was going with this book. Our conversations could last anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, and were nothing short of intellectual catharses for both of us. His brilliance and the inherent way that he knew interpretation and how it worked provided me with an invaluable perspective, and it’s for this reason that I have dedicated the book to David, along with my three grandchildren – all four very important people in my life. David commented in one of our last e-mail exchanges that some readers will never see interpretation the same way after reading this book. I think he meant that in a good way. Whether that’s the case or not, if it provokes us to think more deeply about ways to increase our own odds of making a real difference in our work, then I’ll regard the book as an important achievement.

You’ll be able to order Interpretation–Making a Difference on Purpose by or before May. It will be available through the NAI bookstore, Fulcrum Publishing,, Barnes & Noble, a various other online bookshops. For more info, Sam can be reached directly via e-mail by clicking here.

One thought on “A Talk with Dr. Sam Ham

  1. I look forward to reading Sam Ham’s new book — excited to know it gets into the behavioral psychology and cognitive theory behind what makes good interpretation work,. As a biologist I’m also fascinated by the underlying neuroscience. It would be fun (okay, my idea of fun) to know, for instance, which brain regions are active, which neurotransmitters are involved and what sort of new neural pathways are formed in an “Aha!” moment — does the book get into that? (If not, no points subtracted — that would be extra credit!)

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