I write the signs. I write the signs. (Interpretative content guidelines for professional copywriters)

As a professional copywriter bereft of a specialty, I get to work on a remarkable array of projects.

One of my favourites is developing content for interpretative signage (or interp’s projects, as they’re known in the industry).

You’ve all seen them … those signs fringing the trail as you wander through coastal wetlands, the storyboards at historical homesteads, the panels that describe how the early mariners were shipwrecked just off the shoreline (then invite you to press the big red button to hear a recreated audio track of their desperate cries amongst the roaring winds and screeching seabirds).

Interp’s often combine placemarking (naming and directional signage) with placemaking (creating a memorable experience in a particular environment). They can interpret many ideas and concepts – social and cultural history, geological history, natural/environmental values and more.

On most interp’s projects I team with a creative director/designer who specialises in interpretation and can guide the layout of the signs to fit the physical space. We’ll collaborate on theming and messages and then, depending on the level of resources provided by the client, I will research the background and the topics before outlining the specific information to be included.

That’s the fun part – interviewing the locals, poking around at historical societies, searching the internet, online libraries, archives and public records authorities.

All the while, I’m keeping an eye out for images (and usage permissions) to complement the interpretative text.

Sam Ham’s book Interpretation – A Guide for Making a Difference on Purpose, describes the TORE model of interpretation – Thematic, Organised, Relevant, Enjoyable.

The process of developing interpretative content shares many of its principles with other forms of copywriting. It’s all about knowing your audience, identifying your key messages, finding the right voice and engaging your reader sufficiently to achieve your objective. Most interp’s are aimed at educating and inspiring the audience whilst positively engaging them in the experience of the physical environment.

These are my go-to guidelines for creating interpretative copy.

Pitch it low

Interpretation is there to help the reader understand. Most interp’s projects I’m involved in relate to tourist destinations. The target audience is diverse … in age, gender, education, ethnic background, interest level. For a general public audience at a tourist destination, the pitch should centre on the reading /comprehension level of 9-12 year olds. That’s trickier to achieve than you might think. The resources are often scientific or academic based and pitched much higher. That’s where a professional copywriter comes in.

Layer it

The audience will always include a cross-section of people with different interest levels. Effective content layers the information, from introductory material to explanatory to more detailed or technical information. Often signage can direct readers to more information online (QR codes are popular), in brochures, at information centres, even on other signs nearby. The layering allows the reader to digest the content at his or her own level.

Engage with it

Interpretation often includes interactive devices (like the buttons above) but diagrams and simple analogies to illustrate complex ideas can also make the difference between engaging or losing a reader. Copywriters collaborate with creative directors/designers to seek out and incorporate opportunities for high-engagement elements.

Picture it

It’s a big call for a copywriter, to promote this but … a picture does tell a thousand words. Compelling and evocative images capture attention and drive textual stories to better understanding. A panel of text (like a full page of words) is boring and uninviting.

Mix it up

Straight prose is not everyone’s cup of tea (unless you’ve actually sat down with a cuppa to read a novel). Quality interpretation combines the written word with images (see above), audio, interactive media and more. Within the words there is room to change it up with pull quotes from oral histories, snappy facts that can be boxed out, poetry verses, song lyrics, bullet lists, headings and sub-headings. Always relevant and always on theme.

Tell a story with it

The thematic approach lets the copywriter tell a story through the signage – it can be organised chronologically, sub-thematically or as dictated by the physical setting. A story pulls the audience through the material, leads them from sign to sign, deepens their experience and helps them leave with a sense of positivity.

Make them think with it

The holy grail of interpretation is not necessarily to persuade the audience to the interpreter’s point of view. It is to provoke the audience to think.

Got you thinking?

Discover more about the mysteries of interpretation at Interpretation Australia or give me (or your favourite professional copywriter) a call to have a chat.

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