TEACH!: Unit 8, Lesson 1.

Communicating Your Message:

What’s It All About?
Developing a Theme.


The learner will develop a well-crafted theme for an interpretive project.


  • Paper
  • Pencil/pen/markers
  • Steps to Devising a Theme Checklist


Themes make interpretation! This activity deals with themes. No, not the type that you wrote for tenth-grade English class, but rather the idea that any interpretive event should be centered on one particular idea you want to plant in the minds of the people attending your interpretive event.

Themes are basically the story that you want to tell. The y have a beginning, middle, and an end. They are the key to communication because all effective communication – from a casual telephone call to an intricate nature center exhibit – is thematic.

The theme for this activity is that themes are the first step in making any interpretation memorable and effective.

What is a theme?

Most people are a little vague on the definition of a theme and use it in different ways in everyday conversation. Here, we will be very specific in its use, and we hope to convince you that you should be specific in it use as well.

The most common source of misunderstanding is the difference between a topic and a theme. A topic is the general subject matter of your interpretive event. Examples of a few interesting topics are birds, water, logging, the water cycle, prairies, snakes, 10,000 lakes, and underwear. You’ll notice that all of these can be the subject material of a message but are not the intent of the communication. So what about birds? So what about water? So what about logging?

You rarely pass someone on the street and whisper, “Ketchup!” in their ear. However, you may be concerned about their appearance and tell them, “You have ketchup dribbling down your chin!” The first is the topic. The second is the theme of your communication. If you are still wondering about how to identify a topic, ask yourself, “Is it a sentence fragment? ”If so, it’s probably a topic.

 Themes, on the other hand, are the message in your communication. They answer the

“So what?” of the message and are complete sentences. If you were planning an interpretive walk and you wanted to focus on the great prairie at your site, you might select the topic of “Prairie” for your event, but then you would need to focus on what you want your visitors to know about prairies, i.e. your theme.

Some examples of potential themes for a forest-oriented interpretive presentation might be:

  • Forests are the dominant ecosystem in Pennsylvania, covering over half of the state’s land.
  • Forests provide habitat for much of the state’s wildlife.
  • The forest is alive at night.
  • What you see is not all of what you get with forests.
  • Forests provide economically important products as well, like lumber and maple syrup.
  • Forests play an important role in protecting the state’s water resources.

Why bother with themes?

One question you should ask is “Why bother with themes?” The answer is that they make life simpler by organizing your interpretive product and creating more effective communication. Themes focus your effort when developing your presentation. Once you have a designated theme, you can judge if specific activities, stops, signs, or sections fit into the presentation or if they are out in left field and should not be included.

From the participants’ perspectives, themes increase the chance they will remember your message. Themes provide a framework on which participants can hang the facts you present. It helps them organize the information and retain it. Them es also make the interpretation interesting. Finally, participants remember themes while they often have trouble remembering all of the specific details you tell them.

If you want to have organized interpretive presentations with a message participants will remember, themes are the way to go.


Hopefully, we’ve convinced you to use themes in creating your interpretive event. Actually, you should use themes any time you want to communicate something. (The next time you propose to your honey, we hope you say “I want to marry you and spend the rest of my life with you.” If you just say “Marriage!” you might not get the response you desire). Here are a few steps you can use to identify a theme.

1. Brainstorm a bazillion topics.
Write down any topic idea that comes into your head. Ask your colleagues for suggestions. Some ideas will be silly (socks), some will be too serious or complex (the Civil War), but some will have a core of an idea that will develop into your theme.

2. Pick one topic and add the details.
Next, take a likely topic from your brainstorm and flesh out the details. Birds may be interesting and you may have a lot of birds at your interpretive center, but what do you want people to know about birds? Do you want people to know about their evolution,

that they migrate, that Red-tail Hawks eat still-squirming squirrels? Fleshing out the main points of your message will help you determine the theme.

3. Answer the question.
“What do I want the participants to know at the end of the day?” By asking this question, you will focus your content, and end up with a theme. Specifically, you should complete the sentence “At the end of the day, I want the participants to know ________________________.” You may decide you want people to know that birds are built to be lightweight flying machines.

4. Make sure your theme passes “quality control.” It should…

  • Be a short, complete sentence.
  • Contain only one idea.
  • Reveal the overall point of the interpretive activity or product.
  • Be specific.
  • Be catchy.

You should ask yourself, “Does my theme tell an important story that will enrich the participant’s experience? For example, if you are showcasing a particular natural area you may want to emphasize why the site has been preserved and whether it has any ecological or historical interest. You should also ask yourself if the theme will be interesting to the audience. The phylogeny and systematic of raptors may be a fascinating topic to you but your audience may be more interested in how they hunt, or if they will peck their eyes out! Finally, you should ask if you have the interest and resources to develop the theme. If you think your theme is dry as toast, your audience will be begging for some water to wash it down.


Not only should you use a theme in developing your interpretive presentation, you should use it explicitly throughout the whole presentation. Keeping your the me a secret is a guaranteed way that no one will go home with the message you hope to impart. To ensure the theme is incorporated throughout, be sure to…

1. Include the theme in the name and advertising of your interpretive event or product. “Water Days” may express the topic of a conservation field day, but also mention what you want your participants to know about water at the end of the day.

2. Introduce the theme at the opening of a presentation or at the beginning of a product, such as a brochure or leaflet. Good communication is repetitive. You should let the participants know the theme at the outset, have all of your activities reinforce the theme, and end the day on the theme. Think about the Coca-Cola Company. If they thought they only needed to tell you once that Coke was a wonderful thing, then the entire free market economy in the United States would collapse from lack of advertising dollars. Themes need as much exposure as you can give them.

3. All events, exhibits, activities, stops on a walk, and major points of a talk should support the theme. Each station, activity, statement, and event should add depth and texture to your theme. They should flesh out the ideas initiated in the theme so participants can add more to their knowledge. For example, if your theme is “Raptors are predators of the sky,” you might have parts on feeding adaptations, hunting styles, flying, and raptor identification. Throwing in a demonstration on candle-dipping would be distracting and not further your message.

4. Each major support or activity should have its own theme that builds on and supports the overall theme. Believe it or not, each activity is its own communication event. You can even develop a sub-theme for a specific activity that supports the overall theme.

5. You should have five or fewer supports for your theme. While each event, major support, or activity should have its own message and reinforce the overall theme, you shouldn’t overwhelm the audience. Stay focused, and try to keep the number of supporting ideas to approximately five things. People can only remember a few major points. (How many times have you successfully exited the grocery store with all six things that were on your mental shopping list?)

6. The closing, end, conclusion, or finale should return to the theme. Remind them how the activities or supports endorsed the theme, and tie the whole presentation into a neat package they can easily take home with them. As the saying goes, Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.” People need reinforcement. Don’t be shy in giving it to them.


As the National Pep Squad for Thematic Interpretation says,“Be thematic! Be, be thematic! Be thematic! Be, be thematic! Go-o-o-o-o themes!” Themes are the first step in making your conservation field day memorable and effective.


For more information on creating and using effective themes, check out:

Meyer, N.J., Blair, R.B., Carlson, S.P., Bilotta, J.P., Montgomery, K.L., Ostlie, K.M., Prax, V.J., & Rager, A.R.B. Best Practices for Field Days: A Program Planning Guidebook for Organizers, Presenters, Teachers and Volunteers. University of Minnesota Extension Service: Saint Paul, Minnesota, 2005.

Continue to:
Unit 8, Lesson 2.:  Tips and tricks: Enhancing fascination with nature.