Docent Educator Logo

Imagery Awakens the Senses

The giant saguaro cactus, tall and powerful, depicted as the John Wayne of the desert. The majestic Hon, loud and troublesome, seen as a neighborhood bully. The Grand Canyon, diverse and full of life, perceived as a large, metropolitan city. An ancient piece of pottery thought of as a lost soul, lonely and forgotten. How can these images be used by docents? Each fires the minds of listeners, invokes the senses, and brings an individual a step closer to significant and in-depth understanding.

Effective interpretation has never been stronger at today’s interpretive sites. Many docents are becoming better at encouraging visitors to become active thinkers, rather than to simply listen, passively, to information.

The use of metaphors and similes to create imagery has been used by generations of dynamic speakers and storytellers. It is a most effective communication tool and allows listeners to understand and respond on a personal level. Using words to touch the senses, including emotion, helps each individual make profound images.

As Roger vonOech points out in his book, A Whack on the Side of the Head, “Metaphors help us to understand one idea by means of another; we understand the unfamiliar by means of the similarities it has with what is familiar.” He goes on to point out that “facts stand alone and focus on differences, like a spotlight. Metaphors try to find similarities and connections, like a floodlight.” (Notice the use of metaphor here to help understand the meaning of “metaphor.”)

Recently, I saw a booklet promoting the area of Durango, Colorado. After reading it, I realized that some of their comments were among the better examples of effective interpretation I had seen in print. The front page stated,

This is God’s country. But He left the gate open.

Next to a picture of Mesa Verde, they have,

Smack your head on the same doorway the Anasazi did. (ouch!)

Describing their town alongside a beautiful photo they stated —

Small town hospitality combined with western vistas. Kind of like Aunt Bea in chaps.

From those few small statements, the reader can bring forth a flood of thoughts. Perhaps they smell good country cooking, hear the porch swing creek, and begin to whistle the theme song from the Andy Griffith show.

One of the best ways to spice up your interpretive programming is to think and speak with images. Ask yourself, just what image is it you want to bring to the listener’s mind and then reach into your own memories to find ways to evoke it. One should keep in mind that every person sees things in a somewhat different light. Such variables as age, background, and life experiences make the act of interpreting personal; it will vary from one individual to the next.

Connecting the tangible with the intangible in a significant way should be a goal for any successful docent. Inviting visitors to understand on their own level, at their own speed, will stimulate interest and motivate involvement. I experienced a prime example of this when I observed a docent at a location honoring the history of World War II pass around a military hat and ask each person to describe what he or she held. Most of the comments were very visual in nature, referring to its size, color, and texture. Then, the docent held the hat and told a story about it. He told how it had been worn by his uncle’s fighting buddy after his uncle had been shot and killed, how the hat had actually been held close to the heart of this soldier as a tribute to a brave companion. Suddenly, the hat took on additional meaning and the group perceived it as if it were an exquisite crystal piece. When the group was asked to describe it once again, the words they used were altogether different than previously.

An exercise I share and use successfully can involve any object familiar to everyone in the group. First, I stimulate the participant’s senses by asking them to imagine … the smell of gasoline; the taste of a banana; the feel of a cactus; the site of a small puppy; the sound of a fire engine; etc. — different phrases that ignite the imagination and bring forth an image. Then, we go around from person to person and have each individual give a one or two word description of the familiar object using each of their senses. This helps the group examine this object in a different way and not just view it as the summation of known facts.

Creating strong images that evoke the senses helps listeners make and more fully experience collections and locations. The technique of visualization can bring the inanimate or remote to life. Images are powerful, as are words. By successfully combining imagery with language, docents can ignite experience for audiences, awaken memories, engage passions, and bring to life all the senses.

Bev Twillmann is a storyteller/educator/ keynote speaker/trainer who provides workshops, performances, and interpretive training sessions. Her work in the interpretive field, under the name o/’Interpretive Voices, has been nationally recognized. Ms. Twillmann has contributed two articles previously to The Docent Educator ( Winter 1 998-99 and Summer 2000). She can be contacted by e-mail at:

Twillmann, Bev. “Imagery Awakens the Senses,” The Docent Educator 11.2 (Winter 2001-02): 6-7.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *