Inform, educate and entertain – “It’s not what you say…” or “Aunty knows best!”

setting the tone for heritage

When Lord Reith set out his mission statement for the BBC all those years ago (nearly 100 now), it was to “inform, educate and entertain”. Broadly speaking that is what we all try and do in the heritage sector.

I recently read an article in The Times outlining a new BBC directive on the tone of language that its Radio 3 presenters should use. Quite why this was limited to Radio 3 is slightly beyond me, but that’s not the point.

The BBC has suggested that the presenters should sound less like all knowing connoisseurs and seek to deliver programmes in a manner positioning themselves more along the lines of equal discovery with the listeners.

The Beeb management has said that the presenters should not use phrases such as “…as we all know…”, or “we all presume that…”; nor must they “presume audience knowledge”.

That is not to say of course that “experts” cannot be used – after all, they are the people who must then provide the knowledge.

How might this apply in the heritage sector?

The parallel I draw to this BBC directive and its relevance to the heritage sector is because this is where experts abound, in the form of curators & researchers, archaeologists & historians. And it is a constant debate when devising visitor communication to seek the right tone of language, to assume the right level of understanding inherent in visitors.

Making these decisions is obviously (see I’m doing it too, assuming that what follows is “obvious” to you!!), dependent upon the content of an exhibition or gallery/museum and therefore how much visitors are likely to know about a particular subject.

For example, one might assume that a visitor to an aviation museum will have at least heard of the Dambusters, but are less likely to know about Peter Twiss breaking the sound barrier only 13 years later.

Market research can tell you some of this, but particularly for smaller establishments where no money exists for professional visitor surveys etc., it’s a common-sense decision, one made from experience, as much as data.

And what can happen is that, (rightly in my humble opinion), the tone and the language used is often easy to understand and not too detailed, so as to ensure engagement with as broader cross-section of visitors as possible.

Which then leads on to further debate about layers of information. What about those who already do know more? And those who thirst for more detail? How do we address their needs? The answer we hear is “information layering”.

Touch-screens are often seen as a great way to create this layering. One description frequently used is to enable visitors to “drill down” to all kinds of obscure details if they so wish. But to do this is to view the touch-screen as some form of data base – an easy option to solve the information layering issue.

BBC tone
article in The Times

However, what it actually means is that in so doing one loses the opportunity to take advantage of a touch-screens capabilities to entertain, to provide interest rather than detail.

In short, it’s a cop out, a quick win putting the wider design challenge in the “too hard to do box”.

Another problem is that unless there are numerous “terminals”, the longer one person is using it, the longer no-one else can!

Shame… as in “what a shame” AND “shame on us” in not taking on the challenge.

But, I digress…

So why has the BBC made this directive?

They say it is to enable the programmes to broaden their appeal (my words not theirs) and that surely is our own remit 90% of the time. Yes, there are occasions when a particular audience is targeted and thus assumptions made about the level of knowledge of the members of that target audience. Then appropriate forms of language and tone can be used, that might otherwise be unwise.

But generally we need to aim for broad appeal, make the assumption of little or no knowledge and design appropriately to that.

So all in all, I tend to agree with the BBC. Do not try and visibly patronise the visitor with any form of assumed level of knowledge. Not out loud anyway.

Keep the assumptions to ourselves and simply communicate in creative ways to ensure that we all, INFORM, EDUCATE AND ENTERTAIN.

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