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  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

Living History – Developing and Giving Engaging Public Programs – Part 2

Today we continue our discussion of Developing and Giving Engaging Public Programs that we began in our last post. In Part 1, we touched on our attitude towards the guests and our role at events; ideas on making guests feel comfortable in approaching and interacting with us; and some high-level considerations in designing and planning our interpretations and generational differences in attitudes towards history and learning. Today, we are going to look more closely at what we can do to encourage the guest to come and engage with us and ways to figure out how to focus our presentations in such a way that it appeals to the guest’s interests.

Getting the Guest’s Attention

While there are some who give talks or presentations in classrooms or auditoriums and therefore have a “captive” audience, for most living history interpreters this is not the case. At one time or another, we have all experienced the situation where we ask ourselves, “I’ve got all these authentic clothes and period props but why do the guests keep just walking past me?” Whether at an event or working at a living history site, unless there is a docent bringing groups to us, we find ourselves needing to get the attention of passing guests and then get them to stop and engage with us before we can make our presentation to them.

The one of the major keys to attention is contrast. Somehow, we must stand out from the background of everything else going on around us at an event. Sometimes we do this by wearing a costume or uniform, sometimes by speaking loudly or by looking exceptional. Other times we may get attention by performing some task or skill. All of these can be used to draw a crowd, focus their attention on us, and get the ball rolling.

Getting the Guest's Attention by Wearing Unique Clothing
Getting the Guest's Attention by Wearing Unique Clothing

One of the most successful methods, when combined with the activities to make the guests comfortable with approaching us that we discussed in Part 1, is to look the guests in the eye, smile, greet them warmly, and ask them a question related to what we are interpreting. Introducing oneself early is a good habit and there are advantages to speaking first. It affords us the ability to better control the content of our interactions and allows us to vary our subject matter to keep things fresh.

When we are already engaged in conversation with guests, we should acknowledge newcomers with a glance, a nod, or a smile. Even brief eye contact improves guest feelings of inclusion and welcome and helps to quell their fears of exclusion. One method of greeting newcomers when we are already engaged in conversation with guests is the “eyebrow flash.” This is a split-second upward jump of both eyebrows, usually accompanied with a smile. It occurs unconsciously when close friends talk, but people with a naturally friendly nature do it more often. This tiny, but charismatic, movement has been found to influence guests who receive it to become more relaxed and open in their conversation than they would otherwise.

No matter what, energy is a major element of capturing and holding attention. Energy makes us stand out from the crowd and helps to show that what we are doing is interesting and exciting. We can draw enthusiasm from our excitement about the subject, our enthusiasm for the guests, and whatever tension we are feeling about meeting and talking to new people. When we are enthusiastic and interpreting with real energy, there is a sense of constant focus, and we don’t notice time passing. Every moment we spend listening to the guests becomes important and everything we say has weight to it.

Engaging Guests in a Unique Venue - An 18th Century Dinner
Engaging Guests in a Unique Venue - An 18th Century Dinner

Once we have the guests’ attention, we need to do a few things to reduce “distractions” that they may experience. This helps them to focus on what we are sharing with them and keep the rapport that we are hopefully beginning to establish.

  • First, satisfy the part of them that wants to know – “What is the game here? What are the rules? Will I get to see the gun fired? Can my kid try it? Can I ask questions?” We want to be the focal point for the guests’ attention, so we need to look to ourselves and our surroundings to remove distractions.

  • Second, begin by eliminating any distracting mannerisms that we may have. We don’t want our appearance or vocal characteristics to upstage us. Mispronouncing words, rocking back and forth, and formulaic transitions can all act to distract the guests. Even the attention getters we used to attract the guests can be distracting once their work is done.

  • Third, cut all repetitive, useless fillers from our presentation and keep up the pace. If we do not keep the guests’ attention focused on our interpretation, it will drift away to something else.

Responding to the Guest’s Interests

We need to respond to the guest’s interests within the framework of what we are interpreting at that time. To accomplish this, we need to pay close attention to what the guest says, their body language, and what they might be looking at. For instance, if the guest begins talking about something that their father or grandfather talked about doing and associating it to what we are interpreting then we need to pick up on that as an interest the guest has and a way to “link” them to our presentation.

Although, in a living history context, exploring new ideas and environments is the task we put to our guests, our job is to help them through the presentation by injecting what may be unique or strange words and objects that can help to pique the guest’s interest and curiosity. These interesting ideas and objects serve to supply a variety of openings for the guests to choose from to direct the interpretation in a direction that interests them. If the guests show interest in a word, or object, we can then explore it further, if not, we keep casting out unfamiliar words, ideas or objects until the guest shows interest or excuses themselves.

Interpretative Station with Many Unique Items to act as "Hooks".
Interpretative Station with Many Unique Items to act as "Hooks".

When we lay out our interpretative station, we can make it a point to put out several objects, tools, etc. that may be of interest to a guest. In the living history community, these objects, as well as the unfamiliar words/terms and ideas that we talked about earlier, are often referred to as “hooks.” Just as a fisherman can be most successful by putting out a several hooks, baited with different things that would appeal to a fish, the living history interpreter will be most successful if they “cast out” a variety of “hooks” designed to appeal to different interests while remaining within the interpretative focus of our presentations.

As an example, if we are interpreting period cooking, there are several directions our interpretation can follow, depending on the "hook" that the guest shows interest in. For example, there is the work involved in keeping a fire going throughout the day and managing the “heat zones” for cooking as opposed to the modern stove/oven; there are the various tools and cooking vessels in use and how they are different or similar to modern cooking vessels; there is the “seasonality” of ingredients and how dishes a cook wanted to make had to be selected based on what was available at the market or in the pantry/root cellar compared to modern availability at grocery stores; and there are the differences in what was prepared, based upon the socio-economic status or the ethnic background (English, Scottish, German, Irish, Dutch, French, etc.) of the family or individual.

Once again, “hooks” stimulate interest from the guests and provide focus for conversation with them. As interpreters, there are many ways we can cast our “hooks” before the guest. We can ask questions, demonstrate crafts and activities, involve onlookers in tasks, wear or use an object that stimulates curiosity, and cast out other verbal “lures.”

Many interpreters stimulate conversation by asking questions; however, we need to avoid questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” as these often do not stimulate further conversation, and try to use “open ended” questions. We must be sensitive to the discomfort that some guests feel when we place them on the spot by asking a question. Therefore, a question that cannot be answered wrong is often the tactful choice.

Another possibility when we see a guest becoming uncomfortable with not knowing the answer is to speak back up and, without referring to the guest’s difficulty, answer it ourselves in a friendly way. An example of this would be, as soon as we notice the guest’s discomfort (this is a good example of why we need to be constantly “tuned in” to the guest) we could respond with something like “Of course, the answer is ….” or “Most people today wouldn’t know that the answer is . . ..” This allows us to relieve the guest’s discomfort while allowing them to save face.

Although guests often feel uncomfortable with their knowledge of “period” things, they can always relate to “timeless” human conditions and express opinions if we give them enough information. They will almost always respond if we ask them to make comparisons or judgements. One example of the “timeless human condition” type of hook is the “flustered housewife” or “flustered servant.” As the guest approaches, the interpreter launches into a tirade, complaining about her husband’s/master’s unruly children or other domestic frustrations. Another example particularly apt for the current time, for use by either a shopkeeper or a shopper, would be to go off about the rising prices and the supply shortages and the effect they are having on one’s business or family. Any guest can certainly relate that to what they are experiencing in their modern lives.

Guests Involved in a Hands-On Activity
Guests Involved in a Hands-On Activity

One of the easiest ways to spark the guest’s interest is to demonstrate an activity. Activities encourage guests to come closer; they want to see what is going on. Just as with verbal “ice breakers,” activities should be departure points for deeper discussions of the subject(s) being interpreted and not just an end in themselves.

Even those of us who are not carrying out complicated crafts or activities can attract attention with action-based hooks. This might be writing a letter, repairing a torn shirt, playing an instrument, playing a game, or even singing a song to oneself. Activities acquire more meaning for the guests when we include them in the activity. Once a guest is engaged in an activity, they become involved in the interpretation and feel more comfortable asking questions and expressing opinions.

Hands-on activities are especially effective with children, who love to volunteer for “demonstrations” and other activities. While the children are engaged in whatever “task” we put them to, we can explain to the adults what they are doing and the significance of that task in our time period. Adult guests also love to try their hands at historical activities so we should not overlook them.


Speaking of children, we need to keep in mind that families are a significant part of the audience at historic sites, museums, and events where we find ourselves acting as living history interpreters. Research has shown that family visitors are primarily interested in social interaction, active participation, and entertainment. If we are not careful, this can clash with our desires if we are focused on providing an educational opportunity full of content (talking /lecturing). “Information Overload” is a common result when this is the case.

Unfortunately, with multi-generational family groups, and multi-generational audiences in general, we are challenged to offer interpretational experiences that span across all age groups. If we want to capture the interest of all generations, we find that we need to not only shift between subjects that appeal to children, to parents, and to grandparents, but that also stimulate child-adult interaction. One way many cleaver interpreters do this is to discuss subjects that concern both parents and children while addressing the perspectives of each.

Interpreter Interacting with a multi-generational Family Group
Interpreter Interacting with a multi-generational Family Group

For instance, a conversation on schooling, might cover what a typical child’s day would be like, why, or why not, parents might choose to have their children schooled, what the “facilities” for the schooling were like, and what children learned in school in the time period we are concerned with. By touching on all of this we can engage the parents and children in talking together about schools and schooling and how it differs from today. This can also engage the grandparents and older guests by evoking memories of their own schooling experiences and possibly encourage them to share stories and memories about their own experiences. We also find that many parents are content with the interpretation when their children are engaged and enjoying themselves.

Thank you for joining us for today’s post in our occasional series on the practice of Living History. Hopefully, this article has continued to give you some things to consider around this subject. In future posts we will discuss subjects such as “The Art of Conversation with Guests” and “Body Language and Gestures When Interpreting to Guests.” In the meanwhile, please join us again in two weeks when we will resume our “regularly scheduled programing” examining the social, political and cultural history of the United States in the late-18th and early-19th centuries.

While you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects - military, political, and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


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Fort Ticonderoga. (2016, April 25). My Clothes are Hand Stitched, But No One will Talk to Me. Retrieved from Fort Ticonderoga:

Fort Ticonderoga. (2017, August 4). 3 Tips for Better Conversations with Visitors. Retrieved from Fort Ticonderoga:

Roth, S. F. (1998). Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First Person Historical Interpretation. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Scudder, J. (2018, August 22). Making History Relevant for the Social Media Generation. Retrieved from Education Week:

Tilden, F. (1957). Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Underhill, R. (2000). Khrushchev's Shoe and Other Ways to Captivate Audiences from One to One Thousand. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.


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