Back when we first learned to write essays, we all learned that we needed to have a thesis statement.  The thesis outlined the main argument of the essay, and all points covered in our writing needed to tie back to this statement.

An interpretive programs, like an essay, should have a theme that not only ties together information, but may provoke the audience to make new connections to the resource discussed.

Coming up with a topic for a program is usually easy, but determining the theme can be much more difficult.  What’s the difference?  A topic is usually a broad concept, the subject of the presentation:  water, irrigation, prior appropriation, riparian restoration.  A theme is the central idea of the program, the thesis statement.  You can use your theme to tie together all the subsidiary topics you cover, as well as the goals and objectives for your program.

Why Have a Theme?

Themes help keep programs cohesive.  Your theme should help you determine what information you should include in your program.  We often want to include everything, but this can encourage us to include irrelevant material or overwhelm our audience.  If the information you’re considering doesn’t fit your theme, save it for another program.

Distilling your theme should help you to think clearly about what you are saying, what you want to convey, and what you want your audience to know.  Here are some questions to ponder: 

  • Why are you taking time to share this story?
  • Why should your audience care?  If someone asked “So what?” how would you respond?
  • How can you make your topic relevant to your audience?
  • What do you want your audience members to remember when they walk away?

And remember:  the goal of interpretive programs is not merely to provide information, but to facilitate connections between the audience and your resource.

What Makes a Good Theme?

Good themes often connect to your topic’s greater significance.  You may want to link your theme to your organization’s mission.  The theme might be the message you want your audience members to take home, but doesn’t have to be.

Good themes usually link a concrete resource to a universal concept.  The concrete resource might be an object, person, place, or event:  fish, Mesa Verde’s reservoirs, the Yampa River.  Universal concepts have significance for almost everyone, although they may not mean the same thing to any two people.  These are ideas, values, challenges, relationships, needs, and emotions:  change, life and death, family, home, community.

Here are a few examples of possible themes:

Transbasin diversions represent choices and change.

Animals adapt to their surroundings or die.

Colorado’s water is a limited resource, and sharing it among everyone requires cooperation and a delicate balancing act.

The San Luis Valley aquifers have fed the fields of Colorado, but now the water might be running out.

Crafting a Theme

Like a thesis statement, your theme should be stated as a sentence.

  • Include the topic, add a verb, object, modifiers.
  • Include a concrete resource, and ideally a universal concept, to bridge the topic and the interests of your audience.

After you write your theme statement, you may want to look back on it and consider:

  • What compelling aspect(s) could you include to make this subject more meaningful?
  • Can it be stated more clearly?
  • Can the relevance be stated more clearly?
  • Is the statement now too broad?  Strip it back to the essentials (keep time, audience, and your own knowledge in mind).

Writing a good theme sentence might take several drafts.  You may want to adjust your theme after you try giving your program, see how your audience responds, and identify what components work and which do not.  Remember, your theme is not necessarily your “take-home message,” and you don’t need to measure your theme’s effectiveness by seeing if your audience can parrot it back to you.  Creating a good theme can be tough, but it can also produce amazing programs.

next step

–    Brainstorm topics for a new program, or consider the topics of an existing program

–    Think about why you are presenting on this topic.  Why is it important?  List a few reasons.

–    Write down the concrete resource that is most central to your presentation.

–    List a few universal concepts that might resonate with your audience.  Which one connects best to your topic and resource?  Which one feels most compelling?

–    Write your theme as a sentence, linking the resource and universal concept.

–    Look back over your theme.  How is it relevant to the audience?  Can you state it more clearly?

–    Think about the points you make in your program.  Do they all relate to the theme?  If not, can you relate them, or should you remove certain points?  Or do you need to adjust your theme?

What advice would you offer to an interpreter crafting a theme?  Comment below with your thoughts.  You can also join CFWE’s Water Educator Network and share your expertise with other water educators.

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