Talking Story

I was walking back down the hill to our home in Hawaii after running, when a new neighbor smiled and said hello from her lanai just behind her house. She held a bunch of bananas and a shrink-wrapped package of macadamia nuts, gifts to a new neighbor. Flora and her husband have a family-run coffee and mac nut farm. We exchanged small talk for a few minutes to get acquainted. We were “talking story,” a Hawaiian reference to chatting and telling personal stories that reveal much about who we are, what we like, and how we live. Storytelling reflects and reveals our values, our hopes, our disappointments and our way of thinking.


Farmer's markets have become one of these important places to talk story in Hawaii and many other communities.

Farmer’s markets have become one of these important places to talk story in Hawaii and many other communities.

Talking story is a time-honored tradition here. I feel very much at home with the storytellers. As a young boy, I would be out with my father, a salesman, and would tug on his pants leg to go home as he chatted with farmers, neighbors, customers and anyone he met. I grew to appreciate his stories, some historical, some autobiographical, many humorous. The stories were well known in the family. I inherited them and have continued the tradition of passing them along. They express some of my beliefs and experiences with life or they just seem funny and a way to remember dad. When my son was very young he endured my long visits with friends and strangers, sharing stories, getting acquainted, talking story.


I love that the culture here has a name for this activity, but the activity itself is not unique to Hawaii. The small town where I was raised had several local cafes, which had daily coffee drinkers who gathered to “talk story,” known as the third place by city planners. These homes away from home included “regulars” and their friends or drop-ins, someone new to town or returning home for a visit. These third places are important in communities because they allow people to hang out, catch up with friends, and take time to understand each other better.


As a nature center director, I supervised building a restaurant next to the Arkansas River in Pueblo, Colorado. The center had been a popular daily stop for joggers, dog walkers, fishers, birdwatchers and nature lovers. A café added food, beverages and great places to sit with friends, un-hassled. It encouraged people to meet for lunch, stop by for a drink, hold a birthday party or even a wedding or funeral. I enjoyed talking story with our “regulars” each day. The restaurant added to our attraction power for people as a third place, not work, not home. We encouraged staff to take the time to talk story with visitors. It became an important part of the workday, getting to know people well, listening to their stories.


Think about how you might encourage opportunities for storytelling beyond the traditional exhibit space or program areas. That café, coffee shop, tearoom or picnic area that serves as a “third place” at your facility may become “the” place for talking story at your site and as such, an important place for creating a sense of community.


– Tim Merriman





10 Guidelines for a Useful Brochure


Rack systems managed by marketing firms can be an easy way to get your brochure in front of diverse audiences.

Rack systems managed by marketing firms can be an easy way to get your brochure in front of diverse audiences.

We once asked a state park office how often they have to fill their brochure rack. The enthusiastic clerk explained, “It’s great, virtually never. No one takes them.” Here are ten guidelines to keep your brochures where they belong, in the hands of your guests, instead of in the rack or on the ground.


  1. A colorful brochure with great illustrations attracts the eye and makes it more likely to be picked up in the first place.
  2. The title should telegraphically identify the brochure’s purpose or theme. If I need a site map, I want to be able to find it easily, but if I’m interested in the story behind the site, I may be willing to read a little more if the title is intriguing.
  3. Use illustrations and photos instead of words whenever possible. Pictures can often convey universal concepts, understood even by those who do not know the language.
  4. Make the folded shape and size convenient to carry in a pocket.
  5. Make sure the design is consistent with the distribution system. If your brochure rack has opaque covers across the lower half of the brochure, put the title or theme on the upper third where it can be seen.
  6. Make brochures readily available in a rack system or location where they are likely to be seen and used, not hidden in an administrative office where guests have to ask for them.
  7. Give people a place near exits to repurpose gently used brochures. Soiled ones can be put in paper recycling and clean ones reused.
  8. Make the papers and inks used reflect your values. Recycled paper and organic inks may be the best choice if your organization specializes in conservation stories, even if they are slightly more expensive.
  9. Think of who will use it and design to help them make easy use of the brochure. (e.g. larger print for seniors, digital app for young people, sized for convenient distribution).
  10. Hire a professional designer who knows how to use color, typefaces, spacing and overall design carefully. This may not be a project for an intern.


Enough said – Happy Valentine’s Day!


– Tim Merriman

Living Off-grid – A Lesson in Energy Consumption


In the early 1980s I was a nature center director in Pueblo, Colorado. The energy crisis nationally energized us to be early adopters and models of conservation measures. We put a solar hot water heater on the center, added clivus multrum composting toilets and built a solar greenhouse both as demonstrations and to show our commitment to our own core values. The technologies were somewhat clumsy and challenging to use back then, but we learned much from doing it and conducted workshops as part of our programming to teach others about emerging technologies that protect the environment.


Photovoltaic power has never been so affordable.

Photovoltaic power has never been so affordable.

Decades passed and I moved on to be an association director. As private citizens, Lisa and I paid our energy bills and enjoyed the benefits of on-grid electricity at reasonable rates. In 2008 we used the exceptional U.S. and Colorado tax credits and Xcel Energy stimulus funds to add 48 on-grid solar panels to our home in Fort Collins. We had no electrical bill after that, except for a $7 clerical charge monthly. The system repaid us for hard costs in five years with the savings on electrical bills.


We just moved to the Big Island of Hawaii where we currently rent a home that is off-grid solar. Electrical power poles do not make it to this secluded location. It is actually a wonderful reminder every minute of the day that energy is not as free and easy as it seems in much of the United States. The normal cost for electricity of 42 cents a kilowatt-hour on the Big Island (3 times the mainland rate) encourages important choices in how you build and consume. We have decided to build our new bamboo house with off-grid photovoltaic cells, solar hot water and catchment water for irrigation.


Even a solar trash compactor can tell its story.

Even a solar trash compactor can tell its story.

In the meantime we have four to five months in the rental house to learn how to manage our daily lifestyle with less energy demand. Our current daily use of electricity is:

Light (1 – 60 watt) – 2.5 hrs.

Refrigerator – 24/7

Microwave – 5 minutes

Blender – 30 seconds

TV/Dish controller – 2.5 hours

Computer/phone recharge – 4 hours

Printer – 5 minutes

Toaster oven – 45 seconds


We have no heating or air conditioning with lows of 62 degrees and highs of 84 degrees Fahrenheit. We have no dishwasher, clothes washer, or dryer, a choice you make when going off-grid to decrease electrical demand. It’s a climate where clothes dry quickly outside and we just do not wear as many clothes with shorts and a T-shirt as the preferred daily apparel. (Lisa notes that she does wash clothes, but by hand, as needed, in the bathtub. It takes roughly one hour per week.) We cook with propane and have on-demand propane-fueled hot water.


Hawaii offers opportunities to lower our energy demand and live with no connection to the grid for a reasonable investment in photovoltaic solar power and hot water. The tax credits make it all more affordable and new technologies keep lowering the cost. Solar panels that cost $350/watt produced two decades ago are selling for $1/watt now so the opportunities to use solar on or off-grid have never been greater.


People like learning about your extra efforts to protect the environment.

People like learning about your extra efforts to protect the environment.

Nature centers, aquariums, zoos, museums, and parks, which use solar and other appropriate technologies make a valuable contribution in stimulating people to think about new options. When you employ these technologies, be sure you create the exhibits and other media to share your reasoning and the costs involved. Adding programs that help people learn how to do it can be very popular.


Climate makes going off-grid challenging in most places but year-round warm climates offer a great opportunity for people to return to a simpler way of life by making a few different lifestyle choices that are healthier for humans and for the planet. For more information, check out Home Power magazine to get more acquainted with the burgeoning technologies.


– Tim Merriman