If you’re finding that your organization is in a rut and you no longer feel as inspired about its work, it might be useful to look at it in a new way by creating a “word cloud” of key documents, such as a strategic plan, mission and vision statements, interpretive themes, or visitor evaluation. A word cloud is a visual presentation of the most frequently used words, sized by frequency. For example, if you use the word “history” ten times more than “preservation” in your strategic plan, “history” shows up much larger than “preservation” in the word cloud. The word cloud allows you to look at your organization from a different perspective: words jump out at you and prompt questions about what’s being emphasized (and what’s not).
As examples, in the slide show above I’ve assembled word clouds from the first few paragraphs of the About section of the websites (which often includes the mission or vision statements) of the following historic sites:
- Mount Vernon
- Colonial Williamsburg
- Museum L-A (Lewiston-Auburn)
- Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
- Strawbery Banke
- Historic Deerfield
- Homestead Museum
- Tenement Museum
- President Lincoln’s Cottage
I’ve used word clouds in strategic planning sessions to ask the group if it seems to accurately reflect the organization, if the priorities are reflected appropriately, if a word was unexpected, if there are missing words, if the biggest words are the ones you want visitors to remember, and if a combination of words revealed an overlooked opportunity. In this exercise, words become powerful symbols of ideas. It takes time to adequately analyze a cloud, so if you try it, give people a few minutes to examine and absorb it. Initially, people will react to the big words, then it grows quiet as they look closer at the small words and make connections, then the conversation will grow again as they discuss what’s missing or de-emphasized. It’s like a slow motion combination of an ink blot test (developed by Hermann Rorschach) and a word association test (developed by Carl Jung).
Do recognize that this is just a conversation starter and not a definitive method for judging the appropriateness of a mission or strategic plan. In other words, “history” doesn’t need to be the largest word to be considered a successful history organization. Words can have multiple meanings and synonyms complicate analysis (indeed, I edit the text to remove possessives, changing words like “museum‘s” to “museum” for better results). What may be more useful is a comparison to similar documents from similar organizations (or organizations that you consider models) to see how they are presented in a word cloud and what words or ideas they emphasize.
You can create your own word cloud easily online for free using Wordle. You cut-and-paste text from your document into Wordle, then press a button to let it magically count and artfully arrange a word cloud just for you. You can modify the typeface, colors, arrangement, and number of words to create one that works best (for example, I’ve found that yellow words on a white background don’t show up well in a PowerPoint). Have fun!