Category Archives: The Art of Tour Guiding

How To Be A Rockstar Tourguide

   A tour is when someone who knows a bit more about a subject than everyone else present talks to them about it.

   A good tour is slightly different.

    To clarify, I am a bloody good tour guide. I’m not ashamed to say it. I put a lot of effort into my work and take a lot of pride in it as well. It is wonderfully easy to tell if you are a good tour guide. The tour group will let you know, believe me. And if you are a good tour guide, seeing happy faces and perhaps receiving compliments at the conclusion of your tour is not only an indication of the quality of your work, it is your reward for the effort you have put in. At the conclusion of a mediocre tour, your group will melt away silently and immediately. If you are a good tour guide, you will get a round of applause. I’ve even had people offer to buy me my lunch in the on-site cafe as a way of saying thank you. This isn’t boasting. Well, maybe it is, but it is also justification for my audacity in having written this post in the first place.

  Even if you are not a tour guide, hopefully the next time you go on a disappointing tour, you’ll be less willing to simply put up with sub standard work. Demand a better experience! Don’t accept shoddy work. You wouldn’t in any other aspect of life. Don’t let tour guides away with it any more than you would any other professional who is absolutely awful.

So, my tips for being a rock star tour guide are as follows:

  • Show up early. If your tour is scheduled for immediately after your lunch break, cut the lunch break short. In the 5 minutes before your tour commences, you can learn so much about the people in your group and therefore tailor the experience to them. Does your group mainly consist of families with school age children? You’ll be able to prepare a few age appropriate stories and jokes before you start. Is your group comprised of a group of elderly ladies and gentlemen on a coach tour to your area? You’ll be able to plan to walk a little slower to compensate and you’ll have time to consider whether you really need to include the narrow spiral staircase this time around. Does everyone appear to be foreign? You’ll be forewarned that they will understand 10% of what you say unless you simplify your language. Do you hear a regional accent? Perhaps you have an exhibit produced in that region. You can decide now whether to add that exhibit to your tour for their benefit, even though you wouldn’t generally include it. You get the concept.
  • A friendly greeting is key. It sets the tone for everything that follows. It should be a matter of personal pride that your group knows it has your full attention and that you are thrilled to be giving them the tour. If you are distracted or grumpy, you have lost any chance of engaging your audience before you finish your third sentence.  These people pay your wages, the least you can do is be genuinely pleased to be talking to them. If you’re not, get a job somewhere else.
  • Personal appearance. I’m not advocating that you get a hollywood makeover complete with botox and teeth bleaching. I’m not even, as a woman, suggest that other female tour guides cake themselves in make up. However I am of the opinion that every tour guide should be clean. I once went on a tour of a Norman castle where the guide smelt as if he hadn’t showered for a week. Hence, my only memory of the place isn’t of me having a good time, it’s of trying desperately not to breathe through my nose for 45 minutes. Breath mints are also a must have. You will be breathing over thse people for a considerable amount of time. None of them are interested in what you ate for lunch. Flashy ostentatious jewellery detract from any words that leave your mouth. You can be as knowledgeable as you like, but if your giant costume jewellery is blinding them or hypnotising them into a trance then you may as well not bother talking at all. A few subtle pieces are of course perfectly acceptable, but turning up draped in the largest pieces of bling you possess isn’t professional. For the ladies: Whether you paint your nails or not, your nails should be neat and clean. And as for make up, if you do choose to wear it, whether you like it or not, no-one will take you seriously if you look like you’ve applied every single cosmetic you own onto your face all at once. Go for subtle and classy. Feel free to express your personality in your appearance by all means, but don’t feel the need to beat your listeners around the head with it. You are of course unique and special, yadda yadda, but the group aren’t here to see how unique and special YOU are, they’re here for the site. Like it or not, people do make assumptions based on their initial impression of your appearance. Do you want to spend the next hour doing your job, or trying to convince them that you are qualified to do your job even though you seem to have come dressed to the site as a Hell’s Angel/60’s hippy throwback/clown/eastern european prostitute? Don’t let your appearance detract from your knowledge. That said, a friendly smile never goes out of fashion.
  • Make yourself heard! What is the point of mumbling for an hour? It baffles me at how many of my colleagues whisper their way through tours. Project your voice. If you lift your chin it will open up the throat and allow sound to resonate strongly. Direct your voice to the back of the group. This is not the same as shouting. Shouting will appear aggressive and let’s face it, it’s not very appealing to listen to. Diction is also important, particularly if you work in a busy or outdoor environment. Don’t drop Ts and Hs. If you have a very strong regional accent, I’d advise you to dilute it a bit, unless you are absolutely certain that your entire group is local. I have met a few guides who accentuate their accents in pure rebellion. How dare people from a different region visit this place? How dare they grimace as they struggle to understand your dialect? What a pointless attitude. These people have travelled a long way because they are just as interested in this place as you are. Don’t punish them for it.
  • There is nothing worse than listening to a monotone dirge. This is a curse that afflicts many public speakers and you’ve probably taken the mickey out of others for it. Keep the tone of your voice conversational and you’ll be fine. Allow the pitch of your voice to rise and fall the same way as it would if you were talking to your friends. You’ll instantly be more interesting and easy to listen to and you’ll engage your audience ten times easier. If you find this difficult, think about going to a community drama class or theatre troupe. I’ve always described my style as theatrical and I thank my childhood and teenage hobby of amateur theatre for it. Acting in a play or musical is not that much different to being a tour guide, you are still essentially trying to capture the attention of a large group of people for an extended period of time with nothing but your voice and body language. Speaking of which:
  • Keep your body language relaxed and friendly. Slouching, however, is to be avoided as it constricts your chest cavity and prevents effective voice projection. Hand gestures are to be encouraged as long as you don’t look as if you are swatting at an invisible horde of hornets.
  • Pacing. Your tour may well have a strict schedule to adhere to. It is wise to map out your tour on paper and allocate the places where you will pause the walking to talk. Scribble down a draft of what you’d generally say at each point of interest. Each stop should roughly last the same amount of time. In the safety of your sitting room, use a stopwatch to time each speech. You may find that some are a lot longer than others. Perhaps you have allowed your own personal ardour for a particular exhibit or area to take precedence. It is wiser to limit your own private obsessions and instead focus on what items or areas would appeal to a more general audience. Editing your tour is crucial, otherwise you will run over your allotted time slot and the tendency to ramble aimlessly will be greater. Your points should be concise.
  • Your first speech. You may know which obscure noble built this castle. You may know which general ran this fort. You may know exactly what the significance of this pottery is in this museum exhibit. Your group will have, as a general rule, no clue. Even if you know what the Duke who lived in this stately home ate for breakfast ate on Tuesdays 375 years ago, chances are your group don’t even know who he is. Don’t make the mistake of assuming your group has a working knowledge of the site. If they did, they wouldn’t bother with your tour. Including a brief summary of the events that caused your site to be built and it’s impact on the area will be invaluable. I often give a few references to contemporary famous people and events to help give my visitors a sense of chronology. Try to boil down a war/dynasty/catastrophe etc to a few key sentences. If your group want a more in-depth analysis, they will let you know.
  • Kids. Love them or loathe them, you will conduct tours full of kids. We have all been on tours where bored children are screaming, running around like savages, babbling incessantly and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Childless adults will be fantasising about throttling the little hooligans. 9 times out of 10 this is because the tour guide is stoically doing their very best to ignore the children’s existence. Many mediocre tour guides take the view that they are not babysitters. They are somehow above talking to children. Rubbish. If you have kids on your tour, aim comments at them. Use age appropriate jokes. Kids don’t want to know about document disputes, but if there were knights and princesses in your castle, throw in a few references to a joust and you’ll have the little angels eating out the palm of your hand. Parents will be thrilled and grateful that you are taking the time to engage with their little darlings. I always find it useful to ask them to imagine a scene. Or to go down a Horrible Histories route and give them a fact about something disgusting. Kids LOVE to know about historical toilet facilities for some reason. The children will be satisfied and therefore easier to control, and all the childless adults on your tour will love you for it.
  • Ask questions. “How many of you know about……….?” etc. You can instantly gauge which aspects of the tour you can emphasise and which areas you may need to explain in terms easier to grasp.
  • Comedy. We can’t all be hilariously funny entertainers that leave our audiences in fits of giggles, but a lighthearted tone goes a long way. For instance, a little sarcastic aside as a ‘group in joke’ works wonders. A site I worked at had been the home of a particularly rotund historical figure. I made a joke about how it was a shame that they didn’t have Weight Watchers 300 years ago and how funny the image of him counting out food points would be. Not particularly golden material, or indeed respectful to the poor guy, but it did do the trick of making him appear more human and lightening the tone. Find a funny anecdote about some of the people with links to your buildings or exhibits and have them ready in your arsenal at all times.  I worked at a site with ties to Napoleon III of France and his wife Eugenie. Not a single person on the tour was interested in Napoleon III’s foreign policies, but they laughed like hyenas when I mentioned that Eugenie was notorious for farting loudly and often. If you are going to poke fun at anything, always have a redeeming feature to compensate for it with. Light  hearted ribbing is one thing, a relentless personal attack is bullying. For instance, Eugenie was a devoted mother who travelled all the way to Africa to bring back the body of her son who had died fighting in a war there. Her devotion and love of her family is admirable. Modern comparisons also help to lighten the mood. Admiral Lord Nelson was a national hero, much like David Beckham, and Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire was to 18th century fashion what Lady Gaga is to modern fashion. You’re not looking for howls of laughter, a wry smile is perfectly sufficient.
  • Historical knowledge. As a tour guide, chances are you don’t have a history degree, and if you do, it was because history was for fun, not that you had a burning ambition to be an Oxbridge professor. No-one will expect you to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of your subject. If you work at a castle, it’s unlikely you’ll be condemned by a visitor for not knowing the architecture of a contemporary castle at the other end of the country. That said, there will inevitably, one day, be a smug bastard who will take great joy in drawing attention to any gaps in your knowledge of the subject you are supposed to be well versed in. He will think it hilarious to embarrass you in front of the rest of the group. You obviously cannot tell this person that he is an unbearably pretentious little p****, however much you might want to. So don’t give him the satisfaction. Make sure you have at least a working knowledge of every aspect of your site/exhibit. And never, even if sorely tempted to, lie about something you haven’t a clue about. Never be afraid to say “whilst that isn’t my particular area of expertise, I can ask a curator for the answer?” It’s actually more likely at this point that the b****** in question will be so disappointed that his bullying didn’t reduce you to a sobbing heap that he’ll mutter something and back off. You can fantasise about kicking him in the shin after he’s gone home. And even if he does back off, ask the curator for an answer anyway. You’ll be better prepared next time. Even if you have worked at your site for years, there is always a new nugget of interesting trivia to learn and share.
  • Never give up half way through. I once had a scheduled tour at a site where one person turned up. It was raining, I was hungry, and he looked bored already. He didn’t answer any of my questions and didn’t actually look in me in the eye once. I could have very easily gone through the motions and given this man a half arsed tour, cut it short, and hidden in the cafe kitchen where the chef may have a few spare slices of cake for me. But I didn’t. I kept my tone of voice buoyant and conversational. I talked with all the enthusiasm I could muster and kept in all of my jokes even though he didn’t laugh at a single one. At the end I was rewarded with a solemn handshake, a curt nod, and a £20 tip. I must have let the surprise show on my face, because he added that he’d thoroughly enjoyed the tour and was glad to see someone with so much love for her subject. Ever since, I have never given anything but my full attention to any tour. Some people aren’t very demonstrative, but they still care if you don’t put in any effort.

Follow these tips and you should be well on your way to delivering tours that hit the mark every time. And if you’re not a tour guide, don’t let the guides fob you off with a rubbish tour next time you pay good money to visit a visitor attraction!



Filed under The Art of Tour Guiding

The Role Of A Tour Guide

        Imagine, if you will, that it is a beautiful day. It is your first day off of work for a while and you take your family for some well deserved leisure time at a local museum or castle or stately home. You pay, let’s be honest, quite a bit of money for your tickets. The site itself is grandiose and beautiful. You decide to go on one of the offered guided tours, hoping to have a good time on your day off. A dowdy, dusty tour guide approaches and proceeds to drag you around the site for the next three hours, droning on in a crackling monotone about people you’ve never heard of and what they did during events that you’d only know about if you had a couple of history degrees between you. Your children start to get fractious, your spouse is trying not to yawn, and you can’t help thinking that the meeting at work with Sandra from Accounting yesterday was more interesting than this. You go home knowing nothing new, bored, and wishing you had just mooched around by yourselves in amiable quiet.

     This seems to altogether be an occurrence that is far to regular in British visitor attractions. History is seen as a dour subject favoured by caricature-like academics who guard their knowledge like Smeagol guarding The Ring. Apparently the number of teenagers choosing history as a GCSE or A-Level are falling steadily. History is as dull as ditchwater.

   Except we all know that it isn’t. History is full of the weird and wonderful facts and anecdotes, and characters who would make Lady Gaga et al look as charismatic as a sprouting potato.

     In my humble opinion, tour guides should be trying to make our heritage as thrilling and absorbing as we ourselves know it to be. And not just among ourselves, but for everyone who makes the effort to visit our sites and museums.

    Having worked in two, I personally like visiting stately homes. However, a lot of these seem to have exactly the same job description for their all of their guides. Be a middle-aged woman with a cut-glass accent. Wear a twin set and pearls. Sneer at anyone who makes less money than your husband. Act like you actually are the Lady of the Manor. Blather on about the amount of Van Dyke paintings that are in the house. Mention nothing actually interesting to anyone who isn’t studying for a history of art degree.

     These women seem to act as if taking such a menial job as tourguiding is charity work conducted for our benefit, because we are ignorant peasants who wouldn’t appreciate a good woodcarving if it slapped us in the face. That they are so posh and stinking rich that tour guiding helps fill the hours between galas and shooting parties. This is particularly true if the stately home in question is still privately owned. Instead of fascinating, the guide appears aloof and inaccessible. Which in turn reflects upon the image we, as visitors, form of the house.

       I prefer to take a different view. I know from experience that out of a tour group of, say, 20 people, only 5 will have any prior knowledge of the history of the site. At least 10 have been dragged to the site on the promise of an ice cream afterwards. The other 5 will have visited because it was the closest visitor attraction to them and they are taking a gamble that they’ll be interested.  A bad tour guide will focus on the first 5 people for the duration of the tour, and 75% of their tour group goes home dissatisfied.

    Shouldn’t we, as tour guides, concentrate on getting that 75% interested and excited as well as enhancing the knowledge of the minority? Those 15 people should not be ignored, or in some cases, sneered at, because they don’t know much about the site or subject that the guide is talking about.

   I chose a career as a guide because sharing my own knowledge and enthusiasm is just as much fun as gaining that same knowledge. I have never been able to understand why so many people apply for, and receive jobs, where the thought of sharing knowledge is an abhorrent concept for them.

    That’s not to say that I consider myself the only interesting tour guide in the world. There are hundreds of us sprinkled generously about. But I would like to see more of us taking the approach that history is more than a long list of meticulously memorised dates. It is the story of our collected past as a community, nation and indeed species. History is something to be shared and discussed. That can be kickstarted by a fascinating tour that ignites a desire to know more.That should be the role of a tour guide.


Filed under The Art of Tour Guiding