[10 on Tuesday] Tips for Being a Good Tour Guide

Posted on: December 11th, 2013 by Emily Potter 6 Comments

Ed. Note: Sorry for the delay in this week's toolkit -- we were busy moving offices! The good news is, despite the Tuesday moniker, these tips work for every day of the week. So enjoy!

Last spring, when a hint of warmer weather got us ready to think about being outside, we put together a toolkit with ideas to help you organize a tour in your community. But don’t let the current chilly winter season stop you from giving -- or going on -- tours.

Instead, use these 10 tips, compiled by Johns Hopkins, Executive Director of Baltimore Heritage, to help you be the best tour guide you can be. (Not a tour guide? These tips can also give you insight into being a good tour goer.)

1. Face the crowd, not what you’re talking about. Tour guides often get so wrapped up in their subject they forget to face the people they are addressing. One secret to avoid this is to “deputize” somebody in the crowd to interrupt you if they can’t hear you.

2. Be personal. No matter how much we love buildings, it’s a fact that people connect with people. So it’s good to have a few personal anecdotes ready, even if they’re just about past tours you've done. You’ll build a more personal connection to your group and create a memorable tour.

3. Tell a story (historical or contemporary). Make sure you have a few fun and compelling stories to tell about the buildings and sites you’re looking at. People are more likely to feel engaged when they are listening to a story, rather than a list of dates and names.

blog_photo_tour guide in costume
A guide in period clothing brings history to life for a tour group of kids.

4. Get moving right away. Tours often get bogged down before they ever begin with tour guides doing the “big wind-up” -- introductions, setting the theme, providing context, etc. Plan to scrap 90% of it.
Hint: If you have a script, the first line should tell you: “Move thirty feet up the street before you say anything.”

5. Don’t worry about being perfect. People don’t expect you to be perfect. Set the stage for human imperfection by acknowledging that people who may know more than you should speak up and share their knowledge with the group. The more interactive the tour is, the better!

6. Get help to get organized. Try to get a volunteer to check people in so you can chat with tour goers. People give tours for many reasons, but a big one is to meet new people, and the time before the tour is a great chance to get to know your group.
Hint: If you don’t have a volunteer beforehand, ask somebody on the spot. (They’ll love it!)

7. End on time. (Or try very hard.) Try like crazy to end on time. Nobody wants to feel like they are in tour jail. Tours on paper always seem too short and on the ground are always too long. Two hours is the absolute maximum. An hour to an hour and a half is better.

8. Limit your number of speakers. It’s hard to talk for just five minutes, so when you have multiple guides talking about different subject areas, it’s easy to lose track of time. Avoid it if you can, but, if you do have several different guides with you, designate one as the lead guide and the others as experts in a specific area.

blog_photo_tour group
Tell a story, share your passion, get your tour group engaged in the places and sites you're excited about.

9. Send a follow-up email. Follow up with an email -- it can be as simple as a “thank you” note. If you can follow the tour with another contact, by email or otherwise, that’s another step towards a better link with your organization.

10. Avoid these traps:

  • “12 (or 20…) people on the tour is the max.” Rather, let the space and tour guide set the scene.
  • “You MUST plan everything out ahead of time.” In fact, a little spontaneity is good.
  • “Don’t do outdoor tours in the winter.” People will still come, even in the snow.
  • “Always have a backup plan in case it rains.” Don’t worry, people will come out in the rain, and it’s much easier than rescheduling.

Have you given a tour? Let us know what other tips you've found make for a good tour guide in the comments below!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Emily Potter

Emily Potter is a copywriter at the National Trust. She enjoys writing about places of all kinds, the stories that make them special, and the people who love them enough to save them.

10 on Tuesday, Tools

6 Responses

  1. Sassy Countess

    December 12, 2013

    This is great stuff. Thank you for sharing. I am re-blogging on 12-18-13. :D

  2. Linda Coker

    December 12, 2013

    Do you have this in a printable form? I am with the Hays County Historical Commission Texas) and would love to share this at our next meeting.

  3. Tom McMahon

    December 14, 2013

    True about personal stories… include why you became a tour guide but above all show passion for the subject matter, people will remember your passion and humor for a long time to come. Tom McMahon– Tour Guide– Historic Pullman Foundation Chicago, Ill. Come visit us

  4. Dayna Jalkanen

    December 16, 2013

    Thanks for the great list! On our tours at the Ohio Statehouse we always say that we live by the “F” word– “flexibility!” Sometimes tour groups are late or early, or larger or smaller than expected. Somestimes they want to do a quick, 40-minute tour and other times they want to see as much as possible and ask a ton of questions along the way. Sometimes the governor is in the building and decides as a group is walking by to flag them down and invite them into his office. All kinds of things happen in the Statehouse! Knowing that we all need to be flexible when we tour helps to manage expectations and keep frustrations at a minimum.

  5. Richard Gibson

    December 19, 2013

    Echoing Dayna, if you can’t be flexible you can’t do it, or at least not well. Groups arrive late and only have 45 minutes for the planned 1.5-hour tour. It’s cold, or snowing (yes, we do tours here in Butte, Montana, in the winter!). One person on the tour is highly knowledgeable, or has special needs, or is obnoxious, or whatever.

    One of these tips that we violate is the “move down the street right away” tip. We do start with a set-the-scene intro. We have the luxury of starting our outside walking tours at an inside location, where they sit for about 10 minutes of warm-up chat and background – we ALWAYS ask where people are from and usually can make a connection, or a joke, or something, based on that.

    To my mind, the “performance” aspect of tour guiding is the ability to give a genuine appearance of spontaneity even when it may be absolutely scripted. That’s a lot harder than simply conveying facts. The other hard part is knowing what to leave out. But that gives room for great questions, and being able to engage someone after the tour, on a topic that was barely touched on, well, that’s priceless (but usually garners great appreciation!).

  6. James C. Oda

    December 20, 2013

    The Piqua Tourism Council began a series of community tours this year. One thing we found that really helps the tour stay together and focused is a designated rear guide. This individual keeps the group moving, deals with any issues or problems during the tour,keeps track if people leave or come late to the tour and lets the main guide know when the entire group has re-assembled at the various talking stops.