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Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Seven Qualities of a Really Really Good Tour Guide.

So what does make an excellent tour guide? At London City Steps we have trained over 100 young unemployed people to become tour guides so here are the seven things that we think make a tour guide really really good:

1)      Knowing the facts 

Guided tours are full of facts and they need to be mastered thoroughly. Stories, humour and anecdotes and the things that fascinate audiences. Dates are often the bug-bear as they need to be known but risk sounding like a dull list. It suffices to say that the British Museum was founded  in the mid 1700s as people aren’t too interested in 1752 or 1753 as this is a guided tour not a history lecture. Using terms such as “the 16th century” often automatically makes the listener picture the 1600s so we refer to the 16th century as the 1500s.

Where facts conflict, or there are several theories we mention them both. For example, Big Ben’s name comes from two theories:  1) Sir Benjamin Hall who built it or 2) Benjamin Caunt a Victorian boxer who survived 60 rounds with the then boxing champion. I really like the second one, 60 whole rounds, wow!

The problem with the words, is just knowing the words is never enough. It’s the coffee in the cappuccino, without the froth and without the chocolate sprinkles. You may know the words to Bohemian Rhapsody but that doesn’t make you Freddie Mercury. That’s why you need the second ingredient....

2)      Personality

A tour guide is a band frontman (or frontperson) like a Freddie Mercury or Courtney Love. Once our trainees have mastered the facts and practised, there is a chrysalis-to-butterfly moment. Confidence incubates, personality emerges.  Last month we witnessed such an a-ha moment when training a 20 year old on our Gems of Whitechapel walk. We came outside the Blind Beggar pub and when he started to talk about the Kray twins he spoke animatedly, he brought in humour and passion, he brought a certain banter to his stories and a repartee with the listeners. Personality can’t be taught, it can only be coaxed, but when it does emerge it needs to be encouraged. If London City Steps was X Factor, personality would be ...well...the “X” factor.

3)      Knowing the audience.

We advise our guides to get to the start ten minutes earlier to meet the audience and have a good chat. This calms the nerves, gets the voice box turning over and gets you acquainted with the audience. Are they native English speakers? Will they get our humour? Are there children in the group? Tailor the communication likewise. If there are elderly people, perhaps walk a bit slower. Notice a quizzed look and ask why. See a raised hand. Notice a limping straggler and walk with them. Try and engage the audience as early as you can. “Any Irish people here? Did you know it was an Irish Doctor who founded the British Museum?” Offer them questions, show pictures, ask them to vote on something - you are there both to educate and entertain, but also to converse and hear them too.

4)      Say what is seen.

This is what makes tour guiding different to a history lesson as you can physically see the object/ building/ panorama in front of you. Some details need to be pointed out literally such as the World War One shrapnel damage on Embankment’s Cleoptra’s needle, or the nose on Admiralty Arch.

5)      Housekeeping.

This is all going to sound basic but so easily forgotten. Make sure you’re not obstructing the public right of way. Have your back to the object you are talking about so your audience won’t have to look at you and the object as watching tennis. Marshall the crowd in a nice way.  Always cross roads at the green man, avoid slippery paths and puddles.  Always make sure you have public insurance. Stay safe

6)      Flexibility.

Events can always pan out differently especially  in London. Roads can get cordoned off by police at the last moment. Roadworks suddenly appear, and museum artefacts go for repairs or on loan. A good guide will walk the walk before to check ahead or failing that will be able to think on his/her feet for a plan B. At the British Museum were were taught to avoid talking over another tour group, wait for them to pass by filling in with an extra story we had prepared up our sleeves.

7)      Delivery

Have good eye contact. Scan the crowds as you speak to them, but don’t too long on one person (it might look like a fixation). Make sure everyone can hear you especially if you there is a lot of traffic noise. Avoid the robot-like monotone.

So I think that just about covers it. All seven of them or have I missed something? Just getting to know my audience.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

2012 the end of the world?

SO 2012 HAS ARRIVED and may it bring hope, prosperity and health to one and all. Hopefully it will also bring us 2013 at the end but the possibility of the latter not actually happening did occur to me this week when I popped in to the British Museum to put the finishing touches to the training for our next guided walk called... fanfare please ... “British Museum: stories behind the objects”. (If you can think of a better title for our walk, please let us know and we will invite you and a group of 4 friends to the first one).

The Mayan friezes section on the ground floor is magnificent, and although this Mesoamerican civilisation was in to all types of activities, from the gory (blood-letting ceremonies), the bad (human sacrifices) to the very good (making chocolate), the civilisation that ended about 900AD has in recent years caught the popular imagination for their Long Count Calendar which ends abruptly on the 21st of December 2012 (it is a five thousand year calendar hence "long"). Some believe that the abrupt ending is a prediction of the end of the world while others believe that calendars have to end (lack of pages or stones to carve on etc that sort of limitation). Having done a bit of research on this, London City Steps is happy to inform you that the odds are still massively in our favour.

Popular fascination with this date stems from Hollywood which in recent years have churned out films such as “Apocalypto” and “2012” (tagline “we were warned”) when the world is overcome by solar storms, earthquakes, floods, and asteroid showers. Some people are genuinely scared of the possibility of these events - on the NASA website for example, a frequently asked question is “will the earth end in 2012?” to which a calm, scientific answer is given as, “The world will not end, our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years.” That NASA has had to put up an official statement to that effect shows that queries must be piling in.

There are all sorts of theories doing the rounds on how the world might end this year with multiple origins for the chaos. A mysterious planet Nibiru is due to return to our solar system; a reversal of the earth’s magnetism or rotation will occur; my favourite though is an alien invasion at the closing ceremony of the Olympic games. Who would have believed the place mankind might make first contact with extra-terrestrial beings would be Stratford?

End of the world theories have been around for hundreds of years. In the year 999, a popular belief was that Armageddon would as it would have been 1000 year since Christ. Peter Ackroyd in his excellent Biography of London, mentions Londoners hundreds of years ago believed that on the Last Judgement, angels would peal the bells of London in order to convince Londoners that the end of the world was nigh. Three times during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I earthquakes hit London (two of them on Christmas eve), and church bells such as the Westminster clock bell, rang of their own accord, creating a hysteria on the streets.

Perhaps the most famous of the prophets of the end of the world was Michel de Nostredame, who lived in France in the 1500s and Latinised his name to Nostradamus. Even today his supporters maintain he was able to predict everything from Hitler's rise, the Great Fire of London, 9/11 and even the trial of OJ Simpson.

Perhaps the most high profile predictor of doom from last year was Harold Camping who predicted that May 21st 2011 would be the end date, with five months of fire, brimstone and plagues in what he termed the Rapture. The clock ticked by and Mr Camping was reported on May 22nd to be flabbergasted, while the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief.

So, not wanting to tempt fate, end of world predictions so far have tended to be damp squibs and the odds are well in our favour. So those packing away their Christmas decorations now, pack them with care for you you’ll almost certainly be needing them for next Christmas. But as for the aliens invading the closing ceremony at the London Olympics, I can't help but hope that we can show off our city to those around and out of our world.