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....
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.
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
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.
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.