Tell Me a Story: How to develop a tour people will remember

Last week, we discussed how to develop a tour when English isn’t your first language.  But understanding the language doesn’t guarantee that you’ll give a good tour.  In fact, when I asked a question on LinkedIn about language issues, many people said it wasn’t the guide’s language skills that determined the quality of the tour. It was their ability to tell a good story.

Here are some of the responses:

“Of course, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary are important, but I can tell from my experience so far, that visitors enjoy the story more than jargon, used by some guides (on purpose) to show how much they know.”

Another answered, “In my years with the cruise industry…language was never the primary problem. The problem is tour guides saying everything they know about a subject, in no particular order [and] with no greater so-what or greater meaning.”

Another brought up issues of understanding your audience, in that “meanings differ from [one] place to another.  Even if they are all speaking English, they might mean/understand something different.”

So, how do you overcome these issues?

Instead of dumping a random load of facts on your guests, you need to tell them a story.

Telling a story

To tell a great story, you don’t have to be an award-winning writer.  But you do have to put the information in an order that allows your guests to connect one piece of information with another.

Start by laying out all the information you have about your site or museum. How can you edit this into a story?  Are there themes you could group together? Or does it make sense to describe events chronologically, so your guests can see how things changed over time?

Hampton National Historic Site

I’d like to give you an example from my previous workplace – Hampton National Historic Site, which is part of the US National Park Service.  The house was finished in 1790 and remained in the same family until the 1940s when it became the property of the Park Service.  The founding owners were wealthy to begin with, then made a lot of money as a result of the American Revolution. The men in the family were some of the state’s largest slaveholders.  Their wives were part of the newly formed Methodist Church and were abolitionists.  The communities on the estate lived through the Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves, and the technological revolution brought by electricity.

As you can imagine, that is a lot of history (much of it “difficult” history) in one small site.  If I told visitors everything I knew about the estate, the tour would have lasted most of the day.  Instead, I had sixty minutes.

When I developed my tour (each Ranger developed their own off a basic framework), I decided to do it chronologically.  The story I told was of the political and cultural divisions in the house, which mirrored similar divisions in the country.

I was lucky in that I had a house and a basic tour to start from.  But what if you are starting from scratch?  I had this opportunity when I lived in a small town on the south coast of England.

In 2014, the town wanted an exhibit to commemorate the outbreak of World War I.  The exhibit was to be part of a larger program, which also included a choral concert. The first ideas that came out of the event committee involved discussing the nearby munitions factory and the number of men from the town who fought and died.  But when we spoke to some of the older folks in town, we discovered the story of a local woman who had lost both her sister and husband before the war, only to lose her only son in the trenches of France. After the war, she went to France to search for her son and bring him home.

We researched this story and it was absolutely heartbreaking. We decided to tell it between songs chosen by the choral director to match the arch of the story.  The anchor pieces of the physical exhibit, which was in the hall in front of the concert venue, were two photographs taken from the same location: one as the troops went off to war accompanied by a jubilant and cheering crowd; the other when the troops came back – victorious but lifeless. In between were objects borrowed from the town museum and local people.  The combination of the exhibit, the narrative, and the music told a much greater story than statistics and factories ever could.

Put the facts into context so people understand

We often miss how different things are now from the past.  Let’s look at an another example from Hampton.

This is the dining room, which dates from around 1815.  Most people see a pretty, brightly painted room but nothing outrageous.  Today, it would be easy enough to recreate something similar in your own home.  But did you know that in the early-19th century, blue paint was extremely expensive – meaning, only the wealthiest could afford such a saturated color throughout the room?  In fact, everything in this room screams money.  And we all know that money is power – a clear message from the owner, Charles Carnan Ridgely, who just happened to be the Governor of Maryland at the time.

These little facts don’t add a lot of time to a tour, but they do put the facts into context.   I’ve also heard great guides put things into context by equating them to something we can picture. For example, one guide described a very heavy object as being equivalent to 200 cars.  Now that’s something I can relate to.

Why is it important? 

I have something I like to call the “so what?” principle.  Why is this fact important?  What impact did this event have?

I thought about this as I watched a really interesting television program about the Brothers Grimm.  Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm spent their lives collecting and publishing the folk tales we all know and love.  The presenter was giving a tour of their home and focused on a wall of portraits: people who came to tell their stories to the brothers and prominent people of the day who came to hear Jakob and Wilhelm retell them.  But I wanted to know why people felt it was so important to tell these stories, and why were others so interested in hearing/reading them?  How did this fit into the social, political, or cultural context of the period?  If you are a guide (or if you are writing an interpretive panel) you only need to add one or two sentences to give a much deeper meaning to your story.

Don’t use jargon

I love to go to art museums even though I know very little about art.  But I go because I’m trying to learn, which is why I get frustrated when a guide jumps straight in with terms like “postmodern” and “neo-expressionism” without explaining what those terms mean.

When a guide takes a couple of minutes to give background information about a movement, the artist’s place in that movement, and what to expect as the group moves through the exhibit, guests can appreciate the artwork in a new way.

Don’t overwhelm your audience

Most guides and interpretive planners are passionate about their sites and there is the temptation to share everything they know about it.

Please don’t.

When you do this, it becomes nothing more than an information dump.  Your visitors will get overwhelmed and soon they won’t hear anything at all.  Tell a story instead – and send visitors home a little smarter and with wonderful memories of your site.


Laura Marshallsay, owner and founder of Marshallsay English, is a public historian and Business English teacher.  She provides English language training and editing services to the tourism and museum industries. If you have any questions, comments, or if need help with your interpretive program, feel free to contact her at laura@marshallsayenglish.com.

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