What makes a good guided tour?

This weekend many historic places across Britain open doors to the public that normally remain locked.  In the spirit of this, we offered our first ‘Behind the Scenes’ guided tour at my site.  It’s been a while since I scripted a guided tour and took it myself, too, so I really enjoyed the experience.  And it made me think about what I consider to be the key points that make a good guided tour.  Here they are:

  • A clear goal (or call it theme, if you like)

What do you want people to take away from the tour?  With our ‘Behind the Scenes’ tour, I wanted people to feel that they’re getting something really special.  I wanted them to share a sense of discovery and recognise that there are many more layers to the history of the house than what they normally get to see.  If you needed to you could turn this into a theme statement (‘There are aspects of the history of Bedwellty House that aren’t normally told’), and in many cases doing so will focus your mind.  But, as I shall argue below, I personally find it is much more helpful to think about telling a good story.

  • Clear objectives

My greatest bugbear are pieces of interpretation that do not have clear objectives stipulated.  Traditional objectives are emotional (80% of visitors will feel a sense of discovery during the tour), they are about learning (70% of visitors will know that our knowledge of Bedwellty House is partially built on architectural evidence), or they can be about desired behaviours (60% of visitors will tell their friends about Bedwellty House because of the tour).  Having these objectives does two things: it makes sure that you tell a relevant story, and it allows you to test whether your interpretation works.

This latter point is crucial: if you don’t set clear objectives, how can you ever test whether your interpretation works?  Asking visitors whether they ‘enjoyed’ themselves is nice, but meaningless.  Interpretation has a purpose, and this purpose is expressed in and measured by objectives.

  • A good story told

On my German blog I once wrote that interpreters could learn a great deal from fiction writers.  This doesn’t merely apply to interpretive writing: it applies to any interpretive medium.  In creative writing, they always stress the importance of ‘the voice’, ‘place’ and ‘characterisation’. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is another one of the mantras that you hear regularly in creative writing classes.  They also talk about ‘pace’, repeated ‘peaks’ in the story, and periods of calm to allow readers to collect themselves again.  And then of course there is the journey, both that of the characters and the reader following them.

To me, interpretation works best if it follows these same principles. Think of your site as a character: in our ‘Behind the Scenes’ tour, the character (Bedwellty House) went on a journey of transformation (building phases).  The character also kept secrets (peak in the story) which our visitors discovered (‘Look up – there are iron cast plates supporting the floor above’) and for which they then received an explanation (period of calm).  This is the pacing of the tour: building excitement, intrigue and interest.

I always spend a great deal of time arranging the pieces of information in such a way that it will tell a coherent story that leads from A to B.  I always go and practice it on location also, and often I find that I have to swap points around to get them into a better flow within the site.

  • Good positioning

A good tour is one where the tour guide blends into the background and enables visitors to interact (emotionally, intellectually) with the site.  This requires some advance planning: where will you stand at any one stop during your tour? How will you best allow visitors to see what you’re talking about, but still hear you?  I’m often astonished when I train guides about how many of them don’t think of this at all.  Instead, they have their group stand with their backs to the very things they’re told about.

  • Enthusiasm

This is a matter of delivery, but hugely, hugely important.  Tell your story with enthusiasm, even if it’s the tenth time you’ve done the tour that day.  Visitors feed off the emotion that you give out. The greatest story will fall flat if delivered in a bored, monotonous voice.  You should be so enthusiastic that visitors think you have a personal stake in the site.  One visitor on a guided tour I gave at a historic mansion once asked me whether I was a member of the family!  I felt really chuffed that day.

  • Building rapport

I summarise a few things under this point, starting with the tour guide being at the meeting place well before the first visitor will feel the need to sign up.  This way you can reassure visitors that yes, this is where the tour starts, and you can also start having a conversation with them.  Get to know them, find out who they are, where they’ve come from and why they’re here.  Not only is this the sign of a good host (and after all, that’s what every interpreter is: a host to the site), it also makes sure that you can add little things to the tour that will particularly meet their interest and therefore increase their engagement with the site.  It’ll also give you a chance to get a conversation going between visitors.   I feel that at many sites, visitors will actually gain the most from exchange with other visitors.  At Culloden Battlefield, the best tours I gave were those where I managed to get local visitors to share with visitors from abroad what the battle meant to them, and how they felt it still had an impact on their lives today.  Learning beforehand who everyone was, and what motivated them to come to the site, was essential to be able to do this.

  • Discipline

Again, this means a few things to me.  Firstly, it is the discipline to stick to your tour, and not get sidetracked by someone’s specific interest.  Most interpreters know everything about a site, but if your tour is about what is ‘Behind the Scenes’, then this is not the place to indulge questions that are about the tramroads.  The thing to do is to give a brief answer, then ensure those interested that you will talk to them more about this matter after the tour.

Discipline also means leadership.  I find that visitors rely on you to make sure the tour runs smoothly.  This means controlling visitor questions and visitor movement.  It also means being very clear about what is happening: visitors appreciate the structure, and it helps their engagement.


This is not an exhaustive list of all that should be considered when scripting and delivering a guided tour.  There are other little things, such as having a script in the first place, or, as I do, a structured list of key points (I don’t like telling others how to express these key points; everyone is different, I just need the key points communicated, no matter who takes the tour).  However, I hope this can be helpful to some of you out there doing guided tours.


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