A good tour guide


David Whitley reckons there’s more to being a good guide than getting people to follow an umbrella...

I’ve been on many bad tours in my time. The ones where you’re basically shunted round in a bus between photo stops, the ones where you spend 45 minutes in a relative’s gift shop, the ones where 80 per cent of the time is spent going round hotels picking people up.

Those ones are just bad tours; they’re pretty much irredeemable. But what can make or break an otherwise bog standard, mediocre tour is the guide. Tour guiding is a very tricky – and no doubt exhausting – craft. You’re often responsible for complete idiots – and idiots that you have to both inform and entertain whilst making sure they stick to the programme. In many cases, it’s a poorly paid and largely thankless task.

But some tour guides know this and just go through the motions, plodding through every day in order to pick up their wage and without any real care for what the customer experience is. What makes a good or bad tour guide isn’t absolutely black and white, but there are a few traits that a good tour guide has in common...

1. Being able to tell you things that aren’t in the guidebook.
It’s easy to just reel off a list of historical details. It’s less easy to put them in context. How does the present day population feel towards it? What part does it play in the national or local psyche? Why is it important?
2. Storytelling abilty
It doesn’t matter if a guide has all the knowledge in the world if they can’t make it seem interesting. There’s a massive difference between a ball of wool and a jumper, and it’s all in the weaving. How information is put together and presented is massively important – and the ability to turn facts into engaging stories is key in a tour guide.

3. Clarity
This is linked to storytelling ability, but it’s vitally important. Some of the worst tours I’ve been on have been when the guide has technically good English, but it’s so heavily accented, mispronounced, mumbled or monotone that it has been really hard to understand. Clarity of expression is just as important as knowing the right words. If customers are struggling to work out what you’re saying, then you’ve got something wrong.
4. Enthusiasm for learning
Often it’s not about how much they know, but how much more they want to know. I usually find the best guides are the ones that are throwing in details from books, essays or websites they’ve recently read. They’re the ones who don’t settle for just knowing the basics needed to do the tour; they want to know more about the topics they’re talking about, and spend plenty of time researching further detail. Similarly, a good tour guide is more likely to be brave enough to say: “I don’t know” when asked a curveball question, rather than bluffing an unsatisfying and probably incorrect answer.

5. Willingness to venture off script
The phrase: “I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but...” is a good sign. In a way, tour guiding is a little like stand-up comedy. Of course there’s a routine, but an element of improvisation and ability to change to suit circumstances and audience is usually going to be a good thing. The listening and observing are, in many ways, just as important as the talking.