Laughter is our universal language. It is something we are all born capable of doing no matter where in the world we come from. And it is something we all understand – even if we don’t understand anything else going on.
When we think of laughter, we think of jokes and slapstick comedy. But laughter is primarily a subconscious action to social cues to show connection and understanding in our communication. Part of the tour guide job description is making connections quickly and communicating new ideas.
Another big reason you might want to learn how to be a funny tour guide is that laughter is contagious. If you can get one person laughing, eventually you may have the whole group laughing.
The Yeoman of the Tower of London tour guides are known for being very funny. They typically put on a stern, military-like act while they tell the history of the fortress’ thousands of prisoners and hundreds of execution. Sounds grim (hey, it’s history ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ), but they do an amazing job telling the Tower of London stories using several common, but effective techniques to get their group laughing and engaged.
Here are some examples (minus slapstick as we don’t want to recommend tour guides plan slips and fall for a laugh!) of comedy techniques to work into your tours. Many of the examples do include a combination of techniques for the ultimate punchline. And please bear in mind, delivery of a joke can make or break it.
Here’s how to be funny on your tour
Misdirection and surprise
A misdirection is when the audience has an idea of where your story is going and then, whoops, you pull a fast one and deliver an unexpected twist.
The great comedian writer Gene Perret wrote that comedy is like pulling the rug out from under your audience. But first, you need to gain their trust to step on the carpet and keep their trust until the end so they won’t step off the rug.
“The English sent pieces of William Wallace’s remains to the northern border towns between England and Scotland as a warning to the barbaric and troublesome Scots to not upset the clearly civilized and peace-loving English.”
Don’t forget, you can always draw your audience in with good storytelling skills — like slowly lowering your voice and then, “BOO!”
The painfully obvious
Ever heard someone say, “it’s funny ‘cause it’s true” while slapping their knee? That’s because we react to painfully obvious statements uncomfortably and feeling uncomfortable often makes us laugh for relief. Making a joke that’s “funny-because-it’s-true” tend to be ironic, point out double standards and the everyday contradictions we live in.
“The king and queens live on the top floor, the knights and their ladies stayed on the second floor, the first floor had several kitchens. But there is one more floor below. It has 15 feet thick walls and no windows. It is always damp and cold and dark. This floor was the perfect place to keep the….. Wine.”
And then there’s just the obvious,
“That’s Tower Hill. They call it that because there’s a tower on a hill.”
The bitter truth
Telling the bitter truth is similar to being painfully obvious. We laugh at the uneasy feeling we get from the inconvenient truth, even if we’re not aware of it.
“Executioners would mount the heads of prisoners on spikes along London Bridge. It was a warning to would-be traitors as well as one of the first version of a bird feeder.”
Absurdity and exaggeration
When something is absurdity it means it is wildly unreasonable and illogical. Add some exaggeration to the absurd scenario and you got yourself a recipe for the biggest cake of laughter your audience can just stuff their faces with.
“Please turn your phone off in the chapel. If your phone goes off while in there, you will be stuck DEAD!”
“The prisoner was bound to the rack and stretched in opposite direction. Now an osteopath would charge you a fortune for this, but after about 3 inches any therapeutic value is lost.”
Poke fun at yourself
Poking some fun at yourself is a great way to show your tour group that you’re approachable and ready to have a good time. This technique helps make a stranger become more familiar, especially if the self-teasing is about something very relatable.
“Ask me any questions you have about the Tudors as I have no life and all I do is study the Tudors.”
Near the end of the tour, the Yeoman takes off his big, tall hat for a demonstration. He hesitates for a second when the hat comes off, stares at everyone in a moment of exposure and finally says, “I bet you all thought I was bald under this hat!”
Finally, repetition. Think about those recurring scenarios on sitcoms that always get the audience laughing, “Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout Willis?”
You probably have a friend that always repeats the same expression. It may be annoying sometimes but when you think about it or say it back to your friend, it brings a smile to your face (and hopefully to theirs!).
For a tour guide, this could be as simple as repeating an expression before answering each and every question asked by the guests in your tour group.
“Did many prisoners escape?”
“Well, I’m not going to lie to ya, a ratio of 1:42 escaped. Statistically, the Tower of London is one of the least secure prisons in the history of the world.”
“What was the greatest form of torture?”
“Well, I’m not going to lie to ya, in England it’s Britain’s Got Talent.”
“Do you like giving tours of famous executions?”
“Well, I’m not going to lie to ya, one gets nostalgic.”
There’s a rule of three in comedy, meaning the first time the expression is used, you might get strange looks, the second time, half smiles. By the third time, the familiarity will have folks smiling ear to ear and anticipating its return.
Being funny isn’t always easy. But if you want to learn how to be the best tour guide, try some jokes and keep at it, it may take a few attempts to get the words and delivery right.
And if all else fails, bring everyone together for some laughing yoga. It never fails to get a crowd roaring (serious, search YouTube for laughing yoga)