How to be a Better Tour Guide with Storytelling

April 9, 2018, Kyla Steeves
Tour Guide storytelling. Back of female traveler with backpack wandering a foreign

A traveler arrives in a destination full of wonder and excitement. There’s new architecture to admire, new food to taste, new activities to enjoy — everything is new. It’s all thrilling to experience for the first time, but made all the better with a tour guide. Because with storytelling, a tour guide can inform and entertain at the same time — helping to create an unforgettable experience.

The Importance of Storytelling for Tour Guides

Telling stories is a common way we communicate with each other. Over coffee with a friend, stories are shared of weekend adventures. At family dinners, your mother brings up stories of your childhood. Even with the cashier, you may tell the story of why you forgot the reusable bags again.

We are natural at telling stories — but we are also hardwired to listen to them.

Whenever we listen to a story, a large portion of our brain is put to work. The language processing part isn’t the only area activated. Storytelling can engage three regions of the cortex: the motor, sensory and frontal.

For example, a storyteller describes the feeling of jumping into ice cold water. Both the listener’s sensory and motor cortex light up — sensory for the temperature of the water and motor for the motion of jumping. In this way, listening to a story results in the same reaction as experiencing an event in real life.

So why is storytelling important for tour guides?

Well, to be a great tour guide, you want to give your travelers an experience they will remember. Storytelling not only brightens up boring historical facts — but keeps the audience engaged.

Be a joke teller

To be a great storyteller, you also have to be a funny tour guide. Sometimes, the world is a rough place to be, and we all need a little relief from it.

Think of the traveler who just arrived. They had a terrible time on the airplane sitting next to a mouth breather. On your tour, a good laugh could be what turns their trip around for the better.

With almost any crowd, funny, light-hearted stories are appreciated. Everyone enjoys a full, belly laugh.

You might not be the best at telling jokes, but it isn’t about delivering zingers and one-liners. In storytelling, it’s about embracing embarrassment and not taking yourself too seriously.

So throw a little of yourself in the content — even if the story isn’t about you. The narrator is part of the story as much as the characters are.

Remember to keep your audience in mind. Humour works best when it’s relatable. Jokes used for millennial backpackers might not work on retired cruise ship passengers.

Be a good public speaker

If you get nervous about speaking in front of a group of people, you are not alone. Studies reveal that public speaking is the number one phobia. We all worry about fumbling words or forgetting the material.

Knowledge of this universal fear should give you comfort. But if that’s not enough, here are some tour guide tips and tricks to help with public speaking:

  • Forget the rules — focusing on them will only distract you. Make eye contact. Be animated with hands. Get to the point. Speak slowly. These will come naturally when you are more comfortable with public speaking. In the meantime, be yourself!
  • Listen to the story you’re telling yourself. Before the tour, pay close attention to your thoughts. Does the word can’t make a frequent appearance? If yes, it is time to change up your inner monologue. To be a better storyteller, you have to tell yourself you can. It seems like a cheesy exercise, but self-confidence makes a world of a difference.
  • Take notes. You will get better with practice, but only if you learn from each attempt. Observe the reactions of the audience and write them down afterwards (not during — that would be strange). Next time, change your story up and repeat. Keep doing this until you know what parts to emphasize more and what parts to leave out.

How to come up with stories

Four travelers listening to tour guide tell a story while eating pizza and drinking coffee

There are two types of stories to tell on tour:

  1. Fun, wacky or interesting stories about a place. Told at the location of the site — either before or after listing relevant facts
  2. And personal stories. Best reserved for the in-transit, awkward moments of silence

For any place, there are bound to be a large selection of stories to use on tour. But how do you choose the right ones?

It is best to base your selection around topics that interest you. When you are passionate about a topic, you will be more enthusiastic in your storytelling. If you are excited to tell it, your listeners will be excited to hear it.

For your personal story collection, make a list of your own experiences. Some might be funny — even if they weren’t at the time. And some might be shocking — like you still can’t believe it happened to you. Out of all your stories, make sure they are appropriate and relate to the tour in some way.

You don’t have to be the only one telling stories. Open up the floor and ask the audience questions. One story has a way of breathing other stories into life.

By giving your audience time to share, you might quickly come up with another. Also, the tour will have a more conversational tone, which will make everyone, including yourself, more relaxed.

Craft your story

Female tour guide crafting story in a notebook sitting on the bench next to a brown backpack

Outlines are tedious. Most of us would rather skip over this step. But creating an outline is an essential part of the story process.

Every story has a beginning, middle and end. A basic structure will help to organize your story within this timeline. So when you are ready to tell it, you will know where your story is going and how to get there.

To help you craft your story, I will share an example from my memorable walking tour in London.

Meeting up with a friend in the Old Smoke, I booked us a walking tour. With only one day, this was a great option to see the sites and get to know the city better.

Though the weather was less than desirable, the speaking skills of the tour guide made up for it.  He told funny jokes, interesting facts and of course, compelling stories.

At Buckingham Palace, my friend and I were busy taking selfies in the short time the sun was out. We stopped in the middle of a dog filter portrait when the tour guide started telling a story I’ll never forget.

This is how the story went:

There once was a drunk, Irishman named Michael Fagan. He had a belly full of Guinness and wanted a place to sleep for the night. Of all the places in London to lay his head, he set his glazed eyes on Buckingham Palace.

Not sure how he managed it — I for one can’t even unlock my front door in such a state — he scaled a drainpipe and came to the balcony of a bedroom. But the bed wasn’t empty. Fagan was shocked! Out of the 200 bedrooms in the Palace, he stumbled into the Queen’s. Luck of the Irish!

The Queen woke with alarm when the curtain was disturbed. Both were frightened at the sight of the other. Fagan didn’t know if security would be tearing down the door and tackling him any second. She thought this man was there to kill her.

Both played it cool, however. Fagan sat on the edge of her bed. And with grace — because the Queen does everything with grace — she chatted with him while secretly pressing the panic button.

Now, here was Fagan’s opportunity to ask the Queen anything — like how she prefers her tea. Can you guess the one question he asked? Get this; it was, “do you have a cigarette?” Can you believe that?! Do you have a cigarette? That is an opportunity wasted, if you ask me.

Before she could offer him one, security was at the door. The officer took one look at Fagan and said, “you look like you could use a drink.”

As you can see, this story was great for many reasons. The tour guide pulled us in with a gripping storyline, descriptive language and even threw in his take on the situation.

But, you might be thinking, “the tour guide had amazing material to begin with.” That is true. He did. But know this — any great story falls flat if it isn’t told well.

How can you become a better storyteller then?

Let’s go over important elements in crafting your story using the Buckingham Palace example:

Male traveler reading map with a camera around the neck at Buckingham Palace

1. Hero/Protagonist – A story needs a character for the audience to cheer for. One they can relate to. Or one they will remember.

There once was a drunk, Irishman named Michael Fagan.

2. Objective – To create suspense, the main character needs a goal. The audience will listen in anticipation to find out whether the character succeeds.

He had a belly full of Guinness and wanted a place to sleep for the night.

3. Clear Incident – An obstacle must get in the character’s way. This makes it all the more interesting. Can they overcome it?

He scaled a drainpipe and came to the balcony of a bedroom. But the bed wasn’t empty.

4. Harness emotion – You want the audience to feel what your characters are feeling. Empathy helps to connect the audience with your characters.

Both were frightened at the sight of the other. Fagan didn’t know if security would be tearing down the door and tackling him any second. She thought this man was there to kill her.

5. Add twists and turns – Unpredictable stories make the best ones. To keep the audience on their toes, throw unexpected twists and turns into the mix.

Now, here was Fagan’s opportunity to ask the Queen anything — like how she prefers her tea. Can you guess the one question he asked? Get this; it was, “do you have a cigarette?”

6. End with a punchline – Every story has a resolution — but to wrap up the story in a cheerful way — end with a joke.

The officer took one look at Fagan and said, “you look like you could use a drink.” (This punchline works because it reminds the audience that it all started with a drink)

On your next tour, give storytelling a try. You might be surprised by your natural storytelling abilities and have a lot of fun while you’re at it. And check out this post if you want to brush up on other effective skills of a tour guide.

P.S. Better storytelling is just one way to get a 5 star rating…

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