Level Up Your Guided Walks

Those who fail to learn from the 1970s are doomed to repeat them…

…and I’m old enough to tell you it won’t be as much fun as pop culture would have you believe, ABBA soundtracks notwithstanding.

retro park ranger
Photo: US NPS

I was recently transported back to that era against my will, in the form of an interpretive walk. It was a classic stand-and-deliver, interpreter-as-teacher tour. There was no through-line or theme that I could find. There was absolutely no interactivity; there was no visual interest aside from one or two black-and-white illustrations flashed briefly in our direction. Questions were tolerated and answered with ostentatious authority. 

I identify this as a 1970s style tour, but this genre may well be older than that. My point is this: by my first summer as an interpreter (1982) we were actively finding ways to break out of this mould—to add interactivity, fun, wonder, variety, and audience agency to our walks and tours. Interpretation has evolved so much since those days.

Here are a few things I have learned about good guided tours from some of the outstanding interpreters I have known over the years. 

Guided tours: embrace the two-part start

Here’s something that I have adopted as standard practice: separate your logistical intro and your thematic welcome into two separate parts. First, at the trailhead/starting point, welcome everyone and make sure they’re in the right place. Introduce yourself, tell them you’re happy to see them, outline the length of the tour, go through any safety concerns, check tickets, let them know about bathroom stops et cetera. Answer any questions, make sure they have everything they need, and then ask them to follow you. 

The thematic tour welcome

Next, lead them just a small distance away from the bustle and distraction of the parking lot or starting point. Find a spot that helps everyone feel the atmosphere of your theme (but still close enough to the start that any stragglers will find you.) Start your tour with a hook: a moment of heightened emotional impact that grabs their attention and illustrates your theme. It might be a personal story, an activity, a prop, a puppet, a verse, a song, a moving or arresting story. Surprise and delight them. Wake them up; get their attention; let them know that this isn’t an old-school passive guided tour. Get their trust and their confidence in you as an exceptional interpreter offering an exceptional experience. And before you move on, state your theme clearly. Say it out loud; don’t just imply it.

Drop teasers and breadcrumbs from stop to stop

As you wind up each stop, drop a teaser before you move to the next stop. “Just up the way I’m going to show you a living thing that looks like it might have come from another planet. What do you suppose it is?” And go. Drop teasers throughout. Keep them thinking; keep them anticipating. Get them talking to each other.

Create a satisfying intellectual and emotional arc

Liberate yourself from the need to talk about everything you see along the way: save that extra stuff for a future tour. Choose only those places and objects that help you illustrate your theme. If it doesn’t support your story, leave it out. (This is the hardest thing in the world for some interpreters.) Keep it tight; keep it focussed. Build an arc (not an ark). Use one place or object to build feelings and knowledge toward the next place or object. Get your guests using the skills they’ve learned in previous stops. Compound the intensity of thought and feeling as you go—good interpretation builds on itself. (Bad interpretation dawdles aimlessly from thing to thing and makes you want to chew off an arm to escape.)

Make your theme a touchstone

Along the way, bring your theme statement back as a leitmotif or touchstone. At each stop, allow your guests to discover how this object or place supports your thesis statement. Then say it; reiterate your theme. Bring it home. Keep it alive. Why do we remember Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream?” Not only because it’s brilliant—he made it his touchstone through repetition.

Stop talking wherever possible

Take what your were going to say and find an alternate mode of communication. Let your visitors do the talking by asking them what an object or place means to them. Bring out an iPad, and Facetime an expert or an “expert”; surprise your audience with your interaction. Give your guests an assignment for ten minutes and have them report back with a mini-program. Have them build something together or pull something apart. Use a bit of video. Have audio on a tablet or phone. Introduce a character or song or puppet if it’s appropriate to the theme. 

Take a break

Stop somewhere beautiful. Surprise your guests with some snacks and drinks. Relax. Chat. Chill. Then move on. 

End with dialogue—or use it throughout

By dialogue, we’re not talking about rhetorical questioning or the transmission of expertise through discussion. There’s much more to dialogic interpretation than I get get into here but there are many resources out there to learn about it. What deep and relevant societal issue is bubbling under the surface of your subject and theme? (And if you think there isn’t one, you’re probably wrong. Call me up. I’m pretty sure I can help you find it.) 

Create an arc of dialogue using easy “me” questions, harder “me” questions, and challenging “we” questions. Keep it active and dynamic. Don’t ask questions that require any subject matter knowledge, and don’t ask questions that lead your guests by the nose to a foregone conclusion (again, these last two are really hard for many interpreters.) 

Debrief and express gratitude

Before you split up, gather in a circle. Allow people to express what they have felt, thought or learned as part of this group. Express your gratitude at having had this experience with them. Tell them you’re sticking around for a bit to talk with them if they want. Invite them to a future program and say goodbye. 

What guided walk techniques can you add to this mix? Feel free to contribute in the comments below.

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