What You Can Learn From a Tour Guide About Quality Education

I recently returned home from our family’s much-delayed summer vacation abroad (you can guess the reason). For the last 5 years or so, we’ve become big proponents of AirBNB Experiences when we travel to new places, not only as a way of acclimating ourselves to each city, but also to get unique perspectives on the lives of those who reside there. You can book some really interesting activities – over the last few years, we’ve done some hands-on to learn how to make Montreal-style bagels, create our own scented soaps, and become a beekeeper for a few hours.

But the majority of the “experiences” that we book involve walking tours of some variety. Fortunately, I have a very curious and outgoing 11-year-old who likes chatting with tour guides so he’s always happy to come along (the wife likes them, too). On our most recent trip to Amsterdam, we went on five different walking tours over the course of a week. They all had a unique theme – one was a food tour, one took us out to a town with several windmills and a wooden clog factory, one was a canal cruise, one introduced us to the more “adult” side of Amsterdam (the boy was excluded from that one), and one was a more general historic overview of a nearby city.

As some of you may be aware, I also serve as an occasional volunteer tour guide in the historic area of Philadelphia during the summer, so I have some experience on both sides of the “walking tour” experience, which perhaps give me a bit more of an expert perspective on the issue. Maybe. Let’s just pretend either way, shall we?

A few days ago, I began thinking a bit more about all of the walking tours that we’ve been on through the years, and especially some of the qualities that separate a good tour guide from a bad one. I quickly realized that there are a lot of parallels between a good tour guide and a good CME faculty member. After all, both roles focus on education and engaging an audience. So here are some of my takeaways on what it takes to succeed in either role.

  1. Be prepared. Know your subject. You don’t have to be the be-all, end-all expert, but you need to do your research. It might even be a good idea to practice your delivery.
  2. Be a storyteller. No one is interested in a litany of names and dates alone (or detailed clinical trial data). Give your information some context and explain why it’s important/interesting.
  3. Have some personality. Don’t be a drone. If you look like you are checked out, guess who else won’t care?
  4. Be passionate about your topic. I had a mother come up to me after one of my recent tours and ask if I was a history teacher. When I told her that I wasn’t, she said, “You should be. You really seem interested in what you are talking about.” Alas, not making a career change.
  5. Tailor your talk to your group. This is much easier when you are dealing with a small gathering of 5-10 people and you can get to know the people a little bit, but anyone can take the pulse of even a larger room to get a sense of who is listening to you. That’s what our demographic ARS questions are for, right?
  6. Find the people who are most interested and focus on them. If you are in a room or leading a tour with a group of 20 people, not everyone likely wants to be there. That’s OK. Identify the people who seem most engaged and keep them in your corner. Often, they’ll be the ones to bring in those folks who showed up because someone else dragged them along.
  7. Invite curiosity. Maybe you get questions that you think are stupid or of little interest to you. So what? Once you shut a person down, they are going to tune you out. This happened on our last tour during our vacation. You could tell the tour guide just wanted to get things over, and walked far ahead of the group between landmarks. When anyone asked him a question, his responses were clipped and a bit off-putting.
  8. Laugh. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at your surroundings. And get other people to laugh. Remember, you are there both to educate and to entertain.

2 thoughts on “What You Can Learn From a Tour Guide About Quality Education

    1. We did not. Frankly, there are so many bikes in Amsterdam and everyone seems to know where they are going that it looked a little intimidating.

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