Shined-up shoes. A friendly handshake. We all know how important a great first impression is to our personal success. But what about our programs? As educators, we can improve our programs’ chances of success by thinking about the first few minutes we spend with our guests.

Whether they’re kids on a school trip, seniors enjoying a reminiscence program, or anyone in between, program participants want to know they’re in good hands, from the first moment on. By the time the crucial first ten minutes are up, teachers have probably already decided whether your program seems well organized. Students will have sussed out whether being cooperative, or being oppositional, will lead to more fun. And adult audiences will be evaluating whether it was worth it to make time to attend. You can channel this anticipation and curiosity to lend your program positive energy and create excitement. When our guests see that we can get them started smoothly and quickly, they can let go of anxieties and get ready to learn.

Here are five tips from the front lines to help your programs get off to a great start.

1. Getting there is half the fun.
Before you get your program up and running, take your staff or volunteers and walk through the entire arrival – in your head if you must, but in reality is best. Do a dry run in the car to understand what it’s like for new visitors to make their way to your site. Do they have clear travel directions? A number to reach you if they’re running late or driving in circles? The right address for a GPS navigation? Is the signage easy to spot? Any weird turns?  Once they’re in the parking area, is it clear where to go next? Try it out, and troubleshoot. If a downloadable PDF map, a one-sheet “Arriving” page, or a few well-placed sandwich boards or colorful flags would help make a difference, put them in place. We can’t always provide a totally problem-free trip, but by managing what’s within our control, we can prevent a lot of frustration and lateness.

2. Meeting and Greeting.
Every group deserves a warm, personal welcome. Logistics differ depending on type of group and how they arrive, but you can develop systems that work for your situations. At peak times, if you’re greeting bus after bus of students or tourists, consider having educators greet groups right in the parking lot. Flag them into good parking spots, and then board the bus to say hello and give a first set of instructions. An onboard greeting puts a friendly face on the site right away and cuts down on the time needed for orientation. If your group arrives on foot or in separate cars, use the time they take to gather to welcome and get to know a bit about them. Small talk about where they’re from, and what they hope to do and see, communicates an authentic welcome and may give you helpful information about what they expect from their visit. If the trip’s been long, let visitors know where bathrooms and water fountains are, and allow some time for people to use the facilities; it’s often the first (and most urgent) thing on their minds.

3. Attention Getters.
When you’re ready to talk to a group as a whole, you first need to get their attention. Seasoned educators avoid yelling (although it’s good to know how to project your voice loud and clear to the back of a group). With young kids, game-like attention getters are fun and effective. One of my favorites is to lean toward the first couple of students in front of you, and say, in a soft voice, “If you can hear me, do this,” accompanied by a Simon-says style action such as rubbing your head. Keep repeating this and changing the action. The nearest students usually play along right away, and gradually the rest of the kids see that something’s happening, and catch on. Doing a fun call and response shout with your museum’s name or a tour topic can also get them ready to listen together. WIth adults, try mentioning to a few people that you’ll be using a signal to show it’s time to start  – “I’m going to get everyone’s attention in a few minutes – when you see my hand go up, I’ll be ready to introduce the program” Just taking a stance facing front before the group, expectant smile beaming, works well too. Don’t forget to introduce yourself! A short personal identification like “My name is Michelle, I’m an educator here at the Peabody Essex Museum, and I’ll be taking you to your first stop” gives a personal face to your institution, and helps your guests understand your role.

4. Give Them the 411.
Giving your guests a road map to what’s going to happen fends off problems and misunderstandings before they start. After getting attention and sharing your welcome, repeat the program’s name, and add a bit about what the group will be doing, where, and with whom. If there was any mixup the program plan, you can head it off at the pass with a clear description now and get everyone on the same page. If the group is dividing into smaller groups, the ideal situation is to have group lists already defined. Ask a teacher or group leader to read the lists – they’ll pronounce the names right, and you can listen in and learn! If you find you need to divide up groups on the spot, have some fast strategies at the ready. Some ways to divide include: by birthday (“If you were born January to April, please join the blue group! May to July, red group!”), the old classic “counting off,” and, to get two groups, asking guests to clasp their two hands together and look at their thumbs. If the left thumb’s on top, that’s Group 1, and right thumb on top is Group 2. Amazingly, it almost always breaks down into two roughly even groups.

5. Make it fun!
Suggesting something specific to be on the lookout for can focus attention and increase anticipation. Hint at something special or hard to spot to look for; offer a riddle to solve; or select a ‘magic word’ that they should listen for. With adults, suggest what new saying, idea, skill, or understanding they might have by the end of the tour. Use the last part of your introduction to build positive excitement and encourage focus on the guides and activities. It’s hard for guests to feel happy anticipation when greeted with a flat voice and bored face treating a special visit like a matter of dull routine. Show them your enthusiasm for what they’re about to experience, and it’s likely it will be infectious.