The guided tour… people either love them or hate them. A good guided tour can captivate an audience. A bad one can have visitors looking for the nearest exit. What most tour guides focus on is key information (dates, places, names, etc.), and while this is definitely important, few visitors leave being impressed by the volume of facts they were told. At the Homestead Museum, we have come to realize our own shortcomings in this regard. While our tours are accurate, they are not necessarily as interesting and engaging as they can be. So, we asked ourselves how we could make our tours better. The answer was to focus on telling a good story.


A Tour at the Homestead Museum, City of Industry, CA

A Tour at the Homestead Museum, City of Industry, CA

Stories are a key part of what it means to be human. They are at the core of who we are, and allow us to experience, empathize, and connect. They can bridge the gap between knowing when something happened and understanding why it happened. A narrative weaves together the what, how, and why of an event by connecting them as a series of actions. Narrative language breathes life into stories, making people curious to know what happens next. Yes, history is about facts, it is made up of things that really happened, so why does putting the events in the format of a story matter? To answer that question, we look to neuroscience.

When we listen to someone providing us with the facts about an event, or a list of information, there are two places in the brain that light up: the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Both of these handle how we process and understand language. But when we listen to the same information as a story, filled with action and description, suddenly multiple areas of the brain respond. The sensory cortex and cerebellum light up when we hear about how things feel (texture and sensation). The motor cortex responds when we hear about physical movement (walk, jump, etc.). The olfactory cortex engages when we hear descriptions of how things smell. The visual cortex connects to discussions about color and shape, and the auditory cortex reacts to descriptions of sound. Our brains react to a story as if we are participating in it—as though it is happening to us.


A school tour at the Missouri History Museum

A school tour at the Missouri History Museum

While facts engage a small area of the brain, stories engage multiple points that help to create a vibrant picture in our minds. Stories draw us in and keep our attention; they stimulate our emotions, and according to Dr. Antonio Damasio, USC Professor of Neuroscience, “we don’t learn without emotional thought.” So by finding places in a guided tour to describe an image, sound, texture, color, sensation, or emotion; one creates an opportunity for visitors to take part in the stories being shared. Here are some techniques we recently asked our docents to consider to help them tell a good story:

Consider your audience – A good story is one that connects with your audience, and a good storyteller chooses what they say carefully. The amount of information you share and the way you share it should be adjusted based on the make-up of your group. Don’t feel compelled to cover everything. Watch your audience to see if information is resonating with them and make adjustments to your presentation as needed.

Take visitors on an emotional journey – A really good story resonates with people because at its core it has some basic universal aspects of being human. It doesn’t have to always be profound, but a good story should move the listener, make him/her laugh, think, or ponder it afterward. Think about how you are telling the story and try to modulate your voice. By adding excitement, sadness, or concern to your voice you are cuing your audience to experience those same emotions.

Be descriptive – Set the scene with descriptive language. When you think of a ranch, for example, what do you imagine? Open spaces? Dusty roads? Noisy cows? Solitude? Although visitors may not imagine the same thing as you, that’s OK. We want visitors to visualize their own images as they make connections to the information being shared.

Think about conflict and resolution – Some of the best stories have a well-defined main character that encounters trouble or conflict. Something interferes with the course of the main character’s life, whether it is nature, another person, or even the main character themselves. The action taken signifies growth and change — possibly an “ah ha!” moment — and then finally, a conclusion. It is the action, which moves the story from beginning to middle to end, that keeps the audience with you. The lives of historical people, much like our own, are filled with various obstacles to overcome. Explore with your audience how people have tried to adapt and change to the world around them. It humanizes them and connects your audience to the story.

What is your intention? – Stories have a lot of pieces to them, but not every piece serves the same purpose or provides structure or substance to the story as a whole. All listeners want to hear a story that has a direction and purpose. Think about why you are telling the story. What do you hope the audience will experience, or come away with knowing? By knowing where your story is going and the experience that you want your audience to have, the better your chance of delivering a successful tour.