by Claire Bown

How much information is too much on a guided tour? When does information become a burden and how much do we actually remember afterwards?

Traditional lecture-style ‘walk and talk ‘ guided tours with an expert guide are still all-to-common and a standard way of ‘presenting’ an historic site, a city or a museum to the public.

However, participants on these style of tours will remember very little of the information they are told, less than 5% in fact. They will become exhausted (and sometimes irritated) by the non-stop flow of information. They will leave their tour none the richer or wiser for the time they’ve spent with their guide.

The fact that you, as a guide or educator, might have spent months or even years learning this information isn’t a good enough reason to empty the contents of your head onto a group of unsuspecting visitors.

We need to think about using information productively and strategically.

As I said in ‘Teaching Skills on Tour: Learning to Look‘,  I feel that we place too much emphasis on the delivery of content, information or knowledge on tour. Many organisations (including museums) are now working hard at training their guides to introduce more interactive, inquiry-led strategies on tour that involve the participants in conversation and discussion, which is great.

But what I’ve found is that they are not explicitly teaching guides how to confidently use their knowledge in a productive and strategic way – reducing the amount of information and knowing how to add it in small amounts or in response to a question.

So, how can we make more effective use of information on a tour?

Way Back Then

I first started out as a Tour Manager for Cosmos in the 1990s, trained to spill out as much information as possible over the microphone of a coach and during walking tours all over Europe. I was a one-way drone fest (as Nina Simon hilariously puts it here ).

I had a lot of fun researching the content to share with my visitors and injected humour and anecdotes where possible, but the possibilities of interactions and audience participation were limited given the logistics of coach travel.

I wonder how much of what I told them they actually remembered when they returned home?

Later I worked in educational travel for a number of years and one of my responsibilities was to select, monitor and evaluate city guides in various European capitals (Amsterdam was one of them). This was no-mean feat as city guides, especially those who have had to pass an exam to register (like the meticulous & excellent training required to become one of the UK’s Blue Badge Guides) love to share their knowledge with you.

Unfortunately, the flow of such information can sometimes be at such a rate and volume as to leave participants uninterested and bored. No-one can concentrate on someone speaking ‘at’ them for that length of time.

I recall many conversations where I suggested to the guide in question that the transmission of such volumes of information wasn’t working for our groups. I suggested a ‘less is more’ approach interspersed with questions and activities. The response was usually along the lines of ‘I have spent years learning all this information, therefore it’s my duty to pass on my knowledge’.

Have things changed?

Fast-forward a few years and things have moved on. Or have they? As a museum educator, I understand the delicate balance between selective content inclusion and information overload. However, traditional, lecture-style guided tours are still all-to-common and a standard way of sharing information with the public.

Even companies or organisations that advertise ‘conversational tours’ or ‘renegade tours’ are still relying on the guide lecturing model (AND scripts, but we won’t go there today…).

Guided tours should include great content and information but the programme or tour should not be dependent upon it. Our focus should be on the participants and creating a visitor-centered experience that allows opportunities for critical and creative thinking throughout.

Using methods or strategies that promote dialogue and discussion like Visible Thinking help. When used on a guided tour or in an educational programme with groups, the emphasis is shifted away from transmitting information towards building great discussions where participants are curious and eager to know more about what they are looking at. Information still has a role to play but should be added carefully in small amounts and at appropriate time, for example, by responding to questions from the participants.

Information as a Tool

On a guided tour there are appropriate and indeed important moments when guides or educators can offer layers of content to extend the discussion further to open up new lines of inquiry. Those who already work in a more inquiry-led way will recognise that moment when the discussion starts to dry up. You can at this point decide to either add another question or to take the discussion somewhere else by adding some content: ‘What if I was to say that the artist…..?’

Factual information can open up new lines of inquiry and give the object discussion new life and vigour.

Use Information Strategically and Productively

Most people are likely to forget information when they are not challenged to think about it or when they are not given the opportunity to make connections between new and prior knowledge. We know lecturing only leads to about 5% information retention and that people learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process, yet the traditional lecture-style museum guide still exists.

Maybe it is easier to be on auto-pilot and repeat what you’ve said a 1000 times before than to learn how to invite dialogue and conversation into your tours. But it is certainly not as rewarding as knowing that you will never repeat the same tour twice, that participants will leave your tour with knowledge that they will remember and memories that they will cherish.

I personally believe that we should think carefully about what content is the most relevant to a particular group and how and when that information should be shared and we’ll talk more about this in a future post. There is a good balance to be struck between offering thematic content and a method of delivery that is flexible and forward-thinking in its approach. I teach people to find that balance.

Join me on 09 June at 16.00 hrs for a 90 minute online masterclass all about best practices for using information strategically.
Knowing if, when and how to add information is key to fostering understanding  and creating engagement on a guided tour, art discussion or educational programme.
But what happens when you don’t add information at all? Or when you add too much? What role does information play in getting participants to engage with and understand art anyway? Join me to find out more!