Beware the Memorized Spiel

I once attended a guided tour of a large, expensive visitor center for a major religious group in the United States. Elders of the church met people at the door of the center to offer a free, guided tour. I joined a tour and our group obediently followed the guide as he delivered what was clearly a memorized spiel. After twenty minutes on the very boring tour, I asked him a question. He glared at me, did not answer the question and explained to the group that he had lost his place and we would have to start over. Now my entire group glared at me, warning with their eyes – “no more questions.”


I have been asked many times by managers why it would not be preferable to develop a really high quality tour or presentation and require guides or interpreters to deliver it word for word. That may seem efficient and effective, but is it? I think it’s easy to make a case against it for the following reasons:


  1. A canned spiel shows no respect for the audience. You are presuming that one size fits all. You are not adapting to each unique audience to make it more interesting. You are certainly not being an interpreter because the interpretive profession is built on knowledge of and adaptation to each unique audience. Will a group of visiting scientists enjoy and understand the same program as a group of high school students?
  2. Where’s the passion? It takes an amazing actor to give the same presentation over and over in the same words and sound enthusiastic. Memorized presentations usually sound incredibly wooden, lacking the authentic passion and voice of the presenter.
  3. Will it be sustainable? Most places that give guided tours “burn out” their guides to some degree. Burn out is faster when the guide has no free will in what is said. Memorization requires being faithful to the script instead of the audience and results in the problem my guide had with losing his place and having to start over.
  4. Questions are usually not welcomed from the audience or appropriately used by the guide in a memorized presentation. If you ask only rhetorical questions with no expectation of a real conversation, people soon tune out and may simply leave. If you do not allow your audience to ask questions, you are less likely to provoke any further thought or action about your subject that will help you accomplish objectives.


Training guides and docents to respond flexibly and present thematically will yield a more sustainable result in virtually every situation. Guides and interpreters enjoy their work and stay with it longer when they are respected for their abilities. Giving information in a rehearsed format has proven to be much less effective in helping people connect to a resource than engaging in a good conversation as part of a thematic tour.


If you need assistance training guides or interpretive staff, let us know.  We will be happy to help. It’s an investment well worth making.


– Tim Merriman


Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

One thought on “Beware the Memorized Spiel

  1. your article is right to our case as operating the very brand new Visiter Center and need that kind of training.

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