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In an audio tour, are you a Docent, or a Tour Guide?

Edge Studio

A “docent” is a person who guides people through a museum or such, explaining as they go. So why the heck why aren’t they just called “tour guides”? Why use a $50 word just because it’s a museum???

True, a common word would sound less pretentious, but it would also say less about the guide. “Docent” comes from the word “teacher.” A “guide,” like many VO talent, might just present a script, whereas (in principle, at least) a teacher knows what they’re talking about.

So, are you a docent?

First, let’s elaborate a bit on what we are talking about …

Another reason for saying “docent” is that the word also has other applications. It often designates an unpaid museum volunteer, or a parent assisting on a school field trip. In some countries, it refers to an associate professor.

Let’s also make clear that this question is relevant to more than museum tours, or tours of any sort. It’s also a valid issue in other genres, from eLearning to industrial explainers, and in online virtual tours, as well.

And while we’re at it, you might like to know that “docent” comes (by way of German, “Dozent”) from the Latin word “docēre.” Incidentally, the English word “docile” – as in “she was a very docile pony” – does not mean “gentle” as some people think; it means “easily taught or trained,” and it comes from the same Latin root.

So now you can docent the word “docent”! (In which case you would also want to know that, grammatically, “docent” is only a noun, not correctly used as a verb. But plenty of people do.)

Where were we?

Oh, the distinction between a “teacher” and a “guide” – that should be obvious. A teacher typically knows their subject intimately. Whether they are holding class in a semester series, or leading tourists through a museum wing, a teacher knows much more about the subject than they are able to tell in such a brief time.

In contrast, a tour guide may be a lot like someone who narrates an audio tour. They may know only what’s in the script. A tour guide might know much more than that; they might even be an expert. But it’s not necessarily part of the job description. They may know just enough to answer some occasional standard questions.

How is it with you? If you specialize in museum tours (or historic walks, etc.), you might know your subject(s) inside-out. (Yes, you listeners of the former radio show “Car Talk,” there are jobs for an Art History degree!) But if you specialize in some other form of narration, or a wide range of audio tours, you can’t possibly be expert in all of the subjects you’re handed.

How, then, do you sound knowledgeable in them? Here’s a quick guide …

Be natural, be yourself, confident and friendly. Don’t be pompous or overly formal. By sounding natural, you sound comfortable – the comfort enjoyed by someone who knows what he or she is talking about. In contrast, if you sound stiff (the way some people think a teacher should sound), you don’t enhance the subject matter, you distract from it.

Be curious. The wider your view of the world, the deeper you’ll enjoy looking into all sorts of subjects, and the more likely you’ll know about a topic at-hand. It may also make you readier for new opportunities. But curiosity goes still deeper than that. The more interested you are in learning about things that are new to you, the more comfortable you’ll feel in your reading about them – whether aloud or to yourself.

Focus on your best prospects. If your client is a museum of modern art, it’s good to know about Rembrandt and Goya, but better to be up on your Giacometti and Lichtenstein.

Know your audience.

Are they the average tourist, or are they highly educated or sophisticated individuals? It may decide your approach to tone, but also to your interpretation of the script. Take, for example, an ironic reference to van Gogh’s ear. Some people aren’t aware that he lost it. Others will know and catch the irony. Others may consider any such ear reference to be a tasteless or corny joke. The same principle applies if your audience consists of medical experts, or people in a particular industry, and so on.

Remember your VO training. Exhibit-goers often include visitors from other countries, and the subject matter may involve unusual words or references. Your narration needs to be natural, but especially clear and unrushed. Appreciate the importance of emotion and nuance. An audio tour is more like hearing one side of a conversation, rather than it is a lecture. At appropriate points, give your listener time to pause, view or react.

In other words, be a docent. Sound — as if you were there in person — like you’re ready, eager and able to answer their questions.

Do you have a comment or suggestion? Please send to [email protected].