The Master Storytellers of New Orleans

I spent last week in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. While walking the streets of the French Quarter, I took note of some incredible communicators: the city’s tour guides.

The Challenges

Tour guides in New Orleans have at least two huge challenges: battling distraction and telling a compelling story.

The French Quarter during Mardi Gras is one of the loudest, most distracting places on earth. Loud music and megaphones, crowds and costumes (including those dressed in mostly their birthday suit) all beg for attention, and can be very distracting for any audience. As a teacher, I find that students can find plenty of distractions in an isolated classroom, not to mention a crowded, festive street.

To add to that, all a tour guide has are the weapons of history and folklore to draw visitors into the story of the city. History, while naturally exciting to some, can easily become a confusion of names and numbers, think of history class textbooks.

Considering the circumstances, I think most of us would be quick to admit defeat as communicators and grab a “big ass beer” (they’re easy to find during Mardi Gras) with some friends, or resort to ten-foot tall signs and megaphones, which some in New Orleans consider the most effective way to paint their picture of God (it’s hard to sound loving through a megaphone). So how do many get above the buzz to tell their stories?

The Cure: Green Flashing Glasses

During our first day in New Orleans, John Martindale (whose art and music you must check out here), a friend and fellow YWAMer, gave us a tour of the French Quarter, and he did it up! Loud and animated, he paced among us passionately as he told the story of the city we were standing in. He rifled through dates and names as he painted a picture of the city. Looking back, though I can’t re-count most of the details of his talk, I remember vividly the emotions conveyed and the general picture of the city his stories gave me. A job well-done, John!

I saw one other guide, a white-haired woman, wearing sunglasses with flashing green lights while she talked, anything to keep attention!

The “ghost tour” guides had a distinct advantage in keeping attention. Standing in front of one hotel, we overheard one saying, “Those of you who are staying here, have you had any trouble sleeping?” as he went on to explain the ghosts that haunted said hotel. I’m sure his stories then became immediately personally relevant for some in that audience.

Our Communication

Classrooms and auditoriums are designed to minimize distractions, but distractions always arise. What I learned from the tour guides is to not worry about what you can’t control, but focus on what you can. When you communicate passionately (which will affect your volume, verbal pacing, expression and body movements) people will pay attention to you.

I also learned that “boring content” is never an excuse. There’s always a story, something that’s interesting that will capture the audience’s imagination. The hard work of the presenter is to discover the story and convey it well. The history of New Orleans could easily become a bunch of boring facts and numbers, a great storyteller brings those facts to life. Hans Rosling (watch his talks at TED) is a great example of bringing statistics to life, and actually making them exciting. As in John’s storytelling, the details are important to give your story credibility, but most people remember the story and the emotions conveyed rather than many of the details.

The lessons and examples of communication are all around us. Next time you see a tour guide, see what you can learn from them.

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3 Comments

  1. I love tours! I’m also the kind of person that can watch History Channel for hours. I think people are willing to “buy” your story if you can capture their experiences and they can say “I haven’t done , but I know exactly what he’s talking about.”

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