This stunning National Trust property in Wales had been doing things the same way for the past thirty-five years. It was proving quite a challenge to get the over 100 volunteers, who kept Erddig afloat, into a more storytelling frame of mind and practice. We were asked to create and deliver training to develop how the volunteers interacted and communicated with visitors, which would result in an improvement in Visitor Experience scores, especially within the ‘warm and friendly’ category.
We created two workshops, the first trained up a number of pop up storytellers who could appear anywhere across the property, gather some visitors, and tell them an impromptu, site specific (to that spot) story. The second workshop would improve how all room guides communicated with visitors, so as to become more engaging and conversational with visitors. A number of volunteers were trained up to continue delivering the training after our week-long residency came to an end, ensuring all volunteers current and future had these extra skills available to them.
The volunteers appreciated the freedom they had to create their own stories, incorporating their interests and specialist knowledge. And the visitors appreciated that this freedom was set within specific parameters: being visitor led/focussed, adapting to their interests, and sharing information within engaging conversations. Erddig staff were also pleased. Their Visitor Experience scores rose and there was a waiting list of volunteers to get on to future delivery of the course.
“The Whole Story made a daunting task simple – retraining a cohort of experienced volunteers in a way that had them chomping to try new things and let their inner storyteller loose! Josh was great at establishing the experience of a diverse audience of trainees, then channelling their enthusiasm and historical knowledge of the property into communicating in a new way. In training some volunteers to be trainers themselves, Josh showed patience, understanding and great encouragement. We had laughs, smiles, a few questions, a good dose of living outside our comfort zone and plenty of cake – all the ingredients for a successful transition from ‘Room Guide’ to ‘Storyteller’! Thank you Josh and Lily, go forth, spread The Whole Story!”
House and Collections Manager – Erddig The National TrustBack to museums
Basing House Museum is an open site of important historical ruins. Visitors benefit enormously from interactions with staff and volunteers to interpret it. With growing numbers, sometimes leading to queues at certain spots, it was felt that storytelling training could help reinvigorate the tours, and also bring to life the front of house role by adding object handling skills for both drop in sessions and to entertain summertime queues.
As these were experienced tour guides, we took them through a half-day workshop to add storytelling techniques to their repertoire. This refresher enabled them to bring back to life the site as it had been, by making the past a present for their visitors to imagine themselves into.
The afternoon was spent with handling objects: the story techniques from the morning were brought back into play, but often turned into questions so as to ensure this didn’t become a talk, but rather a conversation that explored the object, what it told us about itself, its use, its contemporary world.
The skills learnt were used across the site, with stories being used to illustrate the events that took place there and populate the ruins. The questioning, conversational aspects of the object handling training were further brought into play, turning all interactions with visitors into non-didactic, visitor led conversations with a purpose.
Liverpool was undergoing a large upgrade of their Main Stand. This would now bring Anfield up to 54000 capacity, but at a great cost to the regular tours being run. Due to the Health and Safety implications of it being a working building site, it wasn’t possible for the tour to visit some of it’s most iconic stops, including the changing rooms, the tunnel and the dugout. It was suggested that the tour could be reduced in length and cost. We were asked to help ensure the quality of the tour was not lost while encountering these practical problems
Rather than change the length the tour took the guides, who were a mix of actors and dyed in the wool Liverpool fans, came onto one of two full day workshops. Most of them were very experienced, so our time was spent looking at storytelling techniques such as descriptive language to bring to life what wasn’t visible, alongside identifying which stories would help focus on the positives of the temporary tour route.
All the guides added the techniques of the training to their current way of delivering tours. One commented to the museum and tours manager that if only this training had been offered to them twenty years ago, their work would have been a good deal easier, and more fun.
Bletchley Park had undergone a transformation in recent years: restoration, new interpretation and a growth in visitor numbers. However, their tour, written and led by volunteer tour guides, still needed improvement and refreshing to bring it up to the quality experienced across the rest of the site. TheWholeStory was asked to work with Bletchley Park and the tour guides to firstly find the best story that could be told by a site specific highlights tour and secondly to train the volunteer guides. The tour story and its delivery by the tour guides would compliment the media guide, inspire visitors to explore the site on their own, hold correct information and facts and overall ignite the interest and curiosity of all types of visitors.
TheWholeStory found a story for the highlights tour that explained, illustrated and evoked how each stop had been involved in the problem of breaking codes and cyphers at Bletchley Park. This story was then the foundation for each tour guide to follow, but also to interpret to suit their own and their audiences’ interests, knowledge or enthusiasms. The volunteers each took part in 2 days of training during which both the content of the tour was developed and how the guides could deliver and express it. Applying techniques from storytelling the guides became more visitor aware and able to adapt and improvise in response, used descriptive language to clarify the technical complexities of Bletchley Park’s story and to bring to life the ideas, events, time and people of the site’s history.
TheWholeStory worked closely with Bletchley park to motivate and support the volunteers through what was a difficult change for them. Throughout the process the volunteers were involved in the creation of the tour story and were invited to contribute to is form and content but were also reminded of the changing expectations of visitors, whose experience needed to be considered first and foremost. Following the training we created a set of resource documents to help the volunteers change from the old tour to the new tour. Of the 42 tour guides who took part in the training only 2 have left and since the adoption of the new tour story there has been an increase in positive visitor comments about the tour.
“Fascinating day, the free guided tour led by an enthusiastic knowledgeable guide put the whole site into context.”
A Bletchley Park Visitor
“We went on one of the guided tours. The volunteer who took the tour, really made the place come alive. His sheer knowledge and passion for the place was infectious. A memorable day out that has left a real impression on me.”
A Bletchley Park Visitor
“Bletchley Park engaged The Whole Story to help review and refresh our one hour Highlights Tour, to ensure it was warm and welcoming to a wide range of audiences. Working with our volunteer tour guides, Lily and Josh set about building relationships and trust and managing expectations about how we were all going to work together. Lily and Josh took so much time to immerse themselves fully in Bletchley Park’s history and our desire to better engage visitors with our often too-complex stories. Over the course of many two-day workshops, they worked with the guides to create a framework for the new tour, which still allowed flexibility and the guides to show their personalities and their passions. It was a great experience and we are delighted with how Lily and Josh tackled this difficult transformation of a core part of our visitor offer.”
Director of Public Engagement Bletchley Park TrustBack to museums
Having worked with a number of churches looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust we were asked to work with St John’s Bristol where they had a newly recently set of handling objects that help to illustrate the church’s role in the life of medieval Bristol. The volunteers needed help to consider and practice how best to use the objects with visitors. Although many of the volunteers were knowledgeable about the history they were not familiar with the new interpretation that the objects were part of. We were asked to help the volunteers find and be able to share the stories the objects related to and to develop how they interact with visitors, using the objects.
The volunteers, in 2 groups, each took part in 2 half-day workshops within the church. The first workshop involved creating a story about one of the medieval characters who were important to the church and Bristol’s merchant history. In creating this story, as a piece of storytelling, the volunteers developed how they could to select and put together information and also how best to illustrate and evoke the history so as to bring it to life. In the second workshop they examined, using their own experience and suggestions from us, what a good interaction with a visitor could or should be. Using this as a starting point and applying the techniques from the first workshop they created “conversations” involving the objects and the physical details of the church itself that explored or explained the subject or theme of the stories they had created in the first workshop.
The volunteers were of very mixed experience and confidence. But each participant left feeling happier to approach and interact with visitors. Some volunteers appreciated being able to think about (and talk about) the history in a new way, stimulated by the storytelling techniques, others were eager to try out a new, braver, way of involving visitors and everyone was open to using and experimenting with how they could use the new handling objects to inspire curiosity, illustrate a moment in time or provoke a conversation.
“The interactive workshop sessions were well planned. They made us think about why we volunteer at St John’s, and reflect on what knowledge we choose to share, how we present it to visitors and what impressions we would like them to take away. TheWholeStory’s approach of describing place, character, events, objects and context in a natural story telling way was structured, but flexible enough for us to respond spontaneously to visitors’ interests. The two days were packed with useful insights that should help volunteers feel confident in engaging with visitors. Overall, this workshop was an interesting, useful and enjoyable experience.”
Volunteer Churches Conservation Trust
“Lily and Josh were wonderful and the Story Telling and Interactive Object Handling workshops were a breath of fresh air in helping the volunteer team to re-think the way they give guided tours from the ground up. There is obviously value for visitors to the church in doing this, in that they get a better experience when they visit, but for the volunteers too, the techniques and activities that TheWholeStory employ are a great way to increase their understanding of the stories they already tell, and just really good fun too!”
Volunteering Officer Churches Conservation TrustBack to museums
The Wellcome Collection has an already confident and articulate team of Visitor Experience Assistants. They independently create their own tours and engagement sessions which are delivered regularly throughout the museum. We met their Head of Visitor Experience at The Museums Association Conference and Exhibition and started a conversation to work out how we could develop his Visitor Experience Assistants interaction skills.
To see where we could best help to develop the VE Assistants we observed them deliver a selection of engagement sessions. The quality was high but we could see where our training would offer an opportunity for the VE Assistants to refine their techniques and tackle areas where they were less confident. We delivered 1–day workshops to provide 2 groups of VE assistants with our storytelling blueprint, which would give them a practical understanding of how elements from storytelling could help them both explore, structure and deliver information engagingly and how to apply those same techniques to create and deliver an engagement session: a Busk (interactive, conversational object handling within the galleries) or a Reading Room discussion.
The workshop was an excellent and rare opportunity for the participants to work and think together about how and what they communicate. At the end of each day the participants showed each other how they had applied the workshop’s techniques to an engagement session they had created in the afternoon. The storytelling techniques improved how they explained the detailed and broad context of their subject, they illustrated the world that surrounded their subject and used a narrative structure to ensure each piece of information was relevant to the overall theme and intention of the engagement session.