If you’ve never thought about ethical storytelling, you’re not alone, but you can easily change that (and greatly improve the impact of your tours).
This article was inspired by a feature in Unearth Women’s ‘Consent Issue’ by Hailey Sadler about ethics in photography. You can purchase a digital copy of the issue here.
Being a tour guide is a powerful role.
As I’ve mentioned before, you automatically become a representative of your city.
Whatever you tell guests, whatever impression you give them, will be the impression they have of your entire city, or even your entire country.
And we should make an effort to take that responsibility seriously.
In my own guiding career, I have to admit I did not give this a second thought. And I’m embarrassed to think about some of the stories I told…
In this article, I’ll share the insensitive mistakes I’ve personally made as a tour guide, and give you two ways to evaluate the stories you tell on your tours.
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How to get started with ethical storytelling: evaluate your current tours.
If you don’t already, I highly recommend reviewing the stories you tell on your tours at the end of each season.
It’s a chance to make sure they’re still relevant, add in some more details, or change it up and search for some fresh stories.
Below are two questions to ask yourself during this process in order to make sure you’re using ethical storytelling (and how I was doing this all wrong…)
1. Would I approve of this story if one of my family members or friends were the main character?.
I used to do a tour that went to one of the famous (or infamous…) “dollar dumpling spots” in NYC’s Chinatown*.
The woman who worked the shop was a bit of a character, and not super friendly, nor welcoming to my guests.
So I made it a gimmick (or a ‘shtick’ as we say in NYC).
I would gather guests around on the corner before her shop and give them the ‘warning’;
“Ok, so now we’re going to meet the dumpling lady and I just want to warn you now…she’s not always in the best of moods.
Our goal is NOT to piss off the dumpling lady, so here’s the plan…when we walk in, go directly to a seat, don’t stand in the aisle, and keep your voices down…”
My guests thought it was hilarious.
And it elevated the moment by creating anticipation about this ‘fierce dumpling lady’ I had built up.
As a bonus it also got my guests to be quiet and orderly while in the tiny dumpling shop…
But what if that ‘dumpling lady’ was my Mom? Or an Aunt?
How would I feel if I overheard some random guide telling that story about her outside the shop?
What if instead, I had taken the time to get to know more about her. Learned her name, her history?
Through ethical storytelling, I could have told powerful stories of how she opened this shop back when it wasn’t common to see female restaurant owners.
Or how she used the recipe her mother used to make back home before she came to the USA…
Equally entertaining stories, and arguably more impactful.
*Interested in the dumpling place next time you’re in NYC?
Shoot me an email & I’ll be happy to give you directions. Please give that woman your money, she works incredibly hard & her dumplings are delicious.
2. Would the story you’re telling make the locals feel proud?
I used to give a tour that would end in Times Square.
As a New Yorker, I really dislike Times Square.
I think it’s the worst of NYC, chain-restaurants, tourists, overpriced Broadway shows based on cult-favorite movies…
But you have to keep in mind, some people spend their entire lives dreaming of going to NYC and visiting Times Square.
They might have pictures of it up on their wall and watch all the movies about NYC, imagining the day that they too can walk under the bright lights of Broadway…
So who am I to tell them it sucks?
Of course, I can point out the chain restaurants and recommend they shouldn’t eat there because there’s way better food in NYC but at the same time, I can also praise what’s amazing about Time Square.
The fact that Broadway was so powerful, defined pop music in American History, for example.
I now understand that it’s possible to explain to your guests that Times Square doesn’t represent the average NYC experience, while at the same time, being proud that people have come all the way here to see it.
There is obviously dark and negative history everywhere.
And stories also need to be told.
But in that history, there are always stories resilience. And those can be powerful stories to tell.