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How to write an audio guide tour script

Need to know how to write an audio guide tour script for tourist visitor attractions? I’ve written several scripts for audio guides and visitor interpretation. Here are some tips on how to create an engaging experience for listeners.

Get to know the site or building

As a first step, get hold of any available leaflets, interpretation or background for the project. Do some research. Then, go on a recce of the site you’re writing the guide for. Ideally, do this with the curator, or the client who has commissioned the audio guide. If you’re creating a tour by yourself, you’ll need to plan the flow of the tour, start and end process, and listening points. Keep it simple, and not too long. Clients should have an idea of the right length of guide for their typical visitors.

Record your visit and story points

Take a well-charged camera or phone for photos. I also record video of any story and transition points, and scans of the rooms. This is essential for orientation when you’re writing a tour. Take pictures of key objects in the displays which are likely to be focal points, story ‘nodes’ or listening stations. If anything strikes you as a good story, take a photo. Take pictures of architectural or landscape features, too.

As a new visitor to the attraction, you’re in a great position to notice what will strike and appeal to other visitors. I like to record audio, too, as curators and desk staff are very good at explaining exhibits in language you can use. Also, it’s hard to take everything in on a first visit, and tricky to write notes on the hoof.

Establish the audience and access needs

Will the tour be for adults? Children? Find out the target age range, as this will have a bearing on your writing style and content. Will listeners include overseas visitors? Will the guide be translated into other languages? You’ll need to bear this in mind when writing about cultural references – what may be familiar history to you may be far from obvious to non-local or younger visitors.

Will the tour be indoors, outdoors, or a mix? What areas will visitors have access to? What’s underfoot – stony paths, turf, narrow stairways, bridges? Visitors may have prams, or mobility or sight issues. Ask your guide how visitors engage with the space, and about any changes up ahead that need to be incorporated.

Decide what story you’re telling

Is it the story of the place? Of the building? Of someone who lived there? A family? Another group of people? Maybe it’s an outdoor story interpreting the natural world? Or it’s on a larger scale, such as a town or video tour? Sometimes this is clear, and will give you a good throughline.

Sometimes, even with venues associated with a historical character, you might find several dimensions in play at once. For example, I wrote a linear tour for Mary, Queen of Scots House in Jedburgh, telling the story of the Queen’s visit to the town. It also had to incorporate the regional context, and architectural features. So, we used two narrative layers – a general narrator with a third person viewpoint, and the first-person viewpoint in the character of the Queen.

Ask if the audio guide tour script is linear or non-linear

This will affect what and how you write the guide. Some audio guides are linear tours which have a set length, sequence and number of clips. This kind may be used when there’s a limit on visitor capacity, and the organisers need a tour structure, to keep visitor flow moving. Other guides are non-linear, and visitors have a choice of what to listen to, how long, and in what order. They usually have listening points with numbers or QR codes which allow visitor to find the right audio clip. This kind are often found in galleries, where visitors can’t possibly see everything on a single visit, and have different subject interests.

For tour scripts with a live guide or performer, check out this article on how to write an interactive storytelling script.

Choose listening points and focal points

Choose locations and objects where people can stand and listen safely, without causing logjams. With linear tours, you’ll also need to factor in time for people to move between points. I’ve usually written linear tours at 30-40 minutes, no more, though it depends on the scale of venue. Any longer is a substantial time for visitors to be on their feet. 

You and the curator will have to make tough choices about what to focus on. Listeners can only take in so much, and have background noise and movement to contend with. An actual object that can be seen is often a stronger choice than a story about something that can’t be seen. In historical buildings, the building itself might be the story – a mediaeval toilet, a left-handed staircase.

It’s good to begin each new listening point with a line of context to help the listener to pull focus – “You’re now standing in front of/ this is the oldest tree in the forest/ the King’s Bedroom/ a wonderful example of Art Nouveau painting”. See my article on attunement in audio writing

writing for audio-first on The Creative Penn
Podcast: Writing for audio first on The Creative Penn

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podcast - sacha black - how to write for audio
Podcast: Sacha Black – how to write for audio

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Discuss writing parameters and production budget

Most audio tours are simplest to write from a traditional, third person narrator viewpoint. But it can also be fun to write a character viewpoint. I once wrote a historic jail tour from the jailer’s perspective. We were able to dramatize his character, have him talk about prisoners, and even ring the prisoner escape bell. This kind of character can use direct address to the listener and breach the fourth wall, which is fun. Some audio guides use dramatized dialogue between characters, which feels more like eavesdropping.

These choices have a bearing on budget and casting, so make sure you’ve agreed this before you start to write. It’s a good idea also ask about music and sound effects, as you can write these in. It’s best to keep this as simple and uncluttered as possible, as listeners will be moving around, often with background noise, which can make it hard to hear highly nuanced sound. I usually suggest just some mood-setting production music, and sometimes background sound effects – ideas such as rowdy crowds or courtly music can be good for populating empty spaces.

It’s a good idea to ask the curator about local musicians and voice talent, especially with historical venues. Authentic music and voices are a great asset to an audio tour, and production companies may not be as thoughtful about local choices, if the job is just one of many.

Clarify credits, wordings, costings

Ask which organisations, funders and contributors have to be acknowledged. If you’re unfamiliar with any mentioned people or place names, record the curator’s pronunciation. This will be useful for briefing the production company later on.

On costings, I suggest quoting a package cost based on days spent. Agree the job scope – the number of listening points, length and number of words – and any extra jobs, including research or music sourcing. Keep it simple. You’re not being asked to research the entire backstory of the project, as your client should be able to give you this information. Agree a rough running order and ask them to fill in the main bullet points. Any research gaps in your first draft can be filled in by your client – it’s far quicker for them to do this, with their subject expertise, than for you to reinvent the wheel. Allow for two or three rounds of feedback on drafts.

For my most recent audio tour at Mary, Queen of Scots Visitor Centre, I was lucky enough to work with lovely German translation colleague Änne Russell – see her blog and visitor comments.

Are you interested in scripts for storytelling, guided walks and live visitor interpretation? See my article on how to write an interactive storytelling script.

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