I’ve gone on a few tours around historical sites in recent weeks and I feel eminently qualified to profile the ideal and the utterly crap tour guide. Let’s open with something positive.
The Ideal Guide
You’re an academic working on restoring the ruins you’re showing the group around. You love the stories in amongst the history and will often tell them, eagerly trying to transfer some of your enthusiasm to your zombie-like audience. You speak the language you’re touring in fluently and with excellent flow, allowing people to follow what you say while looking at other things. You will use phrases such as "we believe" and "until recently we thought" because you understand that there’s little empirical truth available to historians.
You have a repertoire of excellent jokes which you’ve honed over time. You allow people time to take photos and do not nag them unnecessarily.
You understand how the electronic headsets provided to the group work, and hence will not shout into them when attempting to herd your charges. Neither will you insist on waiting for everyone to gather round as if they need to be in hearing distance of you, unless you’re specifically pointing out something small and detailed.
The Shitty Guide
You speak the language you’re touring in at a passable level, but you’re constantly mispronouncing words, pausing to remember the right phrase, and emphasising all the wrong places so your charges can’t understand what you’re saying unless they stop everything else and stare at you.
When comprehensible, it sounds kind of like you’re reading a Wikipedia article. You have a few ‘jokes’ that you’ve noticed people will laugh at, usually involving penises or mothers in law. The penis ones especially will make nervous housewives screech with laughter. You’ll also have a series of references to various nationalities preset in the group because while you’re incapable of engaging anyone about the actual subject matter in an interesting way, you do know that Americans like McDonald's.
You’re not aware of any reason for yawning outside of boredom, and will victimise anyone in the group who dares to do so. You smoke, and will often cut interesting stories short because you're gasping for a fag. You’ll then discard your cigarette butt on the ground of the magical historical site that you’re supposed to care about.
You have material ready for certain rooms or areas, and will rush the group past other interesting things without telling them anything about them, even in passing. You may however take the opportunity to repeatedly call out “this way!”
You guys don’t have feelings, so I’ll try to avoid anthropomorphising you any more than I have already by talking to you in this sentence.
These are pretty awesome. Yeah, you miss a certain human touch, but they shut up when I tell them to, they talk when I tell them to, and I get a map of everything to look at from the start.
As well as audio guides sold at venues, it’s worth having a look around the Internet for other guides and maps. Rick Steves has some good, if somewhat cheesy, free podcast guides to various bits of Rome. I’ve not researched any further than this but I’m hopeful that there’s tours for sale out there that are even better.