Docent Best Practices


As docents, we engage every passenger on board through exquisite performance technique and unreasonable hospitality. Engaged guests are rapt, hanging on your every word, have their eyes on you, and are responsive. They feel welcome and comfortable on board the boat, and become engrossed in the journey of your narrative. Docents have the self-confidence to connect with the passengers individually and as a group. Passengers should leave the boat feeling like they were part of something bigger than themselves. 


Docents impress with extraordinary content. We don’t want to overload them with numbing numbers, but excite their intellect. We want the tour to make a lasting impression. Our presentation should be both interesting and accurate. We want to choose only the most impressive, jaw-dropping material to include. We aim to exceed their expectations and challenge their assumptions.


Passengers will remember how you made them feel more than the specifics of what you said. Docents amplify the emotional impact that we have on our passengers and give emotional weight to our presentation. This doesn’t happen automatically. Docents intentionally orchestrate moments that matter for our passengers to be moved and enchanted. Make no small plans.


Rhetoric is the art of effective or persuasive speaking. Our goal is to pass on our knowledge and stories of the city of Chicago and its architecture as effectively as possible to persuade our passengers toward a more positive and exciting view of the city. The following list outlines effective rhetorical techniques that are expected of every docent in the delivery of their tour.

  • Phrasing. With only 75 minutes, concision is key when describing a building or landmark. Choosing your words carefully increases the impact of your tour and gives you more confidence to improvise with life on the river. It is important to always be tightening your phrasing, even if you are a veteran docent. It is perfectly acceptable and encouraged to attempt new phrasing on your tour!
  • Storytelling. Compelling stories have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and your tour should too. To that end, make use of villains and heroes, unforgettable characters, dramatic tension, scandal, epic journeys, and visual imagery – the more we can paint pictures with our words, the more visceral the story of Chicago will be for our passengers.   
  • Humor. Humor is an incredibly effective way to engage your passengers and we encourage every docent to find ways to incorporate good humor throughout your tour. Humor makes information more digestible and relaxes listeners. You are their source of entertainment as well as learning, so do not hesitate to let your personality shine through!
    • Appropriate Humor. Humor must be appropriate for all ages and presented in a playful, loving manner, without ever feeling negative or offensive (If you could hear the joke in a Disney/Pixar film, it passes the appropriateness test!). Sense out your crowd as early as possible to determine how to best execute your humor on each tour. Interrogate every part of your jokes to ensure they are positive and appropriate and call a coach if you’re ever questioning the appropriateness of a joke.
  • Setting Expectations. Setting expectations throughout the tour is a great way to maintain engagement. If a passenger is busy estimating or guessing at what may be coming, how much time is left on the tour, or thinking things like, “Are we going to talk about that eye-catching building we just passed by?” then they will be less engaged in the present moment. When appropriate, be sure to set expectations, using speech markers or time indications like, “For the next five minutes, we will be…” or “There’s a great story about that building that I’ll tell you when we pass it on the way back.”
  • Repetition for retention. Repetition is key to helping passengers retain the information we are giving them. Find opportunities to revisit words, phrases, and metaphors
  • Avoid Jargon. Name-dropping a concept or style without passengers having a chance to see it in practice may confuse them and break their focus. It is always best to avoid mentioning a specific name, style, or concept unless you are ready to explain it. 
  • Context for Statistics. Statistics (heights, dates, # of floors, etc.) should tell a story. Numbers by themselves are unhelpful to passengers unless they are put in context either by relating it to something they already know or using a nearby visual comparison. 
  • Engage buildings once. Referring back to the same building multiple times can create a sense of disorganization. Try to engage with each building once. Through coaching, you will begin to understand logical exceptions, but as a new docent, try to make it a rule.
  • Start with physical details. As you engage a building, describe the visible details of the building first. Guide the passenger’s eyes to important features. Starting with physical details prevents passengers from wondering which building you are talking about in a crowded skyline.
  • Bring your point of view. Passengers want to know a little bit about their docent. They’ll remember that information because they are curious to know something about you. This glimpse into your genuine personality is extremely valuable in creating a memorable experience. This can manifest in your tour in a variety of ways.
    • For some docents, it’s explicit! Are you a history teacher? Museum buff? Art and design student? Trained as an engineer? Born and raised in Chicago? Passengers love to hear about your passions and hobbies. It lends to credibility and competence.
    • For some docents, it’s all about delivery! Maybe your competence and credibility comes through in your impeccable knowledge of the facts and figures. Maybe you weren’t born in Chicago, but you’ve made it your chosen home. Your unique point of view will come through in your wisdom, jokes, and delivery.
    • Remember, it’s not all about you. Chicago is the star of our show. Personal disclosure should be carefully balanced throughout the tour.
    • Anecdotes. If you have a personal tie to a building or story, you might reference it in your tour. It can boost your credibility as a local and an expert on the city. This also humanizes you, and places you in the context of the city, not just the boat. 

150 minutes of information for a 75-Minute Tour. A successful docent has plenty of extra material available outside of their usual 75-minute tour. What does this mean? You need to have stories, facts, and recommendations to fill the moments when your boat might be slowed down or stopped. This will also enrich your understanding of the concepts that you present every day.


As the host of the boat, our job is inherently a performance. Docents are encouraged to think about themselves as performers and their tour as a performance. These are the skills that will bring out the best in your performance. 

  • Enthusiasm. Passengers are deeply affected by the infectious zeal of the docent. The docent’s passion and enthusiasm for the city and its architecture is contagious. The docent’s enthusiasm and charisma are often the most memorable aspects of the tour. Our attitude inspires enthusiasm and delight in everyone aboard.
  • Be present and approachable. Mind your body language and move among passengers, ask questions and invite opinions. It also opens passengers up to asking questions later in the tour.
    • Establish a social connection. You might ask where they’re from, whether they’ve visited Chicago before, what brings them to town, what they’re most excited to learn about on the tour, and whether they have any questions before the tour begins.
    • Ask related follow-up questions. Listen to what your passengers say and ask related follow up questions. Have you ever visited their hometown? Know anything about the conference they’re attending? Find ways to make connections and have positive interactions.
  • Vocal tools. Your voice is arguably the most important tool for audience engagement. On a sold out boat, not everyone is going to catch the nuances of your body language, but everyone will hear the qualities and intonations of your voice. When they hear excitement in your voice it is infectious! To create moments of wonder and awe, think about all the vocal tools you have at your disposal:
    • Volume – modulating volume is essential to maintaining a dynamic tour.
    • Diction – the clarity of your words is essential. Maintaining an accessible vocal pace is crucial for those with hearing difficulties and for those whose first language is not English.
    • Intensity – the energy and passion with which you speak.
    • Speed of speech – accelerating and decelerating for dramatic effect.
    • Tone of voice – is it casual, formal, goofy? Use your tone to support your storytelling.
  • Physicality. The way you carry your body is also extremely important. Maintaining a healthy alignment of the spine and back not only lends authority, but helps avoid back pain. Keep your head up, look passengers in the eye, be conscious of your body in space and use simple, but intentional gestures to communicate with passengers and boost engagement. Physical warm-ups are encouraged as a way to prepare yourself for your shift.
  • Improvisation. Be present in the moment! As humans, we are improvising constantly in our daily lives. One of the greatest parts of being a docent is that each day on the river is different. Taking advantage of the unexpected is a sure-fire way to cultivate moments of wonder. This guarantees a memorable experience for passengers.
    • Stay on your toes. Is there a party boat going by? Is there a precariously hanging window washer? Use your best judgment to decide when to acknowledge these things on the microphone and when to ignore them and stay focused on your normal content.
    • Accordion Editing. Picture your tour structure as an accordion, growing and shrinking to fit the speed and length of the tour on any particular day. Know what material can be cut without compromising the integrity of the tour, and know some extra information about every portion of your tour to add in, should you find yourself stalled in any particular spot, which you undoubtedly will. 
  • Orchestrate Moments of Wonder and Awe. This is how we achieve the “move” aspect of our mission. Show reverence! Let yourself be taken with the beauty of the water, of the skyline, of the sunset, of the sailboats, and then share it with everyone on the boat. Heighten these moments with a pause or a change in physicality. Our wonder and awe becomes their own.
  • 45-Degree Rule. It is best to address buildings that are 45-degrees off of the bow of the ship. Do not force the passengers to turn and look at something behind them. This ensures the best view for passengers, and gives you an appropriate amount of time to discuss the building without it moving out of view.