Professional performing artists are the experts at getting and holding the attention of audiences who don’t have to listen to them. The engagement hooks toolkit borrows relevant techniques from these performance arts and applies them to our role as informal educators.
In this section, I’ll discuss how our presentations are performances which are both interactive and planned, and share the secret to truly memorable performances.
Style and substance
Since the times of Aristotle, 2500 years ago, speakers have been arguing whether the way you deliver your message is more important than the content of your message. Unfortunately, the style versus substance issue has become distorted by the way lazy presenters misuse style. Just because you can use style to over-power substance, does not mean this is inevitable. Style and substance are not mutually exclusive qualities.
Unless your audience is already highly motivated, the reality is that you need to engage through both your content and how you present it. Otherwise, you will either be using good presentation techniques to communicate poor content, or trying to deliver good content to an audience who isn’t listening. Neither of these outcomes are likely to meet your objectives as an educational presenter.
Informal educators are performers
We use many of the same engagement techniques as performers in allied fields — magicians, stand-up comedians, street performers, actors, children’s entertainers, etc. It is not surprising that we have borrowed these hooks, given the similarities between the roles, such as:
- trying to gain and keep the attention of a relatively large, voluntary audience in, often, distracting surroundings;
- projecting a heightened version of your character onstage;
- delivering the same material repeatedly as if for the first time;
- emoting, on demand, in a convincing way;
- improvising, when required;
- responding to and interacting with their audiences, in both direct and subtle ways;
- practising and rehearsing meticulously.
Objections to the performance metaphor
Most informal educators I’ve trained happily accept the performance aspects of their job. However, some educators reject being seen as “performers” because of their interpretation of what they think performing means, e.g.
- “Performing is only about being entertaining.”
- “Performing is about passively engaging your audience in one-way communication.”
- “Performing is the same as acting, which is about being inauthentic.”
- “Performing requires you to be showy and an extrovert.”
I recognise none of these interpretations of performing. The performing techniques I’ve collated in the toolkit are varied, interactive and authentic. They have also been selected so they can be adapted for use by most presenting personalities and styles.
The view of acting as pretending to be who you are not is widespread. I used to think this too until I studied some of the ways that actors are trained. In Tool 1, we’ll explore how some actors exaggerate and edit parts of their personalities to create an amplified version of themselves. I believe informal educators go through a similar process of character evolution the longer they present. To be brutal, the everyday, conversational version of you is simply not big enough to hold an audience from the stage. They expect, and need, a more heightened version of you delivering a more heightened version of your ideas.
“In life, you can be boring; on stage, you cannot afford to be boring even for an instant.”
Stella Adler (acting teacher)
How the audience see you
No offence, but your audiences generally aren’t expecting you to be very good. At least, not in terms of your performing skills and ability to deliver a carefully crafted, satisfying performance.
This is based on several expectations they have about presentations in informal education, including:
- their nearest point of reference to what we do is a classroom lesson, and although I’d argue that much of teaching is also an interactive performance, these aspects are less obvious;
- they intuitively accept that informal educators have the responsibility to help them learn as well as deliver a performance — so they give us a free pass for any lack of performing skills or attention to details;
- their experience of other informal education presentations;
- the ticket price does not suggest any sort of equivalence with commercial theatre — they appreciate that the economics of what we do mean we will have much less time and money to invest in developing the presentation in comparison to professional performing artists;
- if they think about this issue at all, they understand that these kinds of presentations are relatively new compared to other performing arts.
For all of these reasons, audiences don’t expect us to use performing techniques as frequently or as skilfully as performers in other fields. However, none of these should be taken as excuses for us to become complacent as performers. We’ll explore this issue further at the end of this section.
More generally, most of us grow up with an unhealthy relationship to giving presentations in school or at work. I think this stems from a failure to distinguish between low and high-stakes presentations. The first type are impromptu talks which usually don’t matter that much and which can be winged during delivery. The problem comes when this approach is applied to important presentations. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of intending to prepare thoroughly for such occasions, but, for a variety of reasons, we end up trying to muddle our way through them by thinking quickly on our feet. The real tragedy is that, because the overall standard of presentations is so low, we get away with it. And each time this happens, our behaviour becomes more deeply ingrained.
The presentations I’m discussing in this book are never thrown together and winged. In informal education, your presentations should have a target destination and an optimal route to get there with the audience. Therefore, you need to be intentional and deliberate about almost everything you do onstage. The most powerful lesson we can learn from performers is their incredible attention to every detail of the performance — their deliberation. This takes time, thought, effort and discipline.
I think of presentations as icebergs. It’s tempting to believe that the visible part of the delivery is all that the audience appreciates. However, all of the unseen work and consideration that you have put into developing and delivering the presentation forms the bulk of the iceberg. None of this deliberation is wasted. Without the foundation of this mass of ice underneath, the tip of the iceberg behaves differently. Audiences can feel the difference without knowing exactly why.
The opportunity to engage a room full of people is a privilege. If you want to scare yourself — estimate the number of presentations you give each year; multiply this by your average audience size; and then multiply this figure by the typical duration of your sessions in hours. That total is the approximate number of human hours you take from your learners each year. They will never get this valuable time back. Can you honestly say the amount of time you spend preparing and reflecting on your presentations is worthy of their combined investment?
As a presenter, it’s easy to abuse the privilege of being in command. Think about how it feels as a spectator to be sitting, trapped in another presentation which you cannot control. To contemporary audiences, who crave choice and interactivity every waking moment, the live presentation makes them feel like powerless hostages.
Interactive performers know it’s not about being perfect. Their performances are transitory and often gloriously imperfect connections between themselves and the audience on that day. They are conversational with opportunities for the audience to influence the presentation. In the theatre, this is known as breaking the fourth wall — crossing the invisible barrier that actors create between the action on the stage and the audience.
These performances should seem like they could never happen like that again. This means they will be rough in places, but, in the minds and hearts of your audience, this responsiveness beats the deliberation. If you want a broadcast medium, you’ll be better off playing them a well-executed TED video.
Being both deliberate and responsive
Taken to an extreme, allowing audiences to control everything is likely to lead to messy and unsatisfying learning experiences. Wise educators appreciate that there is a path through the presentation which leads to the best outcomes for the audience. Your challenge is to deliver what the spectators want, wrapped up in what you know they need, in order to have the optimal experience.
This trade-off between being able to influence an experience (responsiveness) and the amount of thought which went into producing the experience (deliberation) is something that audiences intuitively understand. Nobody attends a multi-million pound, fully scripted theatrical performance imagining they will be able to interact with the actors and affect the storyline. Equally, nobody takes part in a conversation with friends, expecting the crafted experience of a West End spectacular. What they lose in production value, they gain in being able to interact spontaneously with others.
This concept is based on an insightful model suggested by Roy Underhill, who has worked as a TV presenter and informal educator for many years. For each medium, the audience have been trained to hold certain expectations about how deliberate and how responsive that experience is likely to be. If a medium delivers an experience which is more highly crafted than expected for a given level of interaction, then the audience will be delighted. Conversely, if the experience falls below this deliberation/responsiveness ratio, they will be disappointed.
“… from the audience’s point of view, the less they have input and responsiveness, the more they expect you to get your act together.”
Roy Underhill (TV presenter)
As a presentation model for informal education, the play is as flawed as the conversation. But there is an approach which incorporates the optimum blend of features from both models for our context. Interactive presentations hit the sweet spot between plays and conversations. Most audiences attending our presentations assume that the experience will be moderately responsive and reasonably deliberate. However, their expectations about the deliberation of the presentation may be suppressed because of the perception factors discussed earlier.
“Interactive theatre combines the richness of rehearsed material, the spontaneity of improvisation, and the empowerment of participation.”
Jeff Wirth (performer)
Exceeding their expectations
Two decades of presenting has led me to a sobering conclusion — my overall impact depends as much on their expectations of the presentation as the quality of the experience itself. It’s the extent by which the presentation exceeds — or falls short of — these expectations that determines how surprising and rewarding it will be for them.
Being able to surprise my audience with the quality of performance that I deliver is important in order to capture their attention during the presentation. But surprise is also critical to creating strong memories of the occasion. Without these memories, I am unlikely to be able to achieve any of the longer-term goals I may have for changing their attitudes and behaviours (0.1).
The toolkit adopts two strategies from interactive performers to confound the audience’s expectations of informal education presentations and thereby deepen their impact:
- the illusion of responsiveness — many of the hooks in this toolkit allow informal educators to create the illusion of responsiveness for the audience, whilst at the same time keeping the powerful benefits of deliberation for this medium, e.g. being able to deliver scripted lines as if you are saying them for the first time (2.2); engineering the audience into reacting in certain ways so that you can deploy a rehearsed response (2.3). This generates the liveness and jeopardy of a high-wire act, but with the protection of an invisible safety harness.
- the deliberation bonus — the expectations most audiences will have for your level of performing skills and the amount of thought you have put into crafting the performance represent a relatively low bar for you to overcome. By embracing the performance mindset and techniques recommended in this book and applying them onstage, you can shatter their assumptions about educational presentations. The reassuring news is that you don’t need to acquire the skills of top performing artists or spend six weeks rehearsing each new show — even modest improvements in these areas will break preconceptions.
Subtly manipulating this tension between deliberation and responsiveness is at the heart of the interactive presentation approach recommended in this book.