It’s easy to think of “character” as something that only applies to educators who deliver theatre-in-education, or who portray historical figures or themed roles. Yet, every presenter has a presenting character onstage. The audience will be able to describe it even if you can’t.
Your character is simply how you connect as a human being with the other human beings in front of you. It includes a range of qualities unique to you as a presenter — your personality traits and quirks; your attitude to your audience and your content; and your individual worldview and values.
For the purposes of this tool, we’re going to explore how you express your character through your authenticity, likeability and relatability, trustworthiness, authority and vulnerability. Of all the tools in the toolkit, this one is the most reflective — it requires you to think carefully about how these ideas affect the way your audiences perceive you.
1.1.1 Why your character matters
Much of the power of the other tools comes from how they shine a spotlight on your persona for the audience — spontaneity, expressing emotions, interaction and humour all expose your nature. In fact, precisely how you implement each hook in the toolkit reveals volumes about what you are like as an individual.
Use your character to connect with your audience as a person
In most informal education situations, we’re asking our audience to learn in public. Learning always involves making mistakes. Doing this in front of their peers can be especially intimidating, if you cannot first make them feel safe.
You need to connect as a human being before you can communicate as an educator. Convince them that you are there to help — especially when your audience doesn’t have to listen. The more they know, like and trust you, the better and faster they will connect with you. Our effectiveness as informal educators depends much more on their perception of our human qualities than many of us dare to imagine.
Use your character to control their first impressions
From the first moment that your audience sees you — on or off the stage — they can’t help themselves from making snap judgments about the kind of person you are. Once these early impressions have been made, it takes an enormous amount of effort for you to change their opinion. So, concentrate on establishing a consistent presenting character as early as possible. Don’t leave this to chance — build this criterion into your opening routines.
For example, screenwriters often create an early incident in films where the inner character of the hero is revealed, e.g. they rescue a threatened kitten. Can you incorporate a save the cat moment at the start of the presentation which “accidentally” reveals your nature? For instance, by engineering a minor problem, so you can calmly and good-naturedly overcome it.
Use your character to get the audience you want
Interactive presentations break the invisible fourth wall between you and your audience in many ways. This two-way communication means you usually get the audience you deserve. The fourth wall is actually a mirror. Whatever character traits you display onstage as a presenter will be reflected back by the group. So, you can influence the nature of your audience through thinking about how you come across to them. Everyone has occasional poor presentations, but if you start to notice a trend of bad crowd behaviour, take a good, long look in that mirror.
Use your character to engage them in your content
Your fascination with your topic often blinds you to an uncomfortable truth — unless you’re doing something extremely engaging, the audiences you work with are initially more interested in you than in anything you do or say.
Ignoring this principle is one of the biggest mistakes you can make as an informal educator. It took me a long time to accept this disillusioning reality fully. You may perceive yourself as mind-numbingly boring. You may be introverted. You may want it to be all about your content rather than you.
Tough. You don’t get to choose what your audience find interesting. Get over yourself. Don’t fight it, use it. Learn how you can exploit this social aspect of human nature to connect your audiences with your beloved material through you.
Your learners are fascinated by you, your life and your unusual job. These are all things it’s natural to want to protect when we’re first thrown into the limelight as a presenter. We bury them behind our activities onstage and our content. Stop hiding. It is this vulnerable expression of you as a person — stripped partially bare — which they find irresistibly revealing.
“You have 30 seconds to make friends.”
Ken Dodd (comedian)
Use your character to make them laugh
Much of the humour you exploit as an interactive presenter depends on the audience knowing your character. One of the favourite games which audiences play is to try to predict how you will react to impending situations based on what they already know about you, e.g. how you will respond when something goes wrong. This is why situation comedies become funnier after the first episode — the audience understands the motivations of the characters better. They love guessing how they will react and then finding out if they were right.
Use your character to guide you
Character is your internal presenting GPS. It keeps you on track and consistent at each step. It underpins every line, action and presentation decision you make in the spotlight. When you’re deciding whether to refer humorously to a previous embarrassing incident in the show, knowing your character guides you. When you’re asking yourself if a specific hook would suit you, your insight into your character will help you decide. The better you understand your character, the easier everything on stage becomes.
1.1.2 The dangers of being intentional about your character too soon
Character is the most powerful engagement tool in the toolkit. It’s tempting to want to try its techniques as soon as possible when you start presenting. However, the power of this tool makes it a lethal double-edged sword.
The danger of coming across as fake
If your audience think you’re trying too hard to be funny, although they won’t laugh, most will empathise. If they see through one of your suspense-building tactics, they’ll roll their eyes and put it down to shameless showmanship. But if they catch you, even once, trying to manipulate their impression of who you are as a person, you’re dead. Worse, the damage to your authenticity and trustworthiness will destroy the credibility of your content.
Therein lies the power — and the peril — of this tool. For instance, if you come across as someone who loves working with children, you will lose all their trust if you show impatience at the first sign of misbehaviour from a child volunteer. Consistency matters for character.
The danger of feeding their obsession and your ego
You, as a person, are too interesting for your own good. Without care, you can easily become a strong external hook, unintentionally diverting them from your message, e.g. sharing irrelevant stories about yourself. This is especially likely with younger audiences.
There’s a difference between a presenter in love with themselves, over-powering their content, and one who is strategically using the audience’s fascination with their character to help to engage them more deeply with the material. One serves the educator’s ego, the other serves the message and audience. It’s the intention behind the use of their character that makes the difference.
The danger of making bad decisions
At the start of your presenting career, there are so many skills to master, it’s almost impossible to have the mental bandwidth to monitor precisely how the audience are responding to your personality traits at the same time. Also, you need to build up experience in front of many different kinds of groups and in diverse settings before you can make informed decisions about your character.
Developing your best presenting character depends critically on your self-awareness as a presenter. For most educators, this reflective process happens slowly over years of presenting. You can’t rush it. Intentionally thinking about your persona too soon can be counterproductive — it can make you come across as unnatural and self-conscious; as well as leading to unwise choices for your character.
1.1.3 How to become more self-aware
Human beings are generally poor at seeing how others perceive them. This lack of self-awareness can be fatal as a presenter. As you develop, it can help to seek feedback from different sources to discover how you are really coming across.
Learn from your audience
Over time, patterns in how your audiences respond will guide you, but you need to listen carefully and reflect on what their reactions mean. This combination of stage time and reflection is the best way to find your unique voice as a presenter. As an exercise, some educators find it useful to force themselves to summarise how they think their audiences perceive them in a single sentence.
“The street audience will tell you what it wants you to be; all you have to do is listen.”
Learn from your colleagues
Unlike your audiences, your colleagues have the advantage of knowing you on and off-stage. This makes trusted peers excellent people to ask if we have unconsciously adopted any undesirable traits or mannerisms as presenters. It can be surprisingly difficult for us to spot some behaviours which jar with our presenting character.
Learn from videos of yourself
Filming yourself presenting is usually as painful as it is powerful. This method can help you to step outside yourself and observe which of your traits the audience seem to react to most warmly. Reflect if there is anything about your persona on video that surprises you; or if you appear to be enjoying some types of routine or some audiences more than others.
In our science magic show for primary schools, I used to teach a volunteer to perform the impressive stunt of inflating a 2.5m long plastic tube — called a wind bag — with a single breath. Of course, the audience would inevitably beg to play with the inflated tube once I had tied the end.
You only make the mistake of giving into these loud pleas once. On the occasion I did give in, the girls in the audience seemed to push the tube around collaboratively, whereas some of the boys soon became ultra-competitive with it and ripped it into several pieces.
I decided, for future shows, to take this incident and work it into a story to help explain why I couldn’t risk throwing it into the audience. Over time, the story grew with me acting out the actions of the children and I added more and more humour hooks. From my perspective, the audience seemed to enjoy this “behind the curtain” anecdote and it always generated lots of amusement and interactions. But that’s the danger with presentation flab — it grows so slowly over time that you don’t realise it (2.4).
When one of my friends was giving me feedback about this show one day, she immediately spotted that this story didn’t suit my character. The core of the story relied on damaging stereotypes about the behaviour of boys and girls and it came across as if I was being unkind to the boys in the audience, who had done nothing wrong. Yet I’m ashamed to say that I had been performing this bit for years without realising these issues myself. I had fallen in love with the audible responses I was getting from it, without questioning whether it was right for me as a presenter.
In the case of this routine, the wind bag turned out to be me.
Learn from time
For those educators who stay in the sector for a long time, it’s important for them to consider how the natural aging process may affect their character in front of an audience. How your persona evolves with age is not about conforming to any stereotypes — it will be different for everyone. I have seen educators in their seventies who are more authentically playful and energetic onstage than some of their teenage peers.
Character development never ends
The more experience you gain as an informal educator, the more you tend to be aware of your stage persona and the quicker you can “step into character” on demand. Character, however, is a tool which presenters re-visit and work on continually. Learning to express the most engaging version of yourself truthfully in the spotlight is the work of a lifetime.
“You have to play a long time to play like yourself.”
Miles Davis (musician)