Audiences crave authenticity in their presenters. However, that’s easier said than done when everyone is looking at you. In this section we’ll consider authenticity in terms of both your personality and the values you hold.
If you lock ten performers in a room and ask them how they think about developing their onstage persona, you’ll get at least eleven answers. The following approach has resonated with many of the informal educators I’ve trained, but I should stress that it can be dangerous to consciously flesh out your character until you have built up significant experience.
“The potter works by building up, and the sculptor works by chipping away. I’ve always worked on character development as a sculptor.”
Eugene Burger (magician)
1.2.1 Clarify your personality
Exactly how you choose to express the traits we’ll explore in this tool will be different for everyone, but your presenting character must be an authentic and clear representation of who you are.
You’re much duller onstage than you dare think
Despite how interested the audience may be in you, whenever you give a presentation several psychological factors conspire against you to dull your persona:
- the physical distance you are from your audience compared to normal social interaction;
- the lack of familiarity between you and the learners in most informal education contexts;
- the short time the group interacts with you;
- the zombie presenter effect (Tool 3) flattens how you express your emotions and personality in the spotlight (e.g. performance anxiety; adopting a formal tone; the fear of being judged; and the illusion of transparency).
Yet, it is precisely during the heightened moments of delivering a presentation, when everyone is watching, that you must reveal the attributes which most define you as a human being. The audience is fascinated by you, but these factors make it hard for them to discern your true nature. Tragically, because your head is stuck in the alternative reality of this all-consuming presenter world, you don’t even realise your character is subdued. Onstage, everything that helps your message needs to be clarified, including your presenting character.
Play the best version of you
“Just be yourself” is the advice often given to new presenters. But according to the theory of the performed self, there is no single true “self” which you are all the time with everybody in your life. Think of how you subtly adapt your persona and the way you interact according to the different social roles you play, e.g. parent, partner, sibling, child, friend, employee, etc.
Managing the impression you make on others — to fit in and achieve your purpose at that moment — is a vital social skill, but it’s often unconscious. So, honing a presenting character is not being fake. It’s simply selecting the “best version of you” from your complex and multi-faceted personality for that audience and role. It’s inevitable.
“Acting is not about dressing up. Acting is about stripping bare.”
Glenda Jackson (actor)
However, this process does not involve adding traits you do not possess. When I discuss character with novice informal educators, they sometimes fear I will try to turn them into someone else. The irony is that, more often, it is they who do this to themselves — they transform from an animated, interesting conversationalist into a flat, characterless zombie presenter before my eyes. My job as a trainer is the exact opposite. I help them work out which of their personality traits make them watchable and encourage them to relax enough to clearly express these genuine attributes on stage. Paradoxically, your presenting persona is about becoming more real, rather than less.
How to begin to use your character safely
The best way to use the character tool as a less experienced educator is to think about how you appear when you’re excitedly sharing an idea you care about with your friends. Do this when presenting but make these personality traits stand out even more. Be yourself as an excited friend, but a bigger version.
Don’t worry if you unconsciously emulate parts of your favourite teachers or presenters at the start. This is normal, and it’s likely that you were drawn to them in the first place because they were like you in some aspects of their disposition or approach.
“Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.”
Austin Kleon (artist)
Edit and exaggerate [ADVANCED]
As you gain more stage experience, you can become much more intentional about honing your character.
Think about which of your personality traits, qualities and values are most helpful in connecting with your audience and engaging them in your content. Be ruthless in your selection — less is more. This also means slowly turning down all of your other traits — such as your less helpful attributes for your role as a friendly, confident and enthusiastic informal educator; as well as your remaining positive qualities. For example, they don’t need to know about your extreme shyness or your short-temper. These traits might damage your message or distract the audience. Equally, if you try to portray all your positive traits from the stage, this is confusing for the audience.
To further overcome the dulling effects of presenting to many distant strangers for a short time, these selected character traits then need to be heightened. In the same way you need to project your voice or distil your explanations onstage, you also have to clarify your character so it reads from the stage. This exaggeration can seem strange to you, until you gain more experience. It takes a leap of faith to believe that what initially feels like a caricature to you, seems normal for your audience. Younger and more distant audiences will require a higher degree of exaggeration to project a clear persona.
This approach allows those who would describe themselves as natural introverts to shine in the spotlight. They take a few facets of their personality which people find engaging and make them bigger for the duration of the presentation, turning down all the other parts. And then, if they are anything like me, they collapse in a darkened room. It is particularly important for introverts to learn how best to manage their energy levels.
In my experience of training a wide variety of personality types, this model can also be helpful for presenters who are extroverts. Their need to edit their traits is just as great. When it comes to exaggerating a couple of their attributes, though, it is important that they are aware of how strongly they may come across to avoid becoming overpowering. Character exaggeration can certainly be overdone, but I see this much less often than educators whose personalities become washed out onstage.
“No good performer is ever completely natural. He tries to conceal his faults and make the most of his assets.”
Henning Nelms (director)
Showing is always more powerful than telling when it comes to your character. The audience instinctively understand that certain behaviours will uncover your character, in a way that is hard for you to control:
- participation — interaction with the audience or volunteers cannot be fully scripted, so they appreciate these exchanges are live and unpredictable;
- play — when we lose ourselves in playing a game with a volunteer or when we reveal our unique sense of humour;
- pressure — when the stakes are high and things go wrong;
- power — the high-status role of presenter has an unfortunate tendency to magnify the egotistical nature in many of us. So, demonstrating you are powerful, but showing enormous restraint in how you exercise this power, reveals a lot about you as a person (1.5).
By deliberately embracing these behaviours more often during a presentation, the audience will believe they are getting to see more of your unpolished, unscripted character. The risk, however, is that these situations can just as easily reveal your character flaws as they can highlight your strengths. In the same way stage lights can show your facial blemishes as clearly as your beautiful eyes, these techniques act as spotlights for your character. They divulge what is there. Brutally. Put more bluntly, improvising from these exposure opportunities will never make you a better presenter than you are a human being.
If you engineer the sense of participation, play, pressure or power, however, there are ways of using the illusion of spontaneity (Tool 2) to deliver prepared lines in these situations so that they seem improvised. This means that you get to plan how you come across when they think they are seeing the real you.
“An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.”
Sanford Meisner (acting teacher)
How silly is too silly?
Few discussions informal educators have about character trigger such polarisation as the issue of how “silly” your persona needs to be to engage young children.
The issue isn’t helped by the contested nature of the term itself. One presenter’s “silliness” is another presenter’s “playfulness”. It can include characteristics and behaviours such as — acting as if you were a child; high levels of physical animation; shouting; provoking them into arguing with you; comical over-reactions; saying nonsense statements; doing bizarre things; creating chaos and mess; making simple mistakes so they can correct you (e.g. misnaming objects); slapstick gags; playing interactive games with the audience; etc.
For me, debates about the value of the techniques in this list are meaningless without taking into account these factors — the age of the audience; the relationship you have built with them; how well suited your personality is to this style; and how these hooks serve your content.
I contend that you would be hard pressed to maintain the attention of a group of 4-year-olds for half an hour without using some of these hooks. However, I’m sure we’ve all seen presenters who completely alienate a class of 11-year-olds by the childish way they interact with them. Equally, though, I’ve witnessed some educators use childlike versions of these techniques with teenagers and be adored for it.
It’s impossible to generalise without knowing the context of the audience, the presenter and the content. So, don’t feel as if you have to copy the character of any other educator — only you can decide what works for your situation and your personality. We’ll revisit this thorny issue from the perspective of how you express your emotions in 3.2 and 3.8.
Let your character grow [ADVANCED]
As you become more skilled at portraying your persona, you can afford to give a richer representation of your character for the audience. Your traits will still be consistent, but you will be able to nuance how you project them and reveal a larger selection of attributes.
It’s also possible, with experience and for certain topics, to evolve your character within a single, short performance. For example, consider a science show about forces where the plot is based on you completing a series of challenges as you try to build a leaf-blower powered hovercraft, for someone to travel across the stage on. As the finale approaches, and the pressure builds to get everything to work, you might expose an inner battle between your self-doubt and your determination. These are subtle qualities which wouldn’t emerge in most demo shows. This personal evolution will fascinate your audience. After all, this is why they read novels, watch films and visit the theatre.
“I love acting. It’s so much more real than life.”
Oscar Wilde (playwright)
1.2.2 Clarify your values
In addition to your personality, the audience are also interested in your values, attitudes and worldview. All these things are part of what makes you uniquely you. As with your personality traits, you need to be selective about which of these views you include in your presenting character — focus on those that are most relevant to your role as an informal educator and to your content.
This suggestion is so simple and obvious that we sometimes overlook its power. If kind actions come from your heart, they will connect with every type of person you try to engage.
Clearly, you should treat your audience and volunteers with politeness and respect, e.g. saying “please” and “thank you”, being patient, listening carefully. But kindness is often as much about your manner, tone of voice, eye contact, thoughtfulness and sensitivity, as it is about overt behaviours. Like expressiveness (3.2.2), kindness is something which you need to over-do onstage — what seems sickly sweet to you when you begin presenting, will read as merely “considerate” for the distant spectators.
Show them you care about them
As informal educators we can be obsessive about our subject and devoted to engaging others in it. This passion, however, often tricks us into trying to connect with learners through our subject, rather than through first demonstrating our genuine desire to help them. Audiences are masters at, often unconsciously, detecting how much you care about them. Never be reckless with their hearts.
For example, your values are revealed through how you use every hook in this book. Most of these techniques are forms of audience manipulation. Your audience will often be aware of these ploys, but they play along happily because they trust you’re using them sensitively to create the best possible experience. They will not feel exploited if your intentions are true.
Unlike armaments, these engagement tools don’t come with end-user certificates which control who gets to use them. The tools are powerful, but they can be put to unethical uses just as easily as educational uses. As they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Always use them wisely and in the best interests of your audiences.
“Members of the audience must be respected; they must never be underestimated. … They can be manipulated of course, but that’s something else. This they enjoy, this is why they are here: but they must not be handled clumsily or obviously.”
Laurence Olivier (actor)
Show them you care about your purpose
Audiences don’t want you to hold anything back when you present to them. Give them your all. If you can show that a subject or cause matters passionately to you, and they know, like and trust you, then it is much more likely to matter to your audience too. Think about how you can use your delivery to demonstrate your interest, e.g. your attitude towards the progress made in a certain historical period; the importance of caring for our natural environment; or the value of using critical thinking to stop you being fooled by others.
“Be interested, not interesting.”
Avner the Eccentric (clown)
Accept the responsibility of stardom
As an informal educator you may not be filling arenas with your celebrity status, but in the life of a child, whether you like it or not, you are a star. It is easy to forget this. As such, your behaviour — before, during and after the show — can be instrumental in helping to mould their future behaviour. You’re a role model for young, impressionable minds. This is one reason it is so important to have the diversity of our audiences reflected in the educators they see giving presentations.
Also, by modelling positive behaviours for children, you will win appreciation from the teachers and parents in the crowd. They love to see influential adult role models behaving like this.