The educators I train often shuffle uncomfortably in their seats when I start to talk about ways to get the audience to like us and relate to us. And they are right to feel nervous about these strategies. Ironically, if our audience catches us trying too hard to be likeable or relatable, they won’t like us or connect with us.
At the start of your career, the best way of using these techniques is simply to be aware of them so you can incorporate them naturally, if the opportunity arises. As you gain experience, you’ll be able to use them more deliberately.
“You can fool the eyes and minds of the audience, but you cannot fool their hearts.”
Howard Thurston (magician)
1.3.1 How to be likeable
Being likeable is often cited by stage entertainers as the single most important quality they can exhibit.
As informal educators, our audiences don’t have to listen to us and we don’t have long to connect with them. So, being seen as likeable is crucial to engaging them from the start. Also, if they like you as a person, they are more likely to catch the emotions you model for them, trust you, care about what you care about, laugh along with you, and forgive you if you make a serious mistake.
Audiences like people who are similar to them, so the techniques in the next section about being relatable are also relevant here.
Choose to be a dog or a cat
The likeability of dogs is their canine superpower. Cats, however, are much more laid back and apparently uninterested in being liked by their owners. For most informal education audiences, I find that interacting as a likeable dog works best, e.g. being friendly, energetic and highly-interactive. For certain groups, however, who may be initially shy, cynical or oppositional to your message (e.g. some teenage audiences), playing the role of a cool cat works better by winning them over slowly. But, remember — some people don’t like dogs or cats. The techniques in this section can help you reach most of your audience, but you cannot make everyone like you.
Show that you like them
We like people who like us. Audiences can instinctively tell whether you care about them. Take the lead by visibly showing your affection for them.
Your feelings towards your audience are most apparent when you interact with them. This is particularly important with your volunteers onstage — how you feel about your helpers is how the audience thinks you feel about all of them (Tool 6). Using their names shows you care and that you don’t just see them as prop holders. Encourage them, and be sincere when you praise them.
Show your patience and empathy as you help them understand an explanation. Listen attentively to their questions and responses, no matter how many times you have heard them before.
Be physically expressive
Audiences will warm to you more quickly when they see you:
- smile — smiling is a universal sign of liking, but new presenters think they smile much more than they actually do. It’s hard to overstate how important natural smiles are when presenting. This is especially true when working with audiences of children, who smile much more than adults.
- look at them — one of the most powerful signs of liking is having strong eye contact with all of your spectators. If you make the mistake of gazing at some parts of the group more than others, they will soon feel ignored.
- emote — the more expressive your face, body and voice, the more the audience think they will be able to read your emotions and intentions, and the more they will like you.
- enjoy yourself — focus on showing how much you enjoy your topic and your role as an informal educator through everything you do and say.
Children have a finely tuned sense of natural justice and will resent you if you start to show favouritism in how you treat them, e.g. it’s vital to be seen to be scrupulously fair when selecting spectators to answer questions or to volunteer.
Share parts of your life and experiences which are related to the topic. Your learners will find this self-disclosure exceptionally engaging. For example, tell a short anecdote about an incident that happened one time you did this demo, or explain why you found this subject so interesting that you made it your career.
Another way of opening up is when you address anything strange or novel about the way you look or sound at the start of the presentation. You can do this in a humorous way, without being apologetic about it. If you don’t acknowledge this “elephant in the room” it can become a recurring distraction for some audiences. For example, when I’m working internationally with young audiences I usually explain where I’m from and why my accent sounds different when I begin the show.
Lower your status at times
You can increase your likeability by not taking yourself too seriously, e.g.
- avoid boasting — never give the impression you know more than you do about the topic. In presenter world, this is dangerously easy to do unintentionally.
- make occasional mistakes — when presenters who appear competent make small mistakes and then acknowledge them, they become more relatable and likeable. The opposite is true, however, of mistakes made by speakers who come across as clearly incompetent.
- ask them for help — surprisingly, people are more likely to like you after they have helped you once. Don’t be afraid of taking the risk to ask your audience for assistance early in the presentation.
Manage their behaviour, without making them hate you
Scaring audiences into compliance as an informal educator will damage your likeability and limit how much that audience can learn from the short time they have with you. Having control of an audience is not necessarily oppositional to being liked by that audience. One of the key skills of effective informal educators is being able to appear both warm and powerful so they can manage the excitable audiences they encounter (1.5).
Reveal your sense of humour
This suggests that you are relaxed, open and confident. In particular, gentle self-deprecating humour can make a presenter much more likeable.
Be generous in how you acknowledge and respond to their humour — letting them share the spotlight at times will help to level up the uneven status between you and the audience.
Don’t be evil
The audience almost always starts from a position of wanting to like you. So, being able to suppress the darker sides of your personality in front of them is one of the most effective techniques you can use to maintain your likeability (e.g. avoiding any traces of being patronising, impatient, discourteous or confrontational). I know this sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed by what traits leak through onstage if you don’t edit yourself.
Deal with any negative feelings you have about them
Whilst not liking children is rare amongst informal educators in my experience, it’s not unusual to find that educators have ages of children which they prefer working with more than others. Also, sometimes a specific audience may behave in a way which makes it harder for you to warm to them. On these occasions, try to:
- concentrate on the things about the audience you like and downplay those parts you dislike;
- mentally separate the people in your audience from their unappealing behaviour;
- keep the misbehaviour of a few members of the audience in perspective compared to the great majority who are engaged;
- share a relevant personal experience with them — curiously, you will like them more after you take the risk to open up to them.
“If you pretend a bad crowd is a good one, sometimes they are fooled into believing it themselves.”
Dan Holzman (juggler)
But be edgy rather than bland [ADVANCED]
It’s easy to mistake the desire to be liked by audiences with avoiding taking any risks to offend them. Experienced presenters, however, are able to be edgy as a way of becoming even more liked. Knowing where the lines are in any relationship is a powerful sign of familiarity and trust. The closer you can get to the edge of acceptability in your playful interactions, the closer you will become to your audience (4.3).
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1.3.2 How to be relatable
Your learners need to see part of themselves in you. When they can relate to you, they are more likely to find what you present to be relevant and interesting. This connection, however, isn’t primarily about the more obvious factors, e.g. being close to them in age or them already sharing an interest in the subject you are enthusing about. It operates at a much deeper, instinctive level.
One of the notes which I give most often to the new presenters I train is — “be human”. I regularly have to remind them to speak and behave like a human being when they are onstage. At first, they don’t understand what I mean. Until they watch themselves — or someone who looks strangely like themselves — played back on video.
Regardless of how different you may feel from your audience or how much more expertise you may have in your subject, one massive similarity remains. You’re all human. Yet, this commonality is the first thing that educators sacrifice when they present like a characterless zombie. Not only are they presenting unfamiliar material to their learners, they are doing it through an alien life form with whom the audience can’t connect. Above all else, be human.
Reveal your struggles
No matter how competent you may be now in your subject, this was not always the case. As you were learning, you were continually making mistakes, revising your ideas and managing your frustrations. But the audience don’t get to observe this painful journey. The more you can share some challenges you faced when you were studying this topic, the more easily they will be able to see themselves in you. Your job is to make some of your previous and current struggles visible onstage. Struggle is universal. Everyone connects with it.
Find creative connections
There are many ways — outside your subject — in which you and your audience might share common ground in your personality, attitudes, values, background, interests or experiences. Any of these connections will help to build a rapport between you and your learners. For example,
- a topical or popular culture example known to them, e.g. celebrities, YouTube channels, computer games, music, sport, social media;
- a similar experience which you had at their age;
- your childlike wonder and playfulness;
- a shared value about caring for our environment;
- an empathetic insight which shows you understand a common worry, e.g. what it feels like to be bullied at school;
- using activities onstage whose plots have universal emotions which resonate with everybody, e.g. fear, love, uncertainty, loss.
Be relatable, but don’t pander
Being relatable, though, doesn’t mean you should try to act like your learners in a way which is fabricated for your personality. Few tactics will disconnect you more quickly from a group than this kind of inauthentic behaviour. For example, adopting their manner of speaking, their language or their attire in order to connect with them will usually fail disastrously.
Choose your connections sensitively
In trying to find common ground with the audience, be aware that some of them may feel excluded if you make too much of a particular experience which they may not be able to access for cultural or economic reasons. For instance, using lots of examples from a recent blockbuster film may make those children whose families can’t afford to visit the cinema feel bad.