In any interactive presentation, trust is your hidden human currency. Trust is fundamental to your connection with the audience. Unless you can make your learners feel physically and psychologically safe, they won’t risk interacting with you. Their brains will only allow them to pay attention to things related to their immediate survival. They will ignore your message until they first trust you as a person.
You are the shortcut to your content
Whenever any of us are presented with unfamiliar content, we cheat. Rather than investing time trying to understand the ideas so we can draw our own conclusions, we make snap judgements about the trustworthiness and competence of the presenter. If we judge them to be warm and honest, and also to be capable of acting on these good intentions, this unconscious shortcut makes us assume that their ideas will be valid and relevant to us.
Your character is the mental shortcut the audience take when trying to work out what they think about your content. Any educator ignores this principle at their peril.
Your most vital asset — your trust bank
One of the most important tasks at the beginning of any responsive presentation is to develop as much trust with the group as quickly as you can. I call this your trust bank. Each of your actions will either increase your trust bank or deplete it. You need to be aware of these changes and the health of your account at all times.
Humans are excellent at working out whether they should trust others, but there are techniques to help you build your trust bank:
- remaining consistent in your presenting character (1.1) — for example, don’t be tempted to risk using an interaction device for a cheap laugh if it breaks with your persona;
- warming them up (4.4) — make connections with small groups of the audience as you chat to them before the presentation starts;
- ramping up — begin with small demands on your trust bank, then slowly increase the size of these requests (e.g. asking the group a simple question, before you ask for a volunteer);
- being likeable and relatable (1.3) — the more they like you and can relate to you, the more they’ll trust you;
- making yourself vulnerable, at times (1.5) — for instance, revealing your passion for your subject;
- helping them to understand a concept — patiently guiding them through a challenging explanation;
- apologising immediately — if you accidentally offend or hurt someone, a swift, genuine apology can actually make them trust you even more.
Trust, like money, is much easier to squander than acquire. You’ll lose trust whenever you let your learners down in any way, e.g. if you incorrectly blame a student in a school show for misbehaving; if you behave inconsistently; or if you are seen to be manipulating the perceptions the audience have of you.
Taking out a trust loan
To exploit many of the hooks in this toolkit, you have to manipulate tension — to make the audience initially uncertain or uncomfortable, in either a social or a learning context. This sometimes requires the audience to temporarily loan you more trust than your current reserves can cover. They don’t know, at the start of the hook, if you are going to come good. But when you successfully resolve the tension and their risk has been rewarded, your trust bank will grow significantly.
For example, the following high-risk, but common, interaction situations, may require you to get a trust loan from the audience near the start of a presentation:
- getting them to begin interacting, knowing you won’t do anything to embarrass them;
- giving them the confidence to go further and co-create with you, e.g. through call-outs which seem to influence the presentation;
- permitting you to be edgier in interacting with them;
- buying you time to interest them in an explanation or activity which doesn’t seem relevant to them at the start;
- letting you use prolonged suspense hooks without them getting frustrated or resenting you.
One of the many joys of my job is the huge variety of audiences I get to work with. There was one particular group I remember struggling to engage — 40 sixteen-year-olds who had been conscripted to attend a maths revision course for additional support during their Easter holidays at a local university. On the face of it, it wasn’t the most promising gig of my life.
I’d made matters much worse, though, by a serious miscalculation at the start of the show. In an effort to catch up time in the slipping schedule for the day, I’d rushed through my opening routine. I had foolishly dropped my usual warm-up interactions and bits of business. So, as the presentation progressed, when I really did need their contributions and involvement, they refused to engage.
From their position, they were caught in a perfect storm of potential teenage embarrassment — mixed audience of boys and girls at this age; small groups from local schools forming a dangerous cocktail of cliques and strangers; resenting having to publicly study during their holidays; already feeling vulnerable in the subject being presented; uncertainty about the format of the show compared to their revision classes; the high-status introduction I had been given by the organiser; and the intimidating setting of the university venue. Starting with zero trust and these conditions, there was no way they were going to risk loaning me enough trust to start interacting normally. I should have known better.
So, at this point in the presentation, I took time out to talk to them properly, lowered my status and used lots of humour hooks. It was essential to sacrifice this time to connect with them as a person and to build trust before proceeding further. I also needed them to begin to trust each other.
The change in their responses after this interlude was almost magical. Without taking that time, nothing else I did was going to matter — despite their bravado, teenagers thrive on safe interaction.