Audiences crave live, responsive experiences. But don’t be fooled — they also care about being satisfied by their overall journey through the presentation. Realistically, you can only afford a relatively small amount of genuine spontaneity, if you want to reach your presentation’s objectives. One way around this deliberation versus responsiveness trade-off (0.3) is to make as much of your content as possible appear improvised — the illusion of spontaneity.
“Virtually all successful performers, actors, magicians, and comedians say the same words, in more or less the same way, night after night.”
Ken Weber (magician)
The privilege and the curse of experience
Any established interactive presentation you deliver is based on years of effort and experience. It’s a distillation of only the best parts of all your previous performances and the collective insight of thousands of spectators — through their reactions, call-outs and questions.
With this privilege of experience, though, comes one of your biggest challenges. No matter how passionate you are about your subject, repeated exposure makes you less able to experience the emotions and thoughts you had when you first encountered its ideas — the curse of experience. For example, presenting a counter-intuitive science demo multiple times inevitably means you can no longer feel the same levels of curiosity, surprise and wonder.
Educators inhabit a pretend world
As an educator, pretending is logically unavoidable. You ask questions you obviously already know the answer to. You often appear to let learners “get there” one step before you.
It’s not the fault of your learners that they weren’t present to witness the vitality of your first presentation of an activity. Feigning you haven’t done something before is just another of those strange games you are expected to play.
In any other social situation, these behaviours would seem bizarre. But your audiences are often complicit in playing these games — they want to believe your illusion of spontaneity.
The lure of live experiences
The audience’s love for spontaneity within a presentation lies in these powerful factors:
- authenticity — they believe performing live will make you vulnerable and therefore reveal your character;
- uncertainty — spontaneity creates an appealing sense of anticipation and danger about what could happen next;
- uniqueness — there are few sensations more engaging for an audience than the feeling they are getting to experience something that no other crowd will witness;
- presence — you are at your most engaging when forced to be fully present with the group;
- co-creation — the feeling they can, moment to moment, influence the delivery so they think they are collaborating with you, rather than passively consuming your presentation.
“There’s nothing more fascinating than watching a brilliant mind in a panic.”
Carl Reiner (comedian)
Every interactive presenter has a script
“Script” is a confusing term because it holds several meanings for presenters. There are at least three dimensions along which any script may be plotted:
If you study several recordings of you delivering an established presentation, you may be surprised by just how much is the same each time. This holds true even if your session doesn’t have a written script, looks interactive and has evolved slowly. No matter where you fall along these three scales, whenever you regularly deliver a particular presentation, I contend that you have a script. And that’s a good thing.
There are four main reasons educational presenters, consciously or unconsciously, end up scripting. Firstly, scripts capture and allow you to repeat the most concise, clear and compelling way of saying things. The way you talk in conversations may sound natural, but this is simply not impactful enough for the heightened reality of engaging people from a stage. According to Alfred Hitchcock, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Similarly, interactive scripts are conversations with the dull bits cut out.
Secondly, scripts provide the safety net which allows you to focus on connecting with the audience and on improvising freely. The better you know your script, the more mental bandwidth you have for other things. When you’re having a bad day or encountering a challenging group, a script guarantees them a minimum standard of experience. Ironically, on good days, having a script is also what permits you to take a risk spontaneously. You know you can return to the safety of the tested script at any point.
Thirdly, as an informal educator, having a crafted script helps to ensure that you are presenting concepts coherently and in the most logical sequence in order to achieve your educational objectives.
And finally, scripts give you a foundation from which you can continually tweak and evolve your presentations. How can you vary a single, small element of your delivery and objectively observe the result without having a script to keep all the other elements the same?
“The key to achieving good spontaneity is very good scripting.”
Derren Brown (magician)
The anatomy of an interactive presentation
Within each modular unit, or routine, of the presentation, you’re striving to achieve the best combination of audience-led interaction and presenter-led journey. This comes from identifying certain key points you need to hit, but allowing the segments between these points to be looser and more interactive.
In computer game interactive storytelling this structure is known as the rivers and lakes model. In our context, the wider the water channel, the greater the freedom in the scripting at that part of the presentation. The rivers represent the tightly scripted paths, where the audience have little influence; and the lakes show the looser sections when the audience think they are in control. These interactive segments are often made up of what performers call bits of business or bits.
The exact ratio of river to lake in each presentation will vary depending on the size of the crowd, how established the show or workshop is, and the extent to which they are willing to interact with you.
“I’ve got these little destinations that I want to get to, and I’m trying to manoeuvre them there without it seeming like I’m doing so, but I also want to leave room for stuff to happen.”
Mac King (magician)
In interactive presentations, however, the influence the learners have during the lake phases is largely illusionary. Using an analogy from computer coding, this is because every lake is made up of subroutines — smaller, self-contained units which are each carefully crafted and rehearsed. These subroutines are triggered either by circumstance or through the presenter being able to elicit certain responses from the audience. And after these interactive subroutines have been played out, the presenter is able to return to the driving narrative of the presentation.
The spontaneity spectrum
Not all ad libs are created equal. One way of thinking about your delivery is to imagine that each line or action falls into one of four levels of spontaneity — along the spontaneity spectrum:
- fixed content — delivered in more-or-less the same way each time, e.g. a question you ask;
- engineered content — prepared elements which look as if they have been prompted by the audience or the environment, but which you elicit as a core part of the routine, e.g. you let them suggest explanations for a science demo for you to test in whatever order they like, but you always end up with the same resolution;
- recalled content — crafted responses to the various unexpected incidents that recur in live presentations, which you exploit as a bonus, e.g. a toddler wanders onto your stage in a family show;
- improvised content — truly spontaneous actions and replies, made in the moment, e.g. your reaction to a question you’ve never been asked before.
In the rivers and lakes model, the rivers represent the path of the fixed content and the lakes are made up of engineered, recalled and improvised content. Each level is explored further in 2.2 – 2.5.
Like all the models suggested in this book, please don’t take the spontaneity spectrum too literally. Its purpose is simply to provide a framework to help you reflect on how you engage your learners by identifying common patterns. There are several key underlying principles, though:
- the relative frequency of each type of spontaneity — from the diagram, you can get a sense of the rough proportions of content from the different levels for a settled, interactive presentation with an experienced educator. In this case, the delivery will be dominated by fixed and engineered content, with only sprinklings of recalled and improvised content when the circumstances allow.
- these levels should be seamlessly blended together in delivery — to increase the apparent spontaneity of the overall presentation, you need to ground each element in what is happening in that room, with that group, at that time. I call this customisation technique incorporation (2.3.2). You also need to blend the elements together so that moving from one level of spontaneity to another does not involve jarring transitions. This blending needs subtlety and for you to know your fixed content inside out so that you can quickly return to the right place after a more improvised bit.
- the contrasting skill sets needed — delivering fixed content engagingly requires you to be able to present the same material repeatedly as if you hadn’t performed it before. In the theatre, this skill is called creating the illusion of the first time (2.2). But the other levels involve increasing amounts of improvisation skill (2.5), which is the opposite of the illusion of the first time. Both skills, though, demand considerable practice.
“The best ad libs are far too important not to be rehearsed.”
Sir Winston Churchill
Coping with feeling like a fraud
Even experienced educators, who have completely accepted the conceit of much of the spontaneity in their presentations, can be thrown by having spectators in their audience who have seen the presentation before. For example — public events where part of your audience may have seen a version of the presentation in their schools or at another event; festivals where some children insist on attending all your shows that day; and, even, school shows where the playground grapevine means some of your later audiences will have had reports of popular routines from earlier groups.
In my experience, the biggest problem here is a psychological one — you know these returning spectators will realise content that they first thought you improvised, was, in fact, regurgitated (i.e. fixed, engineered or recalled content). This makes you feel self-conscious and embarrassed. Which, in turn, means that you commit less to maintaining the illusion of the first time for all of your content. This generates weaker responses from the audience and it descends into a vicious circle from there.
Difficult as it may be, you need to focus on the majority of your audience and force yourself to deliver your normal presentation for them. The illusion of spontaneity is an unavoidable reality for most live performers and you can’t prevent the spectators who have already seen the show from learning this. Many people are going to have this slightly disillusioning realisation, as audience members, at some point in their lives. Keep telling yourself that you haven’t done anything wrong here. Your artifice is in the best interests of your learners to create the most rewarding experience you can for them.
However, in this situation there is a second, practical issue which can further damage the presentation — sometimes the spectators in the know, especially young children, can’t help themselves from calling out answers or suggestions at the wrong time. These can act as a spoiler for the routine or throw off your usual sequencing. The way I try to mitigate this problem depends on the number of people who have seen the presentation before. As I walk around chatting to audience members before I start speaking (4.4), I gently encourage anyone who has seen the show to avoid spoiling any surprises for the rest of the audience. Sometimes it is also possible to assign the returning spectators a particular role during the presentation, which gives them the public acknowledgement they seek and keeps them on your side, e.g. helping late arrivals find a seat in a family show. If I detect, at this early stage, that there is a significant overlap with a previous audience, then I will make a friendly announcement about spoilers to everyone at the beginning of the presentation.
“I know all stand-ups do, more or less, the same show every night, but that doesn’t stop me feeling embarrassed about it.”
Frank Skinner (comedian)
Explaining these kinds of ideas in words is hard and the curse of knowledge affects us all. One of the best ways of overcoming it is to get honest feedback. Please let me know if you have found any ideas in this book particularly confusing.