2.2 Fixed content

There’s a reason performers call the modular units which make up their act “routines”. Much of a routine is so critical and dependent on nuance, it is wise to deliver it in the same way each time, e.g. opening or closing lines; explanations; instructions; key narrative lines; questions you ask; transitions between routines; and elicitation cues (2.3).

Informal educators present such fixed content with a high repetition rate. But, for our audiences, every delivery should have the freshness of the opening night — for this is what it is for them. Using the techniques in this section it is entirely possible to create the illusion of the first time,  in order to say the same words repeatedly without sounding canned. Just because it’s called a “routine”, doesn’t mean it has to sound routine.


“A speech without dashes and dot-dot-dots is an article, not a speech!”
Sir Winston Churchill


Be present

Adopt a mindset which recognises the importance of the illusion of the first time. This takes constant vigilance. Think about the incredible opportunity, and enormous responsibility you have in sharing these ideas with your audience. It may be the only time they get to encounter them. Show your learners the respect of always being present for them. This can be exhausting and is one of the greatest challenges facing veteran informal educators.


Live off their reactions

Let the emotional responses of the audience infect you. Emotional contagion (3.1) works both ways. How do they remind you of your feelings the first time you saw that demonstration or had that insight?


Know your script

It’s only possible to be fully present and focussed on the audience if you know your interactive script inside-out. There are unfortunately no shortcuts here — you either learn your prepared script in advance, or you establish it in your memory as it evolves through multiple presentations. Weirdly, if your delivery sounds rehearsed, it’s not because you’ve practised it too much; it’s more often because you haven’t practised it enough.


“The whole essence of learning lines is to forget them so that you can make them sound like you thought of them that instant.”
Glenda Jackson (actor)


Land each line with the audience

Even with fixed lines, like an actor in a play, you’re listening intently to the audience to tell you exactly how and with what timing to say them. The best presenters can subtly alter their delivery of the same words, beat by beat, to connect with the group at that moment. This is why rehearsing lines to an empty room will only get you so far — you need a breathing audience to respond to as you say the words.


Use conversational and natural lines

Make sure that the fixed lines you say are authentic for your presenting character and that they are written to be spoken, e.g. short sentences; helpful intonations; pauses; concrete and simple language; informal tone.

Also, be wary of using too many complex rhetorical devices, e.g. three-part lists like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s excellent advice for speakers, “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.” Such lines can make your interactive presentation look as if it’s all been prepared in advance.


Monitor yourself and mix things up

Observe your delivery closely, looking for times you may unconsciously have switched to autopilot — stand-ups call this phoning it in. Combat this tendency by dropping in moments from the other levels of the spontaneity spectrum to keep it fresh for you. This creates a virtuous circle, making it seem even fresher for your audience. Engineered content, especially, can do much of the work of fixed content.



Allow more rough edges to creep into your delivery by using verbal and nonverbal uncertainties to suggest you’re not sure where you’re heading. For example — slowing down; looking confused; glancing upwards in thought; pausing; and using more filler words (e.g. err, like, um).

Deliberately deploying these stumbles to create apparent spontaneity is different from unconsciously falling into using them when we’re feeling insecure onstage.


Keep experimenting

Set yourself a challenge to improve the audience reaction at a specific moment by changing the nuances of your delivery (e.g. the timing of the pause before you reveal the outcome of a demo). One small change can have a large response when it is amplified across a big group. Or decide that you will concentrate on a single technique for a given presentation (e.g. how you relax volunteers when you greet them). These challenges can help to focus you and keep your performance sharp as well as sometimes uncovering new material to build into your script for the future.


“Experiment with stuff. I have managed to find new jokes or a new intonation or change of word that suddenly makes a joke or routine better on the 200th time I’ve done it.”
Logan Murray (comedian)


Use a silent script [ADVANCED]

Experienced presenters sometimes invoke a silent script inside their heads, during their nonverbal displays, which narrates what they are thinking. Reciting these words internally helps to make the silent action appear more interesting and meaningful to the audience. This is a subtle technique, but with practice it can help you to focus on the emotions you should be feeling at that time, rather than thinking about the mechanics of what you are doing.



Pride comes before a fall

In one demonstration I illustrate centripetal force, by spinning a cup of water on a tray held by three strings horizontally around my head. Near the end of this routine, I perform a pratfall that sends me sliding on one knee towards the audience, whilst still keeping the tray smoothly spinning.

In order to surprise the audience, I need to “sell” this fall convincingly, so my posture and movement cannot give any trace of what is about to happen. Also, the trip is funnier, the more confident and smug I appear immediately before it.

As I am walking to the point I’ve calculated I need to trip, these are the types of lines I am saying inside my head to create conviction, “Well… this is going brilliantly. It’s actually much easier than it looks. This must look amazing to the audience.” Without this inner dialogue, the audience reaction to my trip is not as strong.



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