It never fails to amaze me how alert the audience becomes, the instant you either allow them to think they have direct control or when you integrate something which has just happened into the flow of the presentation. Engineered content depends on both these skills — backleading and incorporation — to trigger content which is planned, but which creates the impression of being spontaneous.
“ … masters of the stage guide every moment and their greatest accomplishment is the concealing of this guiding.”
Jay Sankey (magician)
2.3.1 Backlead — guide them where you want them to go
You need to secretly conduct the audience. The more of the presentation which you can deliver through these elicited hooks, the more engaging and empowering it will be for your audience. This process of invisibly prompting your audience to do something is called backleading in interactive theatre. It comes from a term in dancing where, unusually, the female leads the male, without observers — or sometimes even their partner — realising.
In interactive presentations, volunteers or spectators are back-led to make a specific call out or response which then leads you to performing a particular subroutine at that point. This is an extremely subtle process, in which every word, intonation and beat in the elicitation cue counts. When you succeed in cueing the desired call-out, you may need to repeat what they said so that the rest of the audience can hear it.
Backleading is fundamental to the interactive presentation approach proposed in this toolkit and it includes the following techniques.
Reverse engineer happy accidents
Any incident in which an unexpected event leads to a recovery or response that is so strong, the routine becomes more impactful with the accident included is known as a happy accident. If you can deconstruct what caused the incident to happen spontaneously, you can trigger it to occur again on demand. These happy accidents will be the birthplace of most of your engineered content, so you need to be vigilant for them. Write them down immediately after the presentation — otherwise you may lose a gem which can take another hundred performances to arise again by chance.
Encouragingly, even though most educators are not trained actors, they find it relatively easy to recreate such bits, which have already happened to them, in future presentations. Copying bits originated by other presenters is much more difficult.
“The difference between an amateur and a professional is that while happy accidents happen to both, the professional figures out how to make it happen again.”
Don Weed (clown)
In one of my favourite science demonstrations, a metal, cylindrical biscuit tin appears to roll uphill when I place it on a wooden ramp and let go. The plot of the routine is that I ask the audience for as many explanations as possible, e.g. magnets, a sneaky push, invisible string, a heavy weight on one side, optical illusion, remote control car, magic, etc. We then test every idea with an experiment, ruling out each one in turn, until we are hopefully left with just one explanation. This process helps them to understand one model for how science works. I accept whatever suggestions they make, and they feel as if they are controlling what I do at each stage.
Soon after I started presenting this demo, in one show a small boy raised his hand and proudly volunteered, “You’ve got a hamster inside.” This cracked the audience up, but they came up with an experiment which would be capable of proving it couldn’t be a hamster. I soon realised that in every audience there were a couple of creative minds who were thinking of a hamster — you could read their amusement when they whispered it to their friend. With some ages and audiences, though, they would be reluctant to expose themselves to ridicule by making this suggestion publicly.
Part of the objective of this routine is to show how important creativity is in science and that when you’re problem-solving, you shouldn’t rate your ideas too soon. Sometimes, what seems a silly idea might turn out to be a brilliant solution. You should never be afraid of people laughing at your idea. So, I set about devising clues which would make this happy accident more likely to occur in each show.
Now, to elicit the call-out, I casually turn the tin around so that the audience can glimpse several small holes in the centre of the base. Once I hear “hamster”, then I will immediately trigger the hamster subroutine which involves me modelling surprise, laughter and disbelief as I test the idea out, just to humour the spectator. Sometimes they need a stronger clue, so when a younger audience asks me about the holes, I puzzle, out loud, “That’s strange … magnets don’t need air to … breathe.”
The secret to making happy accidents work lies in having the audience think I’m improvising around an event which has never happened before, and which was driven by them. If I can manage this, they come alive.
Offer illusionary choices
You learn quickly that there are only a relatively small number of ways in which people will respond in each situation. You’ve done this routine so many times, it’s almost as if you can read their minds — the privilege of experience. Plan a reply to each of these audience choices, so that each branch will take you forward in the routine, no matter which option they suggest.
“You know what they’re going to say next. You’ve played this dance a thousand times.”
David Williamson (magician)
Let them control the order, not the destination
Ask questions which have multiple potential answers (e.g. the possible explanations for a tin seeming to roll uphill in the example above) and then investigate each answer in the order in which they first suggested them. You’re still going to end up in the same place.
Plant non-verbal clues
These clues are powerful because you can subtly drop these hints whilst you are speaking and carrying on with the routine. Also, children are extremely observant — especially when they are trying to catch you out.
This technique depends on a universal truth about persuasion. People are always more likely to believe information which they think they have figured out for themselves.
Ask leading questions
Sometimes these prompts may seem too obvious to you, but that’s because you suffer from the curse of experience — you know exactly where this routine is headed, but the audience usually have no idea of this path.
Imagine what would happen if you put some marshmallows in a jar and then, slowly, started to take the air out of the jar with a hand pump attached to the lid. You get a wonderfully visual effect, which delights any young audience — as the air trapped inside the marshmallows pushes outwards against the lower pressure in the jar, your marshmallows swell to almost twice their size. The problem comes, though, whenever you try to eat these giant marshmallows — you can’t pull the lid off with your hands because of the difference in air pressure. The game then becomes, how can we get into the jar?
This challenge routine is made up of multiple, scripted subroutines which I need the audience to think they are initiating at certain points. To illustrate what I mean, five of these subroutines are deconstructed below along with the call-out which triggers them:
“Break the jar” — this is usually their first suggestion, but if it’s not immediately forthcoming, I will intensify my frustration at not being able to open the jar. I show this through my tone of voice and by subtly moving the jar more violently with my hands. These non-verbal clues will magically trigger a call-out of “smash it”.
“Invert the jar” — a common misconception is that air pressure only pushes down, rather than pushing equally strongly in all directions. Therefore, I next need someone to volunteer the suggestion to turn the jar upside down, so I can sensitively disprove this misconception. One way of doing this is by stressing the idea of a sea of air pushing down on the lid, with very little air inside the jar to push back up. I bring these pressures to life with my exaggerated body movements modelling the forces involved.
“Go to outer space” — taking the jar into the vacuum of space is not an obvious suggestion for most learners. I can prompt this scenario, however, by verbalising this leading chain of thoughts, as if I am reasoning to myself, “So, there’s too much air pushing on the lid…” [pause in case someone suggests “space”]; “… How can I get rid of that air?” [pause again]; “… Now, where could I go … where there’s no air?”
“But you’re wearing a helmet” — at this point I get excited at their suggestion of space and start acting it out physically as an astronaut outside the space station, opening the jar. As I’m slowly doing this, I’m trying to get one of them to argue with me that this still wouldn’t work because of the helmet I’m wearing. Eventually, I accept that they’re right — it’s impossible to eat an inflated marshmallow, as you’ve always got air inside your mouth.
“Press the secret button” — so if we can’t eat an inflated marshmallow, how can we have a normal-sized one without breaking the jar? I now let my arms hang dejectedly by my sides, holding the jar, as if I’ve given up. This action allows the audience to see the top of the jar for the first time, where there is a valve for the air pump. With younger audiences, I’ll normally get a triumphant call-out of, “Press the button! Press the button!” Acting as if I’ve been rumbled, I pretend not to know what button they mean, escalating their excitement. I will then use heavy sarcasm to blame that spectator for spotting the button, “Yeah… thanks eagle eyes… I’m so glad you spotted the SECRET button.” If the spectator is enjoying this attitude, I can call back to it several more times before the final opening of the jar by angrily stressing “secret” every time I refer to the button. Each call back will get a progressively bigger laugh.
At each of these stages, my aim is to get the audience to think they are one step ahead and that I’m trying to catch up with their spontaneous suggestions. It is this illusion that allows me to backlead them exactly where I want them to go.
When someone calls out anything you would have preferred them not to say at that point, for suspense or control reasons, try ignoring the comment and act as if it hadn’t been said. The audience constantly look to you to help them distil, from all the interactions, which ones are important. So, if you don’t “hear” it, it’s as if no-one ever said it. Honestly. I’m still staggered by how well this bold approach works.
This technique should be used sensitively, as it can be frustrating for the person you are strategically ignoring. So, I make a point of going back to that person after the reveal and publicly apologising if they had said that answer earlier.
Create an irresistible information gap
Make them so curious for an answer or the outcome of an activity that they are compelled to interrupt you to ask for it. It can be challenging to elicit the question at the precise time you need it though.
Provoke them into pointing out your mistakes
Most children love correcting your mistakes, provided you have established a relationship based on trust and play (7.3). Because of this instinct in children, this is a reliable technique to initiate a challenge to you or a call-out, but the older the audience, the more credible your error needs to be.
Always have a plan B, C, D and E
Remember, you can’t guarantee the results of backleading. You are only gently guiding them. So, if they are not biting on any of your early elicitation lines or nonverbal cues, you can:
- bridge — take any reply from a spectator and through a chain of leading questions guide them to the response you were aiming for, or re-direct their answer yourself to where you want to go;
- cheat — in some circumstances, you can even pretend to hear the reply you want amongst a noisy group response, repeat it for everyone to hear and then proceed;
- deploy — give out a sequence of increasingly stronger clues, which you have prepared in advance;
- escape — use a stand-alone scripted line to take you directly into the subroutine. Don’t persist for too long in trying to elicit the response you need, as this can kill the pace of the presentation. Reverting to a prepared line obviously compromises the co-creation element, but at least it keeps the routine on track.
2.3.2 Incorporate — customise your engineered content
When a volunteer replies or a spectator calls something out, are you really listening, or are you just impatiently waiting to deliver your next scripted line? Any disjoint between your reply and their original words will reveal to the audience you weren’t listening properly. It also shatters any illusion of the performance being spontaneous — you’ll look like you’re presenting on autopilot. Worse still, it suggests that you don’t really care about them.
Incorporation is the term I use to describe the important skill of being able to instantly adapt prepared content (engineered or recalled subroutines) in small ways so it feels grounded in the surrounding action onstage and the mood of the audience.
Hone your incorporation radar
To incorporate effectively you need to be alert to everything that is happening in the room. Listening is key. Your incorporation radar should be constantly scanning for pertinent, situational details which you can bring into the subroutine. Like all improvisation, the audience impact depends on you being relevant and fast, rather than clever and funny.
Match their language
Where possible, use the exact language or example the volunteer employed in their question or answer and consistently integrate this variable throughout the subroutine. For example, in the uphill tin demo I will usually get “hamster” as the suggestion, but occasionally it might be “mouse” or some other small rodent. In this case, I play out the subroutine, but use their suggested animal instead each time I normally refer to a hamster.
Match their attitude
Let the attitude of a call-out or the personality of the volunteer flavour how you deliver the subroutine. For instance, if their responses are sarcastic and cutting, how can you reflect or respond to this in the way you deliver the prepared material?
Match their intensity
Vary the intensity of the attitude you take in playing the subroutine depending on the strength of their attitude in the triggering incident. In practice, preparing 4 different intensity levels — mild, moderate, strong, and extreme — usually offers you a wide enough range to respond appropriately. For example, in a friction demo, I challenge someone to pull apart two thick books whose pages I have interweaved together. I will vary my level of challenge and competitiveness to match the confidence shown by the volunteer.
Match the time or place
Make topical comments which connect the regular bit with well-known or recent events for that venue or locality. But because this content is engineered, you have the luxury of crafting these “ad libs” before the presentation.
Use an aside to call back to a previous part of the presentation. The more unprompted that original event seemed, the more spontaneity will be borrowed and conferred on your engineered subroutine. You can find out more about this important technique in 2.5.
Don’t forget the clock
One of the biggest practical challenges in using engineered content is timing. Based on how many engineered elements you’ve employed and how long they were, you need to be able to edit the remainder of the routine for time, live, whilst delivering it.
This requires knowing your interactive script well and being able to accurately sense time when you’re exposed in the spotlight. Neither of these things are easy to do at the start of your presenting career, so bear this in mind when you are deciding how much engineered content to rely on in a presentation.
Almost all the classes had arrived when my phone vibrated. Normally I wouldn’t answer my mobile in sight of an audience, but it was from my colleague who was also delivering outreach and I knew she wouldn’t be calling me at that time unless it was important.
She was letting me know that someone had just reversed into the side of her van when it was parked in a supermarket car park. The tow bar had caused a fair amount of damage and, annoyingly, the driver had driven off without reporting it. As I walked out of the room to take the call properly, the audience could tell from my facial reaction that I was concerned.
When I returned, I tried to put this incident out of my mind and focus on this show about the physics of light and sound for 14-year-old girls. For one routine, I made a glass beaker seem to disappear by placing it in a container of vegetable oil which had a similar refractive index as the glass — so that there were no reflections from the glass surface and the oil bent the light by the same amount as the glass. With the right lighting, this demo is one of the most visually impressive things a science communicator can do, short of self-levitation. It went down well with the audience that day too — lots of gasps of surprise and amazement.
But I then decided to explain how forensic scientists use a test like this demo as part of the process to work out if there is a match between the glass fragments from the scene of an accident and any glass on a suspect’s vehicle. At this point I explained the nature of the call I had taken just before the show. I became animated talking about how I would love to be able to apply this bit of physics to solve my own who-dun-it by analysing the fragments left from the other vehicle’s broken tail-light. The rawness of the experience and my annoyance at the driver landed so strongly with the audience it was palpable. They were completely transfixed. During my mini-rant you could have heard a pin drop, and then all the questions came. I decided to let this routine grow because it was creating such engagement and dropped the next routine.
I’ve delivered that demo and the forensic application example hundreds of times — both separately and together — but never has the routine created the electrifying response on an audience as it did that day. That’s the power of self-disclosure, emotion and incorporation.