It doesn’t take long for new presenters to realise that there are some unexpected events which, although they couldn’t be predicted at that precise moment, re-occur at times during their presentations. For example, a mobile phone interrupts your suspenseful build of a routine; someone sneezes loudly; part of the audience arrives late or leaves early; or your mind goes blank.
Events like these can be engagement gold. The group will lean forward in fascination to see how you respond as a person. They are moments of peak attention. As well as reinforcing the liveness of the situation, they disrupt the pattern of most things proceeding as planned in your presentation. Also, audiences are perverse — even if they like you, they enjoy seeing the authority figure being challenged or usurped occasionally. Experienced presenters don’t waste these interaction opportunities. They choose to milk some of them using prepared recalled content.
Problem? What problem?
In the stress of presenter world, you can lose your sense of time and you will tend to overestimate the visibility and significance of potential distractions compared to the reality the audience experiences. They don’t know what was meant to happen. Often, they don’t even spot what you think is glaringly obvious from your privileged position standing at the front, delivering a presentation you’ve given hundreds of times. The extent to which spectators only notice, or remember, events which you pay attention to can surprise presenters.
So, when you identify a potential issue, the first question to ask yourself is — have enough people noticed so that you need to address it publicly to stop it pulling focus?
“If the audience can hear something, you should too. Play with what is actually happening.”
Larry Pisoni (clown)
Unexpected events are offers
In traditional improvisation, an offer is any suggestion made by your partner to advance the scene in some way. Improvisers are trained to accept an offer immediately without evaluating it. They give a reply which builds on it, without worrying where they are heading (2.5).
Think of every unanticipated event which happens in your interactive, educational presentation as an offer. In this context, your improv partners are your audience, your volunteers and the environment. Each overt offer has the potential to be a distraction or an opportunity, depending on how you respond.
“If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that you play that determines if it’s good or bad.”
Miles Davis (musician)
As I tell stories in a presentation to children, I often encourage them to contribute collective sound effects at key points in the narrative. This technique involves them and helps to bring the scene to life in their heads.
Later in the show, when I’m trying to create a moment of dramatic suspense before a reveal to an activity, it’s not unusual that someone will spontaneously supply a sound effect to support the mood. These are the kind of audience participation games which I am hoping that the crowd will play with me.
If this happens, I immediately roll with the sound effect and provide encouragement, either verbally or through smiling and eye contact.
At another, later dramatic moment, I’ll pause and look at that spectator again in the hope that they will supply another sound effect. The audience delight in the feeling that they are co-creating a unique experience with me. After this training, the sound effects person will often chip in unprompted once or twice more in the presentation. The call back gets stronger each time.
It’s important that I assign — or endow (6.5) — only one person to the sound effects role or the rest of the session could be interrupted by irrelevant noises. The audience seem to intuitively understand the special status I have conferred upon this spectator, but if I do get other unwanted offers of sound effects, I don’t “hear” them or I respond only weakly to them. My reactions train the group how to contribute.
Be selective about which offers you accept
Unlike classic improv, you have other educational objectives to achieve, so you must be discriminating about which offers to respond to in the limited time available. Each decision comes down to your professional judgement, but three criteria to consider are:
- how long will the recalled bit take to deliver?
- how much will the subroutine engage the group?
- how does the bit support your educational objectives?
For instance, you might respond to an offer to build your trust bank, even if this doesn’t address one of your content objectives, e.g. taking the time to deal patiently with a challenging call-out from a spectator, rather than brushing it off.
Forewarned is forearmed
By auditing the most common unplanned incidents which happen to you, it’s possible to prepare responses to exploit them. This is a consequence of the privilege of experience, but it feels like cheating — you get to plan how quick-witted you want to appear to your audience. However, using recalled content still requires you to invoke the illusion of the first time, so be careful not to deploy the recalled subroutine too quickly or effortlessly.
The risk of quoting specific lines and bits is that they often sound weak without the context of the presenting character and the situation to bring them to life. Nevertheless, these are some examples of the types of hooks I’m referring to in this section:
- when the school bell sounds in the middle of your exciting finale, pretending that you have to stop the show at that point and start thanking the students and the teachers;
- when you get an isolated laugh in response to a line, responding with a sheepish, “Thanks… Mum”;
- when anything goes wrong because of something you did, “It takes years to get this … bad.”
As you gain experience, you will encounter a bigger range of presentation offers and the richness of your collection of responses will grow. This is one reason seasoned presenters appear bomb-proof onstage — they have such large libraries of recalled content at their disposal, they can project an inner confidence of being able to handle anything that happens.
Not repeating yourself
One of the dangers of using recalled content is that, when you’re giving several presentations in a day, it is surprisingly easy to lose track of which standard bits you have already used with which audience. Few mistakes rip the veil of apparent spontaneity you have created more quickly than trotting out the same line in response to two similar incidents onstage. It’s excruciating — for both you and your audience.
When this happens, you can try to style it out by pretending you were intentionally calling back to your previous comments, but this takes quite a lot of confidence to pull off successfully. The better strategy is to reduce the chances for such jarring moments to happen by concentrating intently on what you are doing at all times. You cannot afford to lose focus for a second when you are working your way up and down the spontaneity spectrum.
Learn to let go
It’s best to treat recalled content as a bonus — it only works when it seems to arise organically from what happens in the show. So, in any given presentation, you have to accept that you won’t be able to use some of the material which can generate the biggest audience response. This requires discipline. But if it doesn’t fit the situation precisely, you have to let it go and move on. If you try to crow-bar in these apparently spontaneous hooks, their impact will be diminished. And, more importantly, the impression of liveness will again be shattered.
The longer you’ve been presenting, the greater the risk that presentation flab can creep in — rewarding bits that were once bonus content drift into every presentation, often without you being consciously aware of it. All this additional content can start to overpower the purpose, clarity and pace of your presentation.
In light of the impact of Covid-19 on the informal education sector, I’ve made the text of this book available online until the end of October 2021. You can purchase print or ebook versions at HookYourAudienceBook.com