3.1 The curse of the zombie presenter

There are many reasons an informal education presentation might fail. One of the most common problems is the tendency for educators to turn into zombie presenters when they step up to speak. This is the condition where the presenter exhibits an emotional disconnection from their audience. Without the exchange of human emotion, live presentations are dead.

On the other hand, expressive educators are extremely watchable and can draw in audiences who may not have any prior interest in a topic. Your genuine delight with your subject and your job is contagious. In this section, we’ll examine how to communicate our emotions, primarily through our nonverbal behaviour, to infect our audience.


“A good note to any public speaker is always ‘If it matters to you, it matters to us.’”
Patsy Rodenberg (voice coach)


Treating zombie presenters

Informal education is a career that tends to attract enthusiasts. They care about a subject deeply and they are driven to engage other people with that topic. That’s my starting assumption. So, whenever I see an educator not clearly expressing their emotions when they are presenting, my approach is to try to find the barriers that are preventing them from emoting naturally. I’m confident that every educator reading this book will have experienced several of the blocks discussed in this chapter at some point. I know I certainly have.

I’ve chosen to frame this tool using the zombie presenter model. The comparison with zombies may seem harsh, but my intention is to highlight how essential, but challenging, it is to reveal your feelings as an educational presenter.

The best treatment plan for a zombie presenter is to first diagnose which of the most common causes of the condition are affecting them. The mindsets and circumstances that block them from showing their emotions are rarely their fault. We’ll explore each of these causes and some of the ways to overcome them in the remaining sections in this tool.


A reality check

Some of the issues raised in this chapter may make you feel uncomfortable. You don’t necessarily think about them when you become an informal educator, e.g. the ways in which nerves can affect you; hiding your insecurities behind formality; the challenge of having to present a topic that doesn’t particularly interest you; becoming jaded by having to deliver the same presentation hundreds of times; getting distracted by personal or work problems; burning-out through performing too much; and over-emoting so much that you switch off your audience. The truth is that this job can be emotionally exhausting.

Being an informal educator can also be extremely rewarding and my intention in raising these issues is not to dissuade anyone from continuing with this fascinating career. However, it would be disingenuous of me to avoid confronting these challenges directly in this book. Ignoring them could make you feel worse if you happened to be experiencing one of them in silence, thinking you were unusual.


Spotting the symptoms

When I am training a group of new presenters, I often see stark examples of presenter zombification when we move from a group activity to the first presentation exercise. Engaging conversationalists and colourful personalities all too often morph into deadened, vacuous shells of themselves on stage.

The most insidious feature of this condition is that victims are unaware of their affliction. It can turn us into unconscious presentation hypocrites. We sit as resentful hostages in the audience noticing how lifeless the presenter has become. Then we take to the stage and commit the same sins. If novice educators are aware of any symptoms, it’s those associated with feeling nervous and self-conscious. The audience can spot the signs though — a lack of almost all emotion; inauthenticity; poor eye contact; absence of smiling; frozen or robotic gestures and movement; monotonous delivery; a distant, formal style; and an unwillingness to interact or take any presentation risks.


Enthusiasm as expressing your emotions

“Enthusiasm” is the term most people use when discussing how emotionally expressive a presenter appears. But, important as enthusiasm is, vaguely urging an educator to be “more enthusiastic” usually turns out to be ineffective. That’s the purpose of this tool — to help you reflect, in detail, on the ways you show your feelings onstage and any barriers that may be getting in the way.

Throughout the toolkit, when I talk about being expressive, I’m referring to the full range of emotions — genuine and staged — that informal educators need to be able to display at different times. For example, joy, amusement, curiosity, wonder, puzzlement, surprise, amazement, awe, excitement, fascination, hope, anticipation, uncertainty, relief, triumph, pride, disappointment, confusion, embarrassment, shock, disgust, anger, fear, indignation, frustration, suspicion, jealousy, worry, sadness, panic and boredom. The richer the range of emotions you can exhibit as a presenter, the more engaging your audiences will find you.


“Develop a way of appearing endlessly enthusiastic. You must have a practised array of facial expressions and gestures that you can inhabit comfortably without feeling too much like an auditionee for Blue Peter.”
Phil Beadle (teacher trainer)


Play your emotional backing track

You communicate with your audience in three languages simultaneously — the words you use; how your voice sounds; and how your body looks. Most of your feelings are communicated through your nonverbal cues, but all three languages should be complementary. When there are major inconsistencies between what you say and how you behave, human beings have learnt to trust your body language over your utterances.


Verbal language Nonverbal language (voice and body)
Principally about communicating ideas Mainly about communicating emotions and maintaining relationships
Conscious Usually unconscious
Overt Covert
Only operates when you speak Operates continually
Simple to interpret Open to different intrepretations
Easy to manipulate Hard to manipulate


Like the musical score underneath a film scene, your nonverbal communication provides a constant emotional backing track for the audience. It gives them clues about how they might feel and react to every incident in your presentation. Without these silent, but vital, clues, most of your audience would be lost.


“When the eyes say one thing, and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson (philosopher)


Plot an emotion for each line

If you don’t know what you are feeling at each stage of the presentation, your audiences are unlikely to know either. Are your mental or written scripts annotated with an emotional state you want to express for every significant phrase or action?


Vary the intensity of your emotions

In 2.3.2, I discussed imagining a 4-level intensity scale — mild, moderate, strong and extreme — when reacting to the energy level that a volunteer might bring to a particular routine. This device is equally important when thinking about how expansive your expressions should be more generally.

Given some of the distracting environments in which we have to present, it’s easy to get drawn into displaying the extremes of an emotional state to capture attention. However, it is the variation in the intensity of a feeling — the movement from one level to the next — which is more engaging than constantly working at the peaks. Extreme reactions get tiring, for both you and your audience. If they become consciously aware of your body and voice cues, then you’re doing it wrong.


Model your emotions

The skill of clearly displaying feelings so you can guide how the audience respond is known as modelling your emotions. For illustration, I’ve outlined below some ways you can communicate enthusiasm through each nonverbal channel. For optimum impact, you only need a couple of these cues to support any single line or action.

  • voice —  our voices are extremely emotionally expressive. Think of how many ways you can communicate your enthusiasm through variations in the volume, pitch, quality and rate of your voice. The more you move your face and mouth when speaking, the less monotonic you sound. Speaking too fast onstage can also flatten out your vocal variations. Pauses can dramatically reveal your emotions.
  • eye contact — holding a strong gaze with the eyes of individual spectators is one of the best ways of maintaining an emotional connection with them. The large number of muscles around our eyes makes them one of the most expressive parts of our body. Good presenters “lead with their eyes” — they allow their feelings to show, first in their eyes, then through their bodies and voices, and finally with their words.
  • facial expression — people are drawn to vibrant faces. Effective educators use their face to signal to the audience how they might react to the content, e.g. raising their eyebrows when it’s interesting; concentrating when it’s particularly important; and smiling confidently after a loud bang to reassure younger children.
  • gestures — using emphatic, animated gestures at key moments can reveal your feelings. The sheer number of different hand movements, and the tendency of humans to be alert to them for survival reasons, allows for great subtlety in expression. On stage, you can afford to make your gestures much bigger and further away from your body than normal. As they say in the theatre, “let your armpits breathe!”
  • posture – maintaining an open posture allows your body to communicate enthusiasm on a big scale; leaning in towards your audience and facing towards them communicates your interest in them.
  • movement and stage position — strategically moving around the stage with pace can indicate your high energy level. This will also display confidence and help you connect with different parts of the audience.


Infect them with your emotions

People tend to synchronise with the nonverbal language of those around them and, therefore, start to feel the same emotions as them. This effect is known as emotional contagion in social psychology. The extent to which you, as a presenter, can emotionally infect the audience (primary emotional contagion) depends on:

  • the intensity of your emotional displays;
  • the distance they are from you — the closer they are, the more they will catch your emotions;
  • how strongly they relate to you — the more they find you likeable, trustworthy and similar to them, the easier they will mimic your emotional expressions;
  • the type of emotion — in general, negative sentiments are more contagious than positive ones.

Many of the hooks in this toolkit depend on the incredible power of emotional contagion. When I’m presenting, I imagine I’m radiating concentric waves of emotions across the audience. If I persist with expressing these feelings, I know that I will be able to get most of them to begin to display the same emotions.


“The mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the superior teacher demonstrates, the great teacher inspires.”
William Arthur Ward (writer)


Enlist your emotional beacons [ADVANCED]

No matter how skilled you are at expressing your feelings, you need reinforcements. As I’m radiating my emotions, some spectators will pick up my feelings more easily than others — you’ll see them react first each time you use a hook.

A proportion of these sympathetic receivers will also happen to be highly expressive people by nature. These individuals become my emotional beacons. Once I spot them, I target them. They sit there, innocently infecting everyone around them with their own radiating waves of feelings (secondary emotional contagion). The higher-status or more likeable they are, the better (6.3).

This is why theatres and political rallies try to “pack the house”. Full auditoriums crammed with spectators will allow your emotions to spread further. All of the presentations in my career which stand out in my memory as being the most effective were with high-density audiences.

It turns out that audiences are stubbornly resistant to attempts to get them to think in the same way. But they are frighteningly susceptible to being made to feel the same way.


“Hell is a half-filled auditorium.”
Robert Frost (poet)


Use evocative language

Showing your emotions is generally more powerful than verbalising your feelings, but it can be helpful to tell the audience occasionally how you feel about an incident or a topic. Using descriptive, vibrant and varied language will convey your excitement, e.g. “isn’t that weird?”; “I’ve always loved solving equations”; “imagine how incredible it would have been to have lived through that period of history.”




Hopefully, reading and thinking about these engagement ideas, will spark further questions. I’ve tried to anticipate some of these as you read on in a chapter, but I’d love to know of any burning questions you have about these ideas. These will help me improve later editions of this book and future training resources. Thanks for letting me glimpse inside your brain.



Hook Your Audience (volume 1) Copyright © 2021 by HOOK training limited. All Rights Reserved.

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