The freedom to enthuse about subjects with genuine passion is one of your biggest assets as an informal educator. Compared to classroom teachers, who must deliver an external, assessed curriculum, we get to cheat. We focus on the most immediately appealing and accessible parts of any subject to help to develop a wider interest for later learning.
It’s impossible, though, to be equally interested in everything you have to present throughout your career. You shouldn’t blame yourself for this. At these times, you need to learn how to find or borrow interest to bring your delivery to life.
Freelance informal educators have considerable autonomy about which programmes they offer. However, if you work in an organisation, you’ll be required to deliver content devised by other educators. Sometimes, you may have little individual interest in some of these topics.
We don’t know where our long-term individual interests come from, but we all have them. Factors which might cause us to find a concept boring include — not knowing much about it; little apparent connection to our existing interests; unrelated to applications in the everyday world; perceived difficulty; and having a poor experience of the topic at school.
As an educator, you can exploit any occasional sense of apathy you feel to help you empathise with how your audiences feel when you’re trying to engage them in a subject which doesn’t appeal to them.
The best treatment for this form of zombie presenting is to attempt to cultivate your interest from within the material itself:
- use your inherent curiosity to find out more about the topic — this is the most important technique in tackling this problem. Often you don’t know enough about the subject to discover how interesting it can be once you have sufficient background knowledge and context. There is no shortcut here — you need to research the area inside out. Challenge yourself to find the strongest internal hooks using your hook antenna. What is the biggest misconception around this topic? Which is the most unexpected application of the concept? What is the biggest or smallest example to illustrate this idea?
- triage the main reason for your lack of interest — if, for example, you realise it’s because you’ve always struggled to understand the concepts involved, then focus on improving this first.
- ask yourself why this topic matters — play the “so what?” game by repeatedly asking yourself this question of each of your answers, until you distil the essence of why this subject is important for your audience.
- learn from other educators — watch online videos of people who are passionate about the subject; read relevant popular articles and books aimed at the public; observe your colleagues and discuss why they find the topic interesting. Which internal hooks are these communicators using to engage their audiences?
- find how the subject overlaps with your existing individual interests — a pearl of wisdom, given to me at the start of my career was that, in this job, at some point, I would end up using every skill and hobby I’ve ever had. Can you uncover examples or applications of the topic in your interests outside of your job?
If you cannot develop sufficient hooks from within the subject, you can usually borrow interest from other elements which are part of the wider experience. The audience won’t easily be able to distinguish the source of your fascination. For example, you can borrow interest from:
- their enthusiasm — you can sometimes vicariously develop interest through how your audience is reacting to the material. Let them emotionally infect you. Allow their questions to inspire your interest. This tactic, of course, only works when your audience are already interested.
- how you present the topic — can you use an engagement technique which you particularly enjoy or which is novel to deliver this material? For instance, a quiz between teams; an impressive demo; telling a story.
- the broader subject — whilst you may not find a topic riveting, can you justify why it is important in terms of the big ideas underpinning the subject? Also, many subjects are hierarchical — especially science and maths — where basic concepts need to be mastered first before they can be put together to achieve a more rewarding outcome.
- your core values as an informal educator — knowing what values drive you as an educator and which parts of the job you find most rewarding can help you fight subject-based apathy, e.g. a desire to make them more curious about the natural world. How can you attain these aspirations through the material? This technique can also help you cope with career burn-out (3.7).
- when you were presenting your favourite topic — if you recall an occasion when you felt enthusiastic about another area, this memory can unconsciously affect how your body and voice behave. We’ll explore acting skills further in the next section.
Mask your indifference
Your voice and body cannot stop communicating. So, monitor your interest levels honestly and try to mask obvious displays of boredom as best you can. They may not be able to read your mind precisely, but that emotional backing track you project is constantly playing.
Listen to your apathy
If you’re finding it hard to apply these techniques to particular material, consider if your hook antennae are trying to warn you that this content may not be suitable for a public audience. Whilst no topic is truly without interest, there are some subjects unsuited to creating interest in a short presentation with a voluntary audience that possesses little background knowledge. Ignore this instinct at your own peril.