The curse of the zombie presenter is no respecter of experience. Even if you’re a veteran who has learnt to avoid the previous zombie traps, you are still not immune. As a professional informal educator, you have to be able to express the same set of emotions, on demand, in presentation after presentation. If you cannot learn how to do this convincingly, you will find sustaining your role difficult.
In this section, I’ve suggested some strategies we can adopt from acting to help us express emotions we may not be feeling at that moment. As I discussed when exploring character development (1.2), there is no one acting method that will work for all presenters — you need to discover which combination of approaches work best for you. Additionally, some of the techniques discussed in 2.2, to help keep your performance spontaneous, will also be relevant here.
The relax-feel-amplify strategy recommended for novice educators (3.2) can also benefit more experienced presenters when they are delivering new programmes. However, the limitations of this approach become apparent when you consider how often we have to repeat the same few presentations. It is impossible to react the same after you’ve seen or presented a routine even once. This muting of your emotions is compounded every time you deliver that routine. It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about your subject — you gradually become desensitised to how you once felt.
In some cases, this condition is made worse when complacency starts to creep in after you’ve been presenting for some time.
Learn to recreate your emotions
When you watch an actor in a theatre, you understand that they perform the show eight times a week. You also know they are unlikely to have been personally involved in the dramatic situations they are acting out. Yet, when the actors employ techniques to express certain feelings, you believe the action on stage as if it were real. Professional actors are so highly trained they can invoke and communicate specific emotions in response to situations they have never experienced.
“The actor is an athlete of the heart.”
Antonin Artaud (director)
Fortunately, most informal educators only need to use an extremely restricted form of acting — to recreate emotions which they once felt spontaneously about a particular topic or incident, but which, because of repetition, they are not experiencing now. As well as being easier to generate, educators seem to be more comfortable simulating a feeling they once had about a subject, rather than feigning an interest they never held.
Inside-out and outside-in acting
Two of the most popular methods actors use to summon their feelings are:
- inside-out acting involves recalling an occasion when you felt the reaction which you want to produce now. By focusing on the precise details of the incident, rather than how you felt, your body will often automatically display cues which reveal the strong emotions you experienced in the original event.
- outside-in acting means recalling the physical characteristics expressed when you experience an emotion and then replicating these through your body and voice as accurately as possible. Actors report that they begin to feel the emotion once their bodies simulate how that feeling looks.
The first approach, internal (or method) acting, demands imagination and memory. This can occupy a lot of mental bandwidth whilst you interact with the audience. But because it doesn’t require you to control your voice and body explicitly, it can lead to more natural expressions of emotions for people who aren’t trained actors. By contrast, external (or technical) acting requires the skill to consciously and precisely manage your body language, but it consumes less mental effort because the physical display cues are invoked as a unit.
It’s fair to admit that these opposing approaches, and their many variations, are debated continuously by theatre directors. In practice, many actors use a range of strategies, at different times, to create credible performances.
The bottom line for you is that it doesn’t matter how you recreate your emotions when delivering repeated presentations, as long as you find a method which works for you and which is convincing for the audience. You’re not being duplicitous — you felt this way initially when you started presenting the routine. Having to recreate them is an unavoidable consequence of your job.
As a presenter who delivers a small number of presentations with a high repetition rate, I’ve tended to favour the outside-in approach to simulating my emotions. After presenting hundreds of shows, making your voice and body portray a specific reaction and intensity becomes second nature — it gets embedded in your muscle memory for the routine. You can efficiently generate the physical characteristics of moderate surprise, mild anger or extreme amusement, on demand, without thinking about it.
I once, unwisely, agreed to perform twelve 25-minute science demo shows at a large family festival. After each audience was ushered out, another one was shown in, for 6 consecutive hours. I barely had time to clear and reset between the shows.
Although the whole experience was exhausting, this extreme situation made me realise just how often I recreated my emotional expressions onstage. I was pacing myself and using many different techniques to create the illusion of the first time (2.2), but I couldn’t have survived if I’d had to rely on my genuine feelings after 11 demanding performances. And it wasn’t the fault of my audience if they caught my first delivery or my last.
Watch yourself on video
Were you surprised when you first heard your recorded voice? That annoying drone can’t be me! Most people report finding their voice much less varied than they expected. The way you hear your voice is affected by how the vibrations travel through the bones in your head and through your ear-throat air passages. This is not the way others hear your voice.
When you watch the recording, try to consider, as objectively as you can, how clearly you were communicating the emotions you intended for each line. Learning how to express your feelings is a never-ending process of small improvements.
No matter how carefully you watch a video recording, you’re too close to the situation to perceive how you are really affecting the audience. There’s nothing quite like getting an external view from a trusted colleague. Make sure, though, that this person knows the underlying purpose of your presentation and is familiar with the types of groups you engage. They also need to feel as if they can speak freely and honestly when they give you feedback.
Working with a theatre director who understands your motivations would be even better. Directors are masters of putting themselves in the shoes of the audience. They are able to give you subtle notes or pose questions which help you reflect on how you are expressing your emotions. So, if you are fortunate enough to ever have external funding for a project, this is one of the wisest investments you can make to your long-term development as a presenter.