I know that the image of an over-enthusiastic zombie sounds like a contradiction in terms. But remember that I defined a zombie presenter as someone who is emotionally disconnected from their audience. Normally this detachment comes across as a lack of being expressive, but, occasionally, it can surface as the opposite — someone who over-emotes so much compared to the way the audience feel that they don’t appear grounded in the reality of the room at that moment. Both forms of disconnection can make you look ridiculous.
It’s important to bear in mind that the criterion for this condition does not depend on how physically expressive you are — it’s only whether this level of animation seems natural for your character and the audience in front of you. That’s what makes this issue tricky and divisive to write about in general terms.
These are the most common reasons I’ve encountered for educational presenters using an energy and expressiveness which appears over-the-top:
- they are extremely extroverted in their personality — there is a risk that someone with this personality can get carried away when they further amplify this energetic style onstage.
- they misunderstand their audience or the setting — for example, they try to apply engagement techniques which they have seen work well with younger audiences in a way which is inappropriate for older children; or they use disproportionately large reactions with a small audience.
- they have chosen the wrong inspiration — with the best of intentions, they are trying to copy a level of animation from a presenter they admire, without realising that, while this style may work for some personalities, it seems forced when they try it.
- they have little interest in the topic they are presenting — so they mistakenly think that the only way of engaging young people with it is to rely on “making it fun” with external hooks like extreme, faked enthusiasm. This factor can be exacerbated if they have a theatrical background and are able to easily create strong emotions on demand.
- they try to mimic poor children’s entertainers — in their heads, their nearest point of reference to what an informal educator does is that of a stereotypically frenzied children’s entertainer. This is not a criticism of children’s entertainers per se — I believe we can learn a lot from how they engage their audiences — but rather a sad reflection of how these performers are commonly perceived to behave in only one extreme style.
These causes share an underlying root — poor self-awareness as a presenter. So, anything you can do to focus on your relationship with the audience will help to highlight this issue before it becomes a major problem.
- be true to yourself — ensure that the expressions you are amplifying onstage are authentic for someone with your personality (1.2 and 3.2).
- monitor the audience for signs of embarrassment or withdrawal — for example, unwillingness to meet and hold your eye; turning slightly away from you, or even drawing back.
- deliberately vary the intensity of your reactions — practice your presentation by expressing your emotions at different levels of the 4-level scale (mild, moderate, strong and extreme). Get used to how these different levels feel to you, so that you will find them easier to access when you are working with an audience (3.1).
- seek feedback from colleagues you trust to be honest — because of the particular difficulty of spotting this form of zombification yourself, this is one of the best ways of checking that you are not falling into the over-enthusiasm trap.
- observe a wide range of informal educators presenting — the greater variety of presenters you can watch, the more likely you are to find a style that suits your character. It can be especially revealing to watch how an experienced educator subtly changes their expressiveness and approach with different types of audience.