The longer I work as an informal educator, the more I realise that my interaction with the audience is the most important element for them. Spontaneous and genuine interaction with them is more engaging than any other sustained activity I can present. Blowing things up onstage as a science communicator has a short engagement half-life, whereas playfully interacting with the group seems to captivate them throughout the presentation.
Much of the advice given so far in this book could be applied to an interactive presentation with any voluntary audience. However, the second half delves more deeply into specific interaction tools and therefore the focus of this book, engaging child and family audiences, will become more apparent.
The magic of interactivity
Interactive presentations blend the apparent spontaneity and informality of conversations with the deliberation of a considered, efficiently scripted performance (0.3).
A good presenter can consistently deliver a solid show, time after time, almost regardless of the audience present. However, it takes a good presenter and a receptive crowd to work together to create an experience that transcends the ordinary. This is the magic of live interactive presentations. It’s an exhilarating feeling for both you and your learners. You cannot expect it every time you present, but savour the thrill on those occasions when everything comes together. Let them know this wonderful atmosphere has been created because of their contributions.
“If you really use an audience you can create a unique evening’s entertainment which they know won’t be replicated on any other night of the tour.”
Dara O Briain (comedian)
The benefits of audience participation
Being able to interact effectively with your audience brings multiple advantages when you’re trying to engage them:
- acknowledgement — all human beings want to feel acknowledged and understood. Listening to and responding to our learners can help to fulfil these deep psychological needs.
- feedback — asking questions and listening carefully to the answers gives us feedback on how engaged they are and how much they understand our content.
- alertness — compared to the turn-taking pattern of conversations, presentations are typically one-sided. Interactive exchanges break up this dynamic. People are more alert if they think they might be required to respond at any time.
- enjoyment — children usually enjoy the interactive bits of business more than the final reveal of the routine.
- co-creation — learners are least likely to be bored when they feel they have some direct influence over the performance. They love the sense of co-creating something original that no other group of people will experience.
“People support a world they helped create.”
Dale Carnegie (author)
- freshness — interacting with groups forces you to be present, no matter how many times you have delivered the material.
- exposure — your relationship with, and how you feel about, your audience is revealed by how you interact with them. They care deeply about this relationship and they instinctively trust this information channel.
- liveness — audiences find watching how you cope with the “unknowable” interactive contributions and incorporate them into the presentation both thrilling and impressive.
Engage the adults too
When I’m presenting to any school, community group or family audience, the teachers, leaders, parents and carers are an important part of my audience.
There are several reasons for this approach. Principally, these adults represent significant people in the children’s lives and when they are visibly enjoying themselves and taking part, this is convincing social proof to younger spectators that it’s worth paying attention. Also, it allows me to mine the rich social relationships the children have with these grown-ups when I interact with them and use them as volunteers; it reduces the chance of the adults creating the distraction of talking amongst themselves or checking their phones; and, as an informal educator trying to achieve certain objectives (0.1), I want to have the opportunity to affect everyone in my audience, young and old. Finally, from a commercial perspective, it is one of the adults who will re-book the programme or decide to visit the museum again — it’s in my best interest that they are engaged by everything that happens onstage.
So, the first step I take is to fully embrace the mindset that the presentation is for everyone. This informs my thinking as I write the show or workshop, as well as when I deliver it. The second psychological step is to reassure myself that many of the hooks that children enjoy will also engage adults. For example, the tools we have explored so far — character, liveness and emotional expression — are universally powerful tools for people of all ages.
You’ll find specific hooks for involving adults scattered throughout the remaining tools, but these are the general techniques which I embed throughout every presentation:
- position the adults where you want them — in a family show, I prefer to have the children sitting with their parents or carers. However, when the stage and seating is on one level this configuration is usually not viable for medium-sized audiences. So, it’s normal to let the younger children sit together on the floor at the front, with the older spectators seated behind them. In this arrangement, try to keep the adults as close to you as possible, so that they don’t feel disconnected from the action.
- frame their expectations — from your publicity material, your pre-show interactions, any formal introduction given, and your opening comments establish the positive expectation that everyone is part of creating the experience which is to come.
- include adults in your eye gaze from the beginning — the bulk of your eye contact and directed nonverbal communication (e.g. smiling, head nods, facial expressions, gestures) can be towards the majority demographic of the audience, but it costs you nothing to include the older minority in this channel too. If you don’t give them this nonverbal attention, they will assume the presentation is not meant for them.
- interact directly with them periodically — as a normal part of your delivery style, talk to them, elicit call outs, and ask them non-threatening questions. Reward and reinforce their contributions.
- show why these ideas matter to them too — include some examples that will make the concepts you are explaining relevant for the adults.
- cajole them to join in — playfully encourage the adults, where appropriate, to take part in some of the mass participation physical activities you coordinate with the children.
- recognise that children are fascinating — create the best possible experience for the younger members of the audience so that the grown-ups can derive pleasure simply from watching them engage, play, imagine, question, discover, react and laugh. Never underestimate the power of this one strategy.
- make them laugh with the children — once you set up a safe place, children and adults laugh at more of the same things than you might imagine. This is especially true of situational comedy around what happens onstage (7.2 and 7.3). Humour is a brilliant social unification tool within and across generations.
- use occasional two-level humour references or asides — for example, old popular culture references or sophisticated, layered meanings which only adults will pick up on (without, obviously, being offensive in any way).
- don’t disrespect adults — avoid falling into the easy trope in children’s entertainment of putting all grown-ups down in a misguided attempt to empower children.
- be good at what you do — even if an adult doesn’t start off with an interest in the topic of your presentation, there is a certain joy to be had from observing someone who clearly loves their job and is skilful at it. Try to be so good, that you become watchable in your own right.
Many of these techniques are about giving the grown-ups clear permission to become involved in the presentation. But because I am slightly edgier in the way I interact with the adults in my audience, they need to trust that, despite appearances, I would never do anything to embarrass or harm them. Without this trust, it is likely they will feel as if they are being picked on and conscripted into the experience.
When you interact with adults confidently and humorously, there is also the risk that they will default to the closest performance dynamic they recognise — a stand-up gig. But your presentation is not Friday night at the comedy club. They will not be dispatched in the way a stand-up quashes a heckler when they contribute. In fact, their input is an essential part of the act. You need to train them in the way your interactive presentation works.
“I do a show for the children, but, at the same time, the children are props in a show I’m doing for the adults.”
David Kaye (children’s magician)