Whenever you interact with the group, it turns up the spotlight on each of the other engagement tools. Interaction magnifies the impact of your character, the liveness of the situation, the emotional contagion felt by the audience, and the opportunities for situational humour. Its glare is impartial — it cruelly exposes your flaws in any of these areas, as clearly as it amplifies your strengths.
Giving advice about how to interact with learners en masse is difficult because it depends so much on context. You can only learn these subtleties by interacting with real groups and learning from your mistakes. Training presentations where your peers act as the audience are, for example, no substitute for an assembly hall full of teenagers. So, to help you avoid some of the most common interaction crimes I’ve witnessed or committed, I’ve highlighted some harmful attitudes and behaviours in this section.
Crime 1 — talking down to them
One of the things young groups are most intolerant of is being talked down to by adults. A characteristic of children is their desire to progress to the next stage of maturity as soon as possible. They want to be taken more seriously by grown-ups.
You can unintentionally give this impression by misjudging the intellectual level at which you pitch your presentation, over-praising them or by using the incorrect tone of voice. Get any of these wrong with teenagers and they can turn against you for the rest of their lives. Even relatively young children will resent any hint of a patronising attitude.
Unless you have had recent personal experience of interacting with children of different ages, it’s not reasonable to expect you to know instinctively what they are capable of and how best to speak to them. This is one of the most intimidating aspects of beginning to present to young people and it immediately marks you out as inexperienced. As a rule-of-thumb though, children are much more intellectually able and emotionally robust than unfamiliar adults might expect them to be. If you adopt this mindset, then your body language and words will often follow along in agreement. You can learn a lot from watching how other educators interact with a particular age group, either in person or online.
Crime 2 — talking over their heads
In avoiding talking down to the audience, however, you equally don’t want to talk above their heads, in an intellectual sense. Most of them will switch off through boredom if this happens. This mistake can also damage their self-esteem. Learners tend to assume that, if they can’t understand an explanation, it must be their fault. Even experienced educators can fall into the traps of giving explanations with too many steps or cramming in too much content for their attention span.
There are important developmental differences in how children think at various ages. The guiding principle, though, is to regard your young audience as intelligent human beings — just with less experience of the subject than you have. Talking to your colleagues or discussing the content with teachers of that age group can help you find the correct level at which to pitch the concepts.
Crime 3 — bullying them
On or off-stage, bullies often mistreat people to protect their own insecurities and fragile egos. If you have any uncertainties as a presenter, the risk is that, in the spotlight, these anxieties might come across as oppressive behaviours. Remember, the true test of bullying conduct is how it was perceived by others, rather than what you intended. The tragedy is that, when you’re under pressure, it’s hard to see these shortcomings in your own interactions. There are several types of presenting bullies:
- the demanding bully — there is a fine line between confidently training an audience to respond in unison and coming across as a power-crazed control freak. For example, requiring groups to follow a long sequence of call and response instructions (1.5); and over-using shaming lines when a group response isn’t loud enough (e.g. the “come on, you can do better than that, can’t you?” cue before forcing them to repeat the response).
- the gotcha bully — surprise is a vital hook to trigger interest, but some educators weaponise surprise to quell the crowd. Their mistaken logic appears to be that, by deflating the audience’s confidence about what they know and what they think will happen next, this will lessen the risk of challenges. For instance — delivering surprising facts to impress them with your knowledge and to stop them questioning you; or performing a series of counter-intuitive demos and guiding them to vote incorrectly on the outcome they predict each time.
- the insult bully — this type of cocky presenter relies on using cheap put down lines with spectators and volunteers in a misguided attempt to appear funny or clever at the expense of the hapless audience member. These stock lines exploit the presenter’s familiarity with their job and the victim’s unfamiliarity with the situation.
For example, what do you do if a volunteer pauses, or stumbles with an “err..” before giving their name? Do you jump in with a “funny” remark (e.g. “Are you sure about that?”, “Would you like to phone a friend?”) or respond by “playfully” mimicking this phrasing whenever you call them by their name? Spectators often laugh at this sort of audience abuse, not because they find it funny, but out of nervousness and a sense of relief they weren’t chosen to be the victim. These bad laughs (7.1) expose the presenter as a bully, more interested in exercising their power, than in supporting their learners. And, worst still, if it turns out the person has a stutter, the bully will deserve all the hatred that will ensue.
In fact, rather than just avoiding bullying behaviours, you need to demonstrate the most positive behaviours for your young learners. You’re a role model for them (1.2).
Crime 4 — provoking a response you can’t control
Audiences love to interact with you and each other. So much so, it can be hard to get them back on track after a strong bit of interaction. This is a particularly difficult situation for new presenters. You can’t train properly for interaction, so when it happens, educators often panic and over-react as they try to silence them. But by reaching immediately for strong control tactics they damage the trust and likeability they had built up. This only leaves the group hurt and confused about how they should respond in future to interaction opportunities.
As a professional informal educator, you get paid to enthuse people about your subject. But experienced educators have learnt not to take their learners to any level from which they cannot bring them back down effortlessly. For example, they will usually stop chants and stamping from taking hold with teenagers because they know how forceful they might need to become to manage this mob response once it builds. Wise educators will therefore build in powerful hooks — including nonverbal devices — after moments when they know the interaction response will peak. For example, a strong curiosity hook where you suddenly do something strange or unexpected, and the audience go quiet to find out where this behaviour is leading. If they are crafted well, these moments will settle them almost magically.
Crime 5 — arguing with child barristers
Young children have the forensic observation skills of a crime scene investigator hunting a blood stain and the unshakable confidence of a barrister relentlessly following a logical argument. Be aware of these traits and don’t get drawn into these kinds of verbal battles. You’ll lose. The barrister always wins.
Adults find this youthful tenacity endearing and amusing, unless they are presenting to a room of child barristers themselves. So, the exception to this advice is when you’re deliberately trying to elicit a shared recognition response and gentle awhhh moment with the parents and teachers (6.5).
In a popular science magic demo, some water is poured into one of three identical, opaque cups. You then challenge the audience to follow the cup with the water as you rapidly switch them around on the table. With the help of some absorbent powder from nappies hidden inside the cup, though, the water seems to disappear when you later invert each cup.
However, if you’re working with pupils from the early years of primary school and they happen to spot a single drop of water on the table, you’re in trouble. No matter how patiently you try to explain that the drop must have splashed there at the start and that it cannot account for the volume of the half-cup of water that seemed to disappear, they will insist that this is the explanation.
The logic of a child may be different from that of an adult and is often based on a flawed assumption because of their lack of experience, but they can apply it unremittingly. Trust me — it’s always easier to wipe the table before moving the cups than it is to try to win this argument with them.
Crime 6 — becoming an audience reaction junkie
The psychology behind some interaction hooks is so powerful, they can trigger an extreme response from children with little effort on your part. As a presenter this can be thrilling. However, it can be perilously easy to begin to rely on these overt crowd reactions or to get addicted to them for their own sake.
Monitor yourself for signs of dependency. When you’re provoking children to respond, a helpful maxim to bear in mind is, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” You don’t have to make every second of the presentation interactive. Like other engagement tools, use interaction techniques with purpose and variety.
Making audiences of children scream is easy. But louder and more animated groups are not your ultimate objective as an informal educator. No matter how impressive these reactions may look to the parents or your booker, you must always ask yourself — are the hooks which generate this response part of your subject or external to it (0.2)? If you ignore this question, you’ll just be fooling yourself that you’re making the educational difference you want to make.
Crime 7 — not being edgy enough [ADVANCED]
One of the greatest paradoxes of interacting with audiences is that if you treat them in an overly sensitive way, they can find this patronising and boring. If you want to get close to them, take the risk to interact with them more robustly. Get edgy. This involves working in that grey zone before you step into the bullying situations described above. It is only recommended for educators who are experienced and who have built up a large trust bank with a slightly older group.
This is the zone in which friends inhabit — they know just how far to push the other person when they tease them, without giving offence. Being able to navigate this zone safely is, in fact, an enormous compliment to the strength of your relationship. I know educators who can use bits which, on paper, might make us wince. Used correctly with the right crowd, though, these high-risk exchanges can build the connection they have with the group like few other techniques (6.3 “Winning the alphas over” and 7.1).