You are a professional presenter, but your audience aren’t professional spectators. Most of the adults will have been to live performances before, but these may not have been interactive, educational presentations. Children have even less experience to draw upon. So, it’s crucial to train your group in the ways you want them to respond. Think of this training phase as a necessary investment in the success of all your later interactions with them. It requires patience and unwavering self-confidence as a presenter.
“Our job is to create an atmosphere of play, and invite the audience to join in.”
Randy Pryor (performer)
As soon as they can see you, you’re “on”
Unless you’re dramatically appearing from behind a curtain in an educational theatre performance, your audience will observe you for some time before you deliver your opening lines. During this time, I chat with small groups spread across the room. This is when I earn much of my fee as a presenter. These conversations establish the interactive nature of the presentation; reveal my character; build rapport and grow my trust bank; help me judge the level of their knowledge and interest in the subject; and allow me to audition potential volunteers.
“Don’t get caught starting.”
Signal you want to play
When you watch two dogs about to play, one dog will often crouch down on their front legs, stretching their paws out. This play bow makes them as small and vulnerable as possible — a classic sign they’re ready for a game. There are many play bows you can use as an informal educator to signal this intention, for example:
- being spontaneous;
- displaying high energy;
- giving warm eye contact;
- revealing your delight and enjoyment;
- smiling, joking tone of voice, laughing;
- physically or psychologically lowering your status;
- being obviously mischievous or subverting authority;
- showing give and take;
- repeating the game several times to establish the pattern and the rules.
As the presentation progresses, they will get better at spotting and playing the games you model, so you can make your game invitations subtler.
Nobody jumps on board a sinking ship
Before they will risk interacting with you, they need to trust in your competence as a presenter. Spend time polishing your opening. Starting the presentation with a strong, visible response will reassure them you know what you’re doing. Reinforce this impression through the confidence you exude. No one wants to be drawn into participating in an embarrassing presentation.
“A good act has no trouble getting volunteers, but nobody wants to be in a show that’s going badly.”
Dan Holzman (juggler)
Take their temperature early
Each audience is beautifully different. So, presenters often treat their opener as a thermometer routine to help them judge the overall receptivity of the crowd. This can be any activity which has several highly-visible hooks for the audience to react to and which they can deliver in precisely the same way each time. They then know, from their experience of seeing many groups respond to the same hooks, how hot or cold they are and can therefore adjust their approach accordingly.
Make them feel safe with each other
Before learners will have the confidence to interact, they must trust their fellow spectators. This is especially important when they don’t all know each other (e.g. in a family show or an outreach presentation with different schools attending) or when your audience is feeling particularly self-conscious (e.g. certain teenage groups). Much of my effort in starting these kinds of presentations is focussed on modelling positive interactions for them and sensitively correcting any destructive behaviours from the group.
In one memorable science outreach show for 13-year-old boys, the teacher in charge decided to invite the senior football team to sit at the back before they had to leave for their big match. Despite my protestations, he assured me they “would be no trouble”.
From the start, the room felt tense, like everyone was holding their breath. The audience refused to interact with me, no matter what I tried. Knowing they might be feeling intimidated by having the highest status members of the school hierarchy silently observing them, I tried to involve the older students. But the team just sat there, majestically unmoved. They’d already made up their mind that the show was intended for younger year groups.
The second the door closed behind the players as they left for their bus, however, I have never seen such a dramatic transformation in any group. There was an almost audible sigh of relief in the room, their body language relaxed and they began interacting with me in the way this age group normally would. After this experience, I revised my flexibility about accepting last-minute changes.
Unite your audience
Your spectators start as individuals with a range of expectations, interests, worries, values, prior knowledge and experiences. Much of your job in training the audience is to create situations where they become more aware of their commonalities rather than their differences. Your goal is to get the group to overtly feel and act as one.
Any time you can provoke them into responding in the same way at the same time, you are helping to form a bond between these diverse individuals. Like training soldiers to march in step, these rituals are primitive in their psychological power. The sense of community this develops will feed the emotional contagion (3.1) you are trying to foster throughout the rest of the presentation. Additionally, as a group, their unified response is often greater than the combined level of their reactions as individuals. This is why people find live theatre so intoxicating.
Warm them up
Most interactive presenters encourage their young audience to respond expressively and energetically from the opening. This gets them laughing, clapping and reacting all together, and it shows everyone these responses are what you are seeking throughout the presentation. Warm-up activities can also communicate your expectations about their behaviour in a friendly way, without laying down lots of rules. Ideally, these activities should be related to your content in a meaningful way. This is not an excuse to provoke a pointless shouting contest.
A popular warm-up for younger audiences involves a game where they try to keep up with copying you physically as you comedically act out some of the ways they might react during the presentation, e.g. scrunching up your face and saying “hmmm” when you’re curious; inhaling loudly and opening your eyes and mouth when you’re surprised; etc. Another common warm-up is to create a competition between different parts of the crowd to see which side can respond the best to your instructions. Competition is a strong hook with children.
Train them to follow you
Another advantage of warm-up routines is that they help to train the audience to listen to you closely and obey your instructions. These are skills which younger learners will find difficult when they get excited during the presentation.
When making any request to younger groups, put the key condition at the start of the statement rather than the end to avoid confusion, e.g. “If [condition], then put up your hand.” Otherwise you’ll have a sea of hands up before you get to the question. And with all ages, learn to accept that you will have to give important instructions two or three times if you need them all to act on the information.
In a straight fight, your audience out-number you. You can only present interactively with their co-operation. So, don’t over-power your group with interaction techniques which require them to take big risks initially.
Some audiences may be particularly reserved and slow to respond initially. The harder you try to force them to play before they are ready, the more they will lean away from you. Always respect where they are — in understanding, attitude, responsiveness and energy. Gradually work from there to where you want to take them by the end of the presentation. Build your trust bank and guide them in the ways you want them to interact with you. Like the gears of a transmission meshing together, you cannot go in with a different energy level to the room and expect them to come with you immediately.
Be patient and calm. Give them time to respond. This wait can be scary. Try to fight the rising tide of panic drowning you. Start with the one or two who are already with you. Be strong and keep going, with the unshakeable confidence that you know the rest will come around. And they almost certainly will.
“When it gets tough, remember: they’re not a bad audience; they’re just scared.”
Jeff Wirth (performer)
Sometimes you just have to grind it out
Occasionally, there may be factors outside your control which keep them cold in terms of their interactivity, e.g. wide age range; gender imbalance; mixed groups of different academic ability or social advantage; an incident that happened in school that day. Not every presentation situation is conducive to play.
In some of these rare cases, after trying your best to warm them up, you may have to resign yourself to grinding out the remainder of the presentation with limited interaction. These are tough situations but the mark of a professional is how gracefully you can do this without getting frustrated.
In light of the impact of Covid-19 on the informal education sector, I’ve made the text of this book available online until the end of October 2021. You can purchase print or ebook versions at HookYourAudienceBook.com