There are many standard techniques which informal educators use to encourage interaction across all of their audience. You can find such hooks scattered throughout the other tools, but I have outlined some of the most common devices in this section. We’ll consider how to ask and elicit questions and how to manage their responses in the next tool.
Managing applause is a challenging issue for most educators. On the one hand, audiences find clapping a natural way of showing their appreciation; it gives a satisfying sense of completion to a routine and they enjoy the bonding nature of this collective act. Applause can also make you feel better and grow your confidence. Yet, if you are seen to beg for applause too obviously, it can make you look desperate and the group can feel manipulated. Furthermore, in informal education presentations, your learners are often uncertain if it is appropriate to clap and younger children will rarely applaud spontaneously.
Try to develop safe ways of cueing applause which don’t look as if you are feeding your ego:
- impressing them — the first time you want to trigger a round of applause in the presentation, it will be easier to elicit if you schedule this after a routine which is dramatic or which appears skilful.
- thanking volunteers — seeking applause for your helpers is respectful and does not appear self-serving. However, establishing this pattern will also help to train them to applaud in other circumstances.
- striking a pose — adopting and holding certain applause poses at key moments can nonverbally initiate clapping, e.g. holding your arms out sideways with the palms up; standing straight with your feet together and then bowing your head or torso. The exaggeration of the pose and the length of the time you hold it can span a spectrum from extremely subtle to comically theatrical.
- shaming them into it — depending on your character, it’s possible to generate applause through a cheeky aside or mock indignation at their lack of response. They should be clear, though, that you are parodying cheesy presenters and that they are not really being reprimanded.
- acknowledging the end — the crowd want to complete the presentation by clapping you at the finale. But to do this, you need to signpost the ending through the structure of the show, your words and your body language. With 4-8-year-olds, I usually invite them to “give yourselves a big round of applause for being such a great audience and asking so many questions.”
This is the cliched device where the presenter feigns disappointment at a particular level of response and winds them up to try again with progressively more energy or volume, e.g. “What’s that? I can’t hear you. Say it louder!” It’s possible to use shaming lines like this playfully in informal education to add a sense of showmanship, but they need to be used with groups who are up for playing this game and who appreciate your intent. Sadly, this hook is sometimes over-used or implemented in an oppressive way to bully them into responding (4.3).
Can you share a story about using any of these all-audience engagement hooks? I’m compiling a collection of stories and examples of hooks from readers for HOOK wisdom, a future free resource to complement this book. You can find out more and submit your stories about using any hooks here.
Call and response exchanges
Audiences enjoy any form of collective response. This can include call and response exchanges where they shout out a single word answer together in reply to a question; finish the words at the end of a sentence which you leave incomplete; or call out a catchy slogan which affirms a key message of the presentation (e.g. “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”). You can orchestrate these all-group responses by non-verbal signalling, e.g. raising your volume, altering the rhythm of your delivery, including everybody in your scanning gaze, holding your palms out with a slight upward motion, and by pausing.
Younger children enjoy the familiarity of this call and response game, it keeps them alert and the repetition of the phrase can help them to remember the message. The danger with using this hook, however, is because it has become such a well-used technique for certain ages, older children find it patronising and will resent being forced into responding in this way. Even with some younger groups, be careful that you don’t use this gratuitously.
Children love making noise — especially when they are in a school setting where this feels like breaking a taboo. The safest way to manage this is by using a controlled shouting sequence at the end of a presentation.
At the finale of a science show for primary school pupils, I ask, “Did you all enjoy the kitchen chemistry show?” (raising my open palms at my sides to indicate that they can all reply).
“Did you all enjoy the kitchen chemistry show so much that … you’re going to go home and make a mess in the kitchen?” (keeping similar wording and rhythm of delivery but extending it and raising my volume and my palms higher — this indicates that a pattern of escalation is developing).
“YESSSSS!” (louder and longer response)
Using the rule of threes (7.3), I then end on a twist. I try to trick them into saying “yes” again, but they never fall for it — “Did you all enjoy the kitchen chemistry show so much that … you’re going to go home and make a mess in the kitchen … and then clean up afterwards?”
After a short delay for processing, the reply is always a booming “NOOOOOOOOOOO!”, accompanied by much laughter. I act shocked and then let a knowing smile slip out.
A quick way to involve everyone at any stage of the presentation is to ask them to vote on the answer to a multiple choice question; the outcome of a demo; the direction the presentation should take; or for their opinion on an issue. This can be facilitated in many ways — asking for a simple show of hands for each option; letting them raise coloured or labelled cards to indicate their answer; having each learner write their response on mini whiteboards; using electronic interactive voting keypads or polling apps on their mobiles.
Teenagers and adults can quickly resent being forced to keep raising their hands to vote. So, whenever you ask for votes, it’s vital you are seen to care about the response. You need to interpret the results fairly and then change what you do next in some meaningful way based on the outcome. Otherwise, they will not take it seriously the next time you canvas their opinions.
Countdowns and sound effects
Invite audiences to take part in countdowns to a suspenseful reveal or add sound effects to create an atmosphere for a dramatic routine. Children enjoy these opportunities and they are easy to control because they are short, defined moments of interaction with a clear end point. These sounds, for example, could include a drum roll for suspense; going “Ohhhhh” every time you say a particular line emphasising the apparent danger of a demonstration; or being cued to add an interesting sound effect at certain points as you tell a story (e.g. making the noise of an airlock door opening on a space station in the marshmallows in space scenario, described in 2.3).
Giving them an opportunity to move their hands or bodies during a presentation to support the content points you are making can help to reduce restlessness. It can also make those concepts more memorable if they can act them out in a way which is novel. For instance, when I’m discussing inertia in a presentation about forces, I invite the entire audience to stand up on an imaginary bus. On command, I ask them to show how their bodies would appear to move when the bus suddenly has to stop. I repeat this for a bus which accelerates away too quickly from the bus stop. In any physical activity like this, of course, it’s important to manage their positions and response so they don’t barge into or hurt each other.
If you’re using a recurring slogan in the presentation to summarise your main idea, you can add relevant actions to accompany the words.
Whenever you invite volunteers onstage to represent different parts of the audience in a competition or challenge, the responses become tribal in support of their team members. They will naturally cheer, clap and encourage their representative, and heckle the other team. This type of interaction is one of the reasons they enjoy competition hooks so much. However, it takes strong management to ensure the exchanges are constructive and that they don’t overpower the educational point of the routine.
To a child, adults are powerful and competent. So, when grown-ups unexpectedly fail, this is engaging, funny and empowering for them. Pride comes before a fall and the more complacent or arrogant you can appear just before the mistake, the more they will savour your comeuppance. These types of empowerment hooks are known as “magician-in-trouble” in magic, so we can refer to them, more widely, as presenter-in-trouble.
Depending on your audience and your character, your mistakes don’t necessarily need to be based on stupidity or silliness. With toddlers, some presenters can get away with making extremely basic mistakes and letting the group correct them, e.g. misnaming simple objects or calling things by the wrong colour. But, clearly, if this technique is used with older groups it becomes patronising.
The principle is — the more mature they are, the more convincing you need to be in how you mess up. A classic mistake to avoid, for all ages, is pretending to be stupid one moment and later on, reverting to the character of an educator explaining something. This inconsistency insults the intelligence of your learners. In informal education, there are safer and more interesting ways of revealing weakness, e.g. inattention; mispronouncing words; stumbling over sentences; overconfidence; being clumsy; nervousness; poor memory; misunderstanding or mishearing an answer; etc.
The secret to the power of the presenter-in-trouble game lies in your reaction. The more strongly you protest about their laughter or corrections, the funnier they will find the situation. There are two ways of framing these games:
- overt presenter-in-trouble — you exaggerate your anger and frustration to the failure, by pulling mugs and double-takes (7.5). So, they know you aren’t really in distress and that you’re playing. This reassurance allows them to laugh freely and to argue with you, without worrying. This is especially helpful for younger children who can become distracted through genuine concern for you.
- covert presenter-in-trouble — where most of them believe you are in some sort of unexpected predicament. This works better with older audiences — they think they are getting a glimpse of the real character of the presenter as they watch you cope with the problem. A credible context for this hook is a skill-based routine, e.g. fail-fail-succeed is an old circus pattern to build suspense, reinforce that the performance is live and emphasise the difficulty of the stunt.
A classic example of the presenter-in-trouble technique for science communicators is the demo where you assert to secondary school students that some banknotes are, in fact, fireproof.
To help to prove this claim you borrow money from a teacher — this increases the jeopardy of the situation and the involvement of the students. But before you conduct the experiment, you soak it in a solution of ethanol using tongs, to “really test how fire-resistant banknotes are.” As you hold the note in tongs near a flame, you boast about how confident you are.
When you “accidentally” let the flame get too close to the note, out of your gaze, watch as the audience react to it going on fire. You then go through a choreographed sequence of stunned shock; rising panic; abject apologies to the seemingly horrified teacher; and fear as you try to stop the note being apparently destroyed.
Once the flame has been put out, though, everyone can see the banknote is undamaged. At this point, you can try to elicit an explanation about how the heat from the burning ethanol was absorbed by the water in the solution, so the temperature of the flame never exceeded the ignition temperature of the paper. Much to the teacher’s relief.
Look, but don’t see
One particular form of the presenter-in-trouble hook allows the audience to spot your impending peril some time before you appear to, e.g. it’s behind you or out of your line of sight. To a child, if there’s one thing more irresistible than knowing, for once, that an adult is wrong, it’s knowing they are wrong before the adult does.
“The only time I will ever argue with a child is when I know he is right.”
Julian Franklin (school show performer)
There are multiple phases of the full look, but don’t see technique:
- “I know something she doesn’t” phase — the mistake or danger becomes clear to everyone, except you.
- “What’ll she do?” phase — they delight in trying to predict how you will react, when you discover what they know. This anticipation is a key part of the effectiveness of the technique.
- “Look!” phase — they proudly and energetically try to tell you about the problem, but you pretend to ignore or dismiss these warnings.
- “No, really, LOOK!” phase — repeat the last step several times for younger groups. Each time, you get closer to realising what is wrong, but something stops you on every occasion. You find increasingly ingenious ways to delay the moment of resolution, so you can build the suspense credibly, e.g. looking towards the general area of the danger without spotting the real problem.
- “At last!” phase — just when they’re about to give up, you uncover the mistake. Sometimes you make this discovery in a surprising way rather than just through hearing them calling it out.
- “I knew she’d do that” phase — comically over-react to the revelation. All of this mugging confirms their predictions.
- “Told you!” phase — acknowledge they were right and apologise for not listening to them earlier.
The level of excitement the different phases of this hook generates in young children is hard to put into words. You will need effective control strategies to manage groups once you start this game. Experienced educators moderate the response by reducing their own energy levels, as required, when they react in each stage.
“The biggest key is knowing when to bring your energy up and down and learning how to use it to control the energy of the audience.”
Keith Fields (magician)
I ask the group to think about and then publicly vote whether a raisin will float or sink in a tall container of clear lemonade. Then I drop the raisin into the lemonade and watch it sink to the bottom.
Next, I step in front of the demo table, congratulate those who predicted it would sink and ask some of them to explain their thinking. By now, the raisin will have gathered enough bubbles of carbon dioxide on its bumpy surface, so it starts to float to the top. I can hear when this happens by listening to the volume of the audience, but I ignore their call-outs until I hear the volume suddenly decrease.
At this point, I know that the bubbles will have popped at the top and the raisin once again sinks, being heavier than the lemonade for its size. So, I can now, finally, turn around and confirm that the raisin had indeed sunk and “tell them off” for imagining things.
I can repeat this sequence several times until they are ready to burst and then I decide to turn around, so I can catch the raisin when it’s moving. My reaction here is key — I adopt and hold a surprised mug for several seconds as they savour their eventual victory. I apologise to them and we try to work out together why the raisin was behaving in this odd way.
Objects in the audience [ADVANCED]
It is sometimes possible, with deliberation, to pass a prop into the crowd as a way of breaking the fourth wall and increasing participation. This technique, though, is fraught with danger as it can distract and lead to chaos, as easily as it can engage. Be especially cautious about attempting this with younger groups — they will tend to become distracted by the object and may not have the discipline to pass it around fairly. Teenage groups can usually manage this process, as you carry on with the rest of the presentation, provided that the item isn’t so interesting it takes over.
Another form of this hook is throwing a large prop safely into the audience so they can throw it between themselves, e.g. letting the group demonstrate forces as they play with a giant beach ball. You need to be able to trust they will not become so excited by this game they either hurt themselves or damage any of the equipment onstage. You also require a reliable way of getting the object back, quickly and smoothly, when you’re ready to move on.
“Whatever you do, don’t…” [ADVANCED]
Children enjoy playing with the idea of defying their authority figures, but you need to give them permission to do this through subtext, so they feel safe in rebelling. For example, emphatically telling children a couple of times, “Now, whatever you do, don’t …” with knowing looks each time, will guarantee they do what you’ve told them not to. Contradicting you will also generate peals of laughter. The more frustrated you get at their apparent opposition, the funnier it is. They know the game. They invented the game.
Some examples of backleading (2.3) the audience to do the opposite of what you appear to want are more overt than others, for example:
- asking loaded questions, so you provoke them into protesting, e.g. “You don’t really want me to set fire to this balloon full of highly flammable gas…. doooooo you?”
- warning young children with a serious tone, “You promise not to laugh?… Not even a giggle?… No, seriously… absolutely no smiling … OK?”, will always make them laugh harder.
- casually saying, “Now, please don’t ask me why that happens” will make that question inevitable. I often use this hook with scientific phenomena for which there is no consensus explanation because I want to emphasise that science does not have all the answers. This perspective can be empowering for some learners.
Experienced presenters can play this game in presentations and yet, at other times, still give important safety “do not try this at home” warnings. It’s all about context and the non-verbal clues you provide.
The spoilsport teacher game [ADVANCED]
Often in school presentations, experienced teachers will join in by appearing to raise some objection to what you are about to do on stage. For instance, complaining it’s going to make too much mess or explaining you’ve run out of time for the big finale.
These conflicts are natural situations to provoke a group response such as good-natured cheering from the audience to convince the teacher to sit down and let you proceed. Usually, all but the very youngest pupils will appreciate the game you are all playing with the teacher, but this awareness doesn’t affect their enjoyment. If you haven’t worked with the teachers previously, it helps to set-up this “interruption” when you are chatting before the presentation. They then become your secret stooges. It is safer to regard these bits of business as bonuses, rather than core parts of a routine — even if you enlist several teachers, I’ve found, to my cost, that you can never depend on them being present at the right time.