Asking helpful questions as part of a presentation is a complex skill. But being able to efficiently, yet sensitively, handle the responses of the audience is just as challenging. Some of the most important skills to master include encouraging replies; fairly selecting respondents; clearly identifying who should answer; and showing you care about their response.
Hands up or not?
Insisting on a strict “hands-up” policy for all groups would kill the responsive atmosphere that underpins the philosophy of interactive presentations. This book’s approach is about eliciting certain responses and call-outs from the audience to drive the presentation. So, I recommend a flexible mixed response pattern which switches between “hands up” and “call-out” modes, for all but the youngest and most excitable groups and the least experienced presenters.
Normally, when you are managing child behaviour, inconsistency is confusing and damaging. In my school shows, when I transition between response modes, I’m sure that some teachers are initially horrified. But I’m not trying to train children to behave productively in a classroom with me for a year. As an informal educator, typically, I will only see them for one hour of their lives. My goal is to create an atmosphere which is as open and interactive as possible within that time.
This is how this response management system looks in practice:
- for 4–7-year-olds — younger children do not have the discipline to stop themselves calling out over each other. I train them to raise their hands if they want to give an answer. As well as explaining this expectation at the start, I reinforce it with a verbal cue and by raising my hand as I ask a question. The routines for this age group are also structured so that opportunities for call-outs are minimised. Additionally, I avoid incorporating unsolicited remarks from the audience to limit this behaviour — it can become contagious for this age group.
- for 8–12-year-olds — I usually start the presentation in “hands up” mode, but as they settle into the interactive flow of the show, I begin to drop in hooks designed to get them to call-out spontaneously (2.3). I welcome and incorporate these responses into the action onstage.
I explain, at this point, that if I don’t ask for “hands up” it is now alright to call the answer out — this announcement is mainly to give them permission to respond to my engineered hooks freely by calling out. For most of my planned questions I will still use the “hands up” mode. This mixed approach works surprisingly well for audiences of this maturity and you quickly learn, from experience, which questions and prompts will elicit lots of replies. If they are reacting too enthusiastically at a certain point, you can quickly remind them “one at a time” and then select an individual to reply.
- for older audiences — these groups are more reserved and disciplined enough not to talk over each other. They understand and value the kind of responsive approach I am trying to create. This age group generally appreciates that the freedom I’m giving them depends on them contributing responsibly. Teenagers, in particular, can find being required to raise their hands to answer patronising and this may limit their responses. Although they rarely extend their arms fully, teenagers and adults will indicate with an expression or hand gesture when they want to answer. But with adolescents, these cues can be so subtle, you’ll need the acuity of a sharp-eyed auctioneer to detect them.
Sometimes, the person introducing you will, with good intentions, instruct your audience in how they should interact with you, e.g. a teacher before a school outreach show insisting that everyone must always raise their hands first. In these situations, I try to avoid immediately contradicting this authority figure, but retrain the audience to interact more responsively as the presentation progresses. By then the organisers have more confidence in me and appreciate how I can control this apparent free-for-all.
Select respondents fairly
Audiences, particularly young children, are sensitive to any perceived sense of unfairness in how you select them to answer. They will either express this indignation vocally or, worse, let it simmer, distracting them from the rest of the presentation. Ensure that you are seen to select from across as wide a range of characteristics as possible — gender, age, race, body size, physical ability, personality, intellectual ability, position in the room, school class, etc. For example, avoid being drawn into only asking the most confident and vocal spectators to respond each time. In the second half of the presentation, it can be helpful to follow-up some of your questions with a phrase like, “For this one, only put your hands up if you haven’t answered before.”
Because we all have unconscious biases about other people, it is frighteningly easy for us, as presenters, to unintentionally favour those who look like us or who seem to share some of our values or background. This is why it is difficult to over-emphasise the importance of having some sort of mental tracking system to help you monitor the range of spectators you invite to contribute replies. Having the mental bandwidth to do this at the same time as manage everything else going on onstage can be a challenge, even for experienced educators. It takes constant focus.
It’s rude to point
Your Mum was right. Pointing accusingly with a single finger at the spectator you want to answer is an aggressive gesture, in terms of body language. It’s much warmer to use your open palm to point to the person. This signal can, however, be less precise, so with a large crowd use a range of other techniques to make your choice clear — direct and strong eye contact with the volunteer; mutual head nods to confirm it is them you have chosen; if necessary, identify them with a brief, neutral descriptive clue, e.g. the colour of their clothes; and consider moving closer towards them, if there is still doubt.
Break any stereotypes early
In mixed teenage groups of girls and boys, it is especially important to involve a female early, to set the tone for the rest of the show. In such settings, girls can sometimes opt out and leave answering to the more vocal boys. Similarly, when presenting to a wide age range, it is helpful to encourage an older learner to reply near the start. This subtly shows the audience you are trying to engage everyone, not just the more expressive younger children, without making a big deal out of it.
Take collective responses from the group
One of the disadvantages of presenter-to-audience questions is that, usually, only one learner has the opportunity to answer. This is demotivating for the group and limits the feedback for the presenter. Using the audience voting mechanisms discussed in 4.5 (e.g. voting by a show of hands; mini whiteboards; electronic voting keypads), however, it’s possible to involve everyone in certain responses.
Give them time to think and then reply
Don’t panic if no-one replies immediately to a question, especially at the start of the presentation. Educators tend not to wait long enough after asking a question before they expect a response or they can step in too quickly when a child is composing an answer. It is hard to perceive time accurately when they are in the spotlight. Also, to the presenter who has asked the question a thousand times, the answer is always obvious. It seldom is for their audiences.
As a rule-of-thumb, most educators can afford to increase their wait time after asking a question. But, clearly, there is a balance to be struck here — having an extended delay after asking each question in a fast-paced interactive show can kill the overall pace. If necessary, after waiting, they can rephrase the enquiry or provide progressively stronger prompts through how they word it.
Occasionally, though, when you have asked an open-ended question designed to get them to think at a higher-level, you can announce that they will have a specific time (such as 30 seconds) to consider their reply. This will usually lead to much more elaborate and deeper answers. It’s important to manage the timing of this technique, so that they have a sense of how long they have left as they are thinking.
Show you care about their reply
If the audience are going to risk answering your questions, they must believe you are interested in what they say and that you will do nothing to humiliate them in front of their friends if they make a mistake. Through all your interactions, demonstrate your character as a respectful and caring educator who sincerely wants to help them learn. While you are listening to any reply which is relevant to your question, focus on the learner and patiently listen, facing them, leaning in and nodding. Give them your complete attention. Do not move. Do not pick up a prop. Do not interrupt them.
Being genuinely interested in the person replying and what they are saying is the best approach, but this can be challenging for veteran presenters who may have heard that response 1037 times. In this case, model interest using your acting skills (3.5). This takes effort to make all your nonverbal signals consistent. If just one part of your body language or tone of voice is out of step, you will look inauthentic.
Resist taking this opportunity to have a short mental break or to plan the next stage of the routine. Even though you think you know what they are going to say once they start, you might miss a vital nuance in their words or tone. These are exactly the details you need to incorporate into your reply to create the illusion of the first time for the audience.
Repeat their reply
You are paying close attention; the person answering is facing you onstage; you can see their mouth move; you aren’t distracted by trying to compose your own answer to the question; and you have a good idea of the range of answers they are likely to give. All these factors can trick us into thinking their reply was as audible to everyone else as it was to us. So, it is wise to repeat or paraphrase the response, before you discuss it. This approach will also help any spectators who have a hearing impairment.
Try to use variety in how you incorporate their answers — if you mechanically repeat every reply verbatim, this can slow your pace when you are interacting with them constantly. This illustrates why most of the interaction techniques in the toolkit work best for audiences of up to about 100 people, where audiences can hear the replies and call outs.