6.1 The double-edged sword of volunteers

Using volunteers is one of the most popular elements of interactive presentations in informal education. However, working well with members of the audience on stage is demanding. The inexperience of new presenters is perhaps most obviously exposed when they interact, one-on-one, with their helpers in front of a crowd. So, although volunteer management depends on many of the underlying interaction principles identified in Tools 4 and 5, it deserves a separate chapter to explore how best to handle this powerful double-edged sword.


Reasons for using volunteers

There are numerous benefits from using volunteers to assist you at key points during the presentation:

  • practical assistance — to help you perform a task or demonstration that would be awkward by yourself.
  • audience attention and involvement —  the possibility of being selected will make many spectators more attentive. Also, groups vicariously feel more involved when one of them is helping you. They are curious how their friend is going to behave and they experience an empathetic feeling of “that could be me”.
  • emotional contagion — someone close to a demonstration is likely to respond more strongly than a spectator. Furthermore, the volunteer represents the audience, so their emotions are much more contagious than those of the presenter.
  • character — it is much easier for you to bond with a single volunteer at close range than it is to connect with the many individuals in a distant audience. The spectators, however, believe the way you treat their representative on stage is how you feel about each of them. There is also an element of social proof operating here — if they see one of their own trust you, they are much more likely to trust you too.
  • the awhhh factor —  younger children tend to be authentic, present, and emotionally expressive onstage. Adults find their antics extremely watchable.
  • empowerment — by helping a volunteer accomplish an intellectual or physical task which they initially find difficult, you also increase the self-confidence of the audience. Everyone loves watching someone eventually succeed in a challenge.
  • liveness — giving volunteers a certain amount of freedom adds unpredictability and keeps your performance fresh by providing spontaneous incidents against which you can play off.
  • transparency —  to verify conditions on behalf of the audience and prove you are not cheating in an activity.
  • jeopardy — if you persuade a volunteer to attempt a challenge, rather than performing it yourself, you increase the tension. The crowd are now more uncertain if it’s going to work.
  • humour — the safest and most effective source of comedy is humour which arises organically from the situation (7.2 and 7.3). Volunteers who behave spontaneously are goldmines for situational comedy.
  • audience management — because most children from about 4 to 13 years of age love to volunteer, you can exercise the power you have in selecting helpers to reward their behaviour when they follow your instructions.


Limitations of employing volunteers

Given all the above advantages and the popularity of volunteering, it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to use a helper in every routine. It’s much wiser, however, to use them strategically when a routine most lends itself to this form of audience participation.

The disadvantages and risks of working with volunteers include:

  • slowing the pace — you need to take time to select them; welcome them; give them instructions; wait for them to complete tasks; interact with them; and release them.
  • they require your focus — managing another person onstage who isn’t used to being there demands your constant attention to keep them safe and engaged.
  • not everyone is involved — inevitably, using only one helper in a routine, does not give the group as much sense of direct involvement and control as an all-audience interaction hook.
  • treating volunteers as if they were props — without giving them an overtly meaningful task, their involvement can look empty and gratuitous.
  • lack of variety in plot — over-using assistants will degrade the impact of the technique and lead to one-dimensional presentations. Mix things up by using presenter-led routines in between volunteer routines.
  • creating volunteering dependency — setting up a pattern of constantly needing assistance will feed an increasingly frenzied attempt to get selected each time, which can over-power your message.
  • exposing unattractive parts of your personality — mistreating a volunteer is the quickest and most reliable method of turning an entire audience against you.
  • they can upstage you, in a bad way — choosing an inappropriate helper or managing them poorly can create a wilful, child-sized distraction onstage. Their behaviour can become too watchable and trample all over your content. Also, ceding a degree of control to volunteers can sometimes backfire, even if you have done nothing wrong. Occasional inconsistency in presentation quality will be the unavoidable price you pay for living by the interactive sword as a presenter.



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