Volunteers inevitably introduce a level of unpredictability into the presentation. This is engaging for audiences, but a wise presenter sets this up carefully so they bias the outcome in their favour before the assistant even speaks. Since the ones you choose can make or break your entire presentation, you need a reliable selection process.
Amongst children aged 4-13, competition to volunteer will be high from the start, whereas, teenagers or adults will be more reluctant to join you onstage, at least initially. We’ll consider how to select assistants from willing audiences in this section and from more hesitant groups in 6.3.
Avoid the stampede
One of the first things informal educators learn the hard way is to precede their early instructions to young audiences with a qualifier like, “In a moment, I’m going to need someone to help me.” Otherwise, if you suddenly announce you need a volunteer, without first explaining how you will choose that person, you might end up being crushed in the rush.
Vary the way you ask for help
Try to avoid using the same verbal request every time you need a volunteer. For example, in one demo I turn a spectator into a cannon by asking them to throw a heavy bottle of sand to me whilst standing on a turntable — here I ask, “Does anyone want to become a cannon?”
With very young children, it’s clearer if you ask for a “helper” or “someone to help you”, rather than use the word “volunteer”.
Keep control of the volunteer selection process
Normally, I pick my own child volunteers. It’s too important a decision to delegate. Well-intentioned adults, even teachers, don’t necessarily know what qualities you need to complement each routine, such as the private selection criteria discussed below. A notable exception to this approach would be when I’m working with a group who have learning difficulties or physical disabilities.
I also avoid randomised techniques, such as throwing a ball around the audience until the music stops to identify a person. This compromises my ability to choose the best helpers. Worst still, a certain proportion of any group is going to dread coming up and will find this game of volunteer roulette terrifying. I know I would.
Be transparently fair
If audiences are sensitive to how fairly they are selected to answer questions (5.2), they care even more about how impartially you award the bigger prize of becoming a volunteer. Learn how to pick helpers from across every demographic you can imagine.
A vital skill for all interactive presenters is remembering who you chose previously. If you pick the same person twice, it makes you look unprofessional and uncaring — as if you’ve forgotten about your helpers as soon as they left the stage. One way of reducing this risk is to use phrases like, “Please keep your hands down if you’ve come up before… but hands up if you would like to volunteer”, towards the end of the presentation when you are most likely to select the same learners by mistake.
It is not enough, however, to choose people fairly — you must be seen to be fair. If you hear any grumbles from the audience about your volunteer selection, you might need to find ways of subtly indicating your equity, e.g. through verbal asides, such as, “OK, we had a girl last time, let’s have a boy this time.” or “This time, we should have someone from the very back of the audience.”
Apply your public criteria
For younger audiences, volunteering is an enormous privilege and asking for an assistant will produce much excitement and noise. You can control their enthusiasm, though, by reminding them of your rules for choosing people. I use variations of the phrase, “I pick people who are sitting quietly with their hand up and smiling at me.” The immediate transformation this technique produces across the audience is astonishing.
You must then be seen to follow your own rules, however, and consistently choose children who comply. You can make asides on some of your decisions to reinforce this behaviour, e.g. “You were sitting still and smiling so much, how could I not choose you?” It also helps to explain the reasons behind any rules you give — for example, “I ask you to do these things, so that I know who will be good at listening and following instructions when they are onstage.”
Filter with your private criteria
In addition to selecting fairly across audience characteristics and those following the public rules you have stated, you need to further narrow the choice using your own unpublished criteria.
It can be helpful to think of your volunteer vacancy in terms of a job description with essential and desirable criteria. These are the three essential requirements I’m looking for in every assistant:
- emotionally expressive — your volunteers act as emotional amplifiers for the action taking place onstage. You want to choose the most naturally expressive spectators you can find. But they will also need to be able to relax enough so they can emote without being self-conscious. Whatever emotion they feel will infect the rest of the audience.
- supportive — choosing animated volunteers, though, is not the same as selecting the loudest spectators. Unless you know how to manage them, audience clowns make disruptive helpers. Your assistants need to listen well and co-operate with you.
- physically and intellectually capable of the task — as you want them to succeed, it is important that you select volunteers of appropriate ability, height, weight, mobility, age, strength, attire, etc. Some routines may involve physical requirements you need to warn them about, before they come up, so you don’t place them in an embarrassing or dangerous position, e.g. a spectator may have restricted mobility which is not apparent to you, or an invisible learning difficulty.
“Unless you want competition from out-of-control extroverts, avoid the ones who are dying to be chosen.”
Darwin Ortiz (magician)
Ideally, I try to select volunteers who also appear to meet the following desirable criteria:
- likeable or high-status — these volunteers will connect better with the audience and make them feel good about themselves. Also, the more the group likes them, the more they will pick up their emotions. For older groups, it can be useful to identify and select the high-status alpha audience members as your first helpers (6.3). One of the best ways of detecting these traits in prospective volunteers is through your informal interactions with the audience before the presentation.
- they “get” your personality — you will be doing a short double-act with your volunteer, so choose the people who appear to appreciate your stage character. Once you’ve selected them, you don’t have long to get them to warm up to you. Do they connect with your sense of humour? Do they look interested in you?
- sufficient attitude against which you can play off — even though you want supportive volunteers, that doesn’t mean you want them to be bland robots onstage. Part of the art of working with assistants is to bring out their natural dispositions for everyone to enjoy. This makes them much more watchable. You will often need to encourage them to emphasise particular parts of their personality subtly — known as endowing them with a character trait (6.5).
Every moment you observe and interact with your audience, they are sending you lots of clues about how well they each meet your public and private selection criteria, e.g. from chatting with them before the presentation; their questions, answers and call-outs; their attention; their eye contact and body posture; their laughter; their compliance in following your instructions; and the nature and intensity of their emotional responses. The more aware you are of these signals, the more effective your participation routines will become. As a beginning presenter, though, it can be difficult to find the mental bandwidth for this monitoring process alongside everything else you have to think about.
Read their arm language when you ask for help. Avoid selecting children who are excitedly waving their hands and screaming, or, at the other extreme, those who are only half-hearted in raising their hands. The best choice is often the child who is interested and smiling, sitting upright and holding their hand up patiently and still.
Clearly identify the selected volunteer
Once you have decided who you want to help, be precise in indicating who that person is. If you are not clear, you may end up with a child who is not well-suited to the role or have to adapt your routine to work with two children who have arrived onstage. It is difficult to send back a child who has rushed up by mistake without hurting their feelings and looking uncaring.
The likelihood of misidentification grows with — the distance you are from the selected volunteer; the seating density; the level of excitement; the audience being in low-light; and with especially young groups, who won’t pick up your nonverbal cues as strongly.
In addition to the techniques used when identifying someone to answer a question (5.2), you’ll need to watch the audience to ensure that the correct spectator is standing up and making their way forward. If your crowd is large, one tactic is to establish a two-phase system — first ask the person you’ve identified to stand up and only then, once the right person has stood up, invite them to join you onstage.
Choose your teachers carefully
Getting the right type of teacher up to help you is critical. I tend to trust the wisdom of the crowd and students delight in helping to choose the teacher. They instinctively know who will be engaging, expressive, likeable and vulnerable.
Often, I will appear to give them total power to choose by walking around and pointing at teachers over the screaming crowd. They vote vocally. As the teachers play up to the “horror” of being selected, you can narrow it down to two educators and then nonverbally set-up a cheering competition for the “victim… sorry, volunteer”. It’s important to host this game playfully so that no-one takes offence at this mock popularity contest. Also, I only focus on teachers who I’ve already observed are popular with their students. All the time during this extended selection process, the teachers are giving me lots of silent clues about how willing they really are to come onstage — this is one of the reasons I use this approach.
I usually go with the loudest reaction, but I still pay attention to their body language and my assessment of how they interacted with students before the presentation. Be aware, though — some insecure teachers are skilled at looking confident, even when they are dying inside. Also, in an audience made up of different schools or classes, you will maximise the group response if you select a teacher from the school or class with the largest number of students.
Many teachers are not used to being volunteers in this context and some can be surprisingly nervous in front of a large audience. So, whilst the excitement is subsiding, I ask them quietly, “What can I call you for the show?” This avoids the hilarity that ensues in case they blurt out their first name in front of their students.
Consider confirming your adult stooge in advance
If you are concerned about being able to find a suitable teacher to assist during the presentation you can pre-arrange this with someone before you start. It’s important to be aware, however, that the risk of them not being in the room at the required time is higher than you might think, especially in outreach shows.
So for this reason, I only use this tactic if I have to because the routine demands that the teacher have specific attributes which are not visible to me, e.g. level of their physical mobility; skill with a certain piece of equipment; or it involves putting them in a particularly vulnerable position.
One secondary school demo that I used to perform involved vacuum packing the lower half of a teacher in a large bin bag. To make this work safely, I need them to be able to sit down cross-legged on the floor whilst wearing the bag — a tricky manoeuvre to pull off gracefully in front of all of Year 10. Things get worse though when they have to insert the end of the vacuum hose between their knees and I start to remove the air from the bag. Once most of the air has been evacuated, the bottom half of the teacher is completely immobilised.
Now you may be thinking, isn’t that horrifically embarrassing for the poor teacher? The honest answer is that, yes, it could be, if I didn’t pre-select the person carefully; explain to them everything that was going to happen; get their agreement; and then support them throughout the demo so that they had complete confidence they wouldn’t be harmed, physically or emotionally. When I get those four things right, that teacher has helped create a striking visual image of the power of air pressure that will stay with those students the rest of their lives.
Involve parents too
Family audiences also enjoy parents or carers being selected for potentially hazardous routines. I look for smiling adults who hold my eye contact and appear engaged and confident. Often, I will select one of the improvised cast, whom I have previously elevated and endowed with a particular character (7.2). They already have high status in the eyes of the crowd and, hopefully, by this point they trust me enough to let themselves be vulnerable.
Bear in mind that younger children are not reliable judges of whether their parents would make a good assistant — some think their parents can do anything, while others are secretly hoping to see them fail onstage.
For obvious reasons, avoid choosing an adult in sole care of younger children. Also, if the activity you need the grown-up to perform looks dangerous, it’s wise not to choose someone with young children as they may become upset or rush onstage to protect their parent or guardian.
Over time, diversify your selection [ADVANCED]
Regardless of the event, teachers will tell you that the same few children tend to get picked all the time. This is because the selection system is biased — most educators use a version of the above criteria. So, as your ability in managing volunteers develops with experience, it helps to diversify your requirements. For example, consider occasionally choosing a more reserved learner — someone who you know will normally be ignored. Volunteering confers high status on a child, and, if you manage this situation well, you can lift both their self-esteem and their standing amongst their peers.
This approach, however, involves you taking a greater risk and having to work much harder to relax them enough to bring out the most engaging parts of their personality. The reasons for their diffident behaviour may be deep-rooted and your well-intentioned deed may backfire. Worse than damaging the pace of your presentation, you do not want to further damage their confidence or their credibility.