6.3 Coaxing volunteers from reluctant audiences

Many teenagers and adults will, sadly, have seen other interactive performers mistreat volunteers for a cheap laugh. But even if they trust you, their self-consciousness and ego make them reluctant to put themselves in a position where they might slip up publicly. This is understandable, but it poses one of the biggest challenges to new presenters — you cannot perform an interactive show without audience participation. Paradoxically, however, the more you worry about this issue, the harder you will find it to extract suitable help from these groups. Your desperation will create a vicious circle.


You must believe they will volunteer

The most important technique when selecting helpers from these cautious groups is easy to express, but hard to execute. You need to convince yourself that the first person you ask will volunteer without dissent. If you can get into this state of mind, your body language and manner will be free from tension. You will exude absolute confidence that the person will agree. In such circumstances, they will almost certainly comply. Any trace of doubt, though, will leak out to the prospective assistant.


Win their trust first

You’re a stranger passing through a foreign land. Informal educators can afford to look silly — we usually only see our audiences once in our life. Students or families, though, will spend the rest of their school career or life together. They are painfully aware of this and want to avoid any risks to their long-term credibility. Your desire to get a volunteer will always lose out to their fight for social survival.

Teenagers are famously insecure. The main goal of an adolescent is to get through the day experiencing the least embarrassment in front of their peers. At this stage of their brain development, acceptance by the group is everything. Also, as a visitor, you’re oblivious to the shared history of that audience. Secondary schools, for example, are brutal social jungles. They are affected by all sorts of invisible relationships and hierarchies — academic jealousies and sporting rivalries; grudges and in-jokes; bullying and romances; in-person and online arguments.

Yet, based only on the signals you can read in the room, you must somehow create a safe space to allow them to interact for the time you spend with them. Answering a question from the relative safety of the crowd feels hazardous enough. Choosing to walk up and help you onstage requires a different level of commitment. Do everything you can to show you are relatable, trustworthy and competent to give them confidence to risk helping you.


“Think of them as timid woodland creatures. You don’t want to spook them.”
Ryan Pilling (magician)


Ramp up the commitment required

Nervous audiences can often be settled by building up the level of risk that your interactive hooks require. For example, by asking questions and sensitively dealing with their answers at the start of the presentation. Then, by escalating this commitment to using a volunteer who remains seated in the audience whilst you have an extended conversation with them. At this point, you could ask for someone to help you onstage. In fact, you don’t have to explicitly ask for a “volunteer” at all. With reluctant groups, the less fuss you make of the process the better.


Your first volunteer sets the pattern

Your volunteer selection and management for the entire presentation is made — or broken — by your first helper. This interaction establishes the precedent for all your subsequent helpers to follow. If you can get your first assistant from a reluctant audience easily and make them a hero onstage, then spectators will be much more willing to help next time. So, choose your first volunteer with great care.

An often-misinterpreted piece of advice given to new presenters is that whoever they select as their first helper must be made to come up, no matter what. This is meant to be because, if you let this person off, everyone will realise they have free-will and you will have great difficulty getting any future assistance.

If you follow this advice with groups who are only slightly hesitant to volunteer, however, it can be counterproductive. The situation you want to avoid most is a prolonged battle of wills with a stubborn spectator whom you have chosen, by mistake, to be your first volunteer. Trying one persuasion technique after another only reinforces, in the minds of everyone, how unpleasant the role must be. I was guilty of falling into this trap at the start of my career and, on several occasions, it completely killed the pace of my shows.

Once you recognise the early signs of this potential stalemate, gracefully move on to a target who is more malleable. It is only when you suspect that everybody will be extremely resistant to volunteering that you should risk persisting with your first choice — you’ve got little to lose. Such instances are rare, thankfully.



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Profile your audience

In scanning your reserved audience, these signals can help you identify who might be willing prospects:

  • concentrate your efforts on those individuals who have already responded vocally or laughed at your humour, and who hold your eye contact confidently;
  • when people have a free choice of where to sit, the most interested spectators sit as near the front and centre as possible;
  • anyone who does anything to draw attention to themselves during your search — this may be an indication they secretly want to be chosen.

Don’t be influenced into picking spectators who are pushed forward enthusiastically by their friends, but who appear reluctant themselves. This can backfire if they freeze on stage. But you can sometimes turn this situation around and use it as an overt excuse to select one of their peers doing the pushing, provided you think they would make a good volunteer. You can explain, in a good-humoured way, that they’ve brought this upon themselves by making themselves visible at that moment.


Give them an acceptable excuse

One reason some teenage groups may not volunteer to begin with is that no-one wants to take the credibility risk of being seen to be the first person to be helpful to an adult in an unusual situation. A way around this mentality is to devise your first participation routine to be particularly attractive to take part in, e.g. the task involves the possibility of food, danger or a competition prize as a reward. Your assistant can then plausibly claim this is why they volunteered, rather than have their friends think they were trying to help you.


Safety in numbers

An element of group security can be introduced if you invite two people who are friends onstage at the same time. Each person will feel under less pressure than volunteering individually, but it’s important to have something worthwhile for both of them to do.


Trick them into helping you

Another way of providing cover to the credibility of your assistant is to manipulate them humorously into helping without their knowledge. The contrivance should be obvious to everyone in retrospect even though it seemed convincing enough at the start, so the volunteer can use this defence later to their peers. Also, everyone has to understand that your intention was to be playful, rather than unkind. For example,

  • explaining that you need a chair for the next part and casually asking a someone in the front row if you can borrow their seat. As they bring it up, smile knowingly and admit, “well… since you’re here already, we can use you as our next volunteer. Thanks very much.”
  • giving your target spectator a prop to examine and later, from the stage, announcing that, “I need a volunteer who has a [prop]. Does anyone happen to have a [prop]? Oh, you have… thank you… give her a big round of applause.”


Cheat — set it up in advance

If you suspect you will struggle with a group, one precaution to take is to ask someone friendly and confident to agree to help you before the presentation starts. As you move around chatting with your audience, you can explain that some groups are slow to volunteer at the start. Tell them a bit about the routine and stress it would help you if they could agree to come up, if required, for this part. This is safer than pre-arranging with a teacher to volunteer (6.2) — students are much more of a captive audience.


Gently turn up the pressure [ADVANCED]

When you are trying to persuade a prospective volunteer — who is expressing only moderate resistance in an audience where you think you will struggle to find anyone else more willing — there are ways to ethically apply light psychological pressure without embarrassing them:

  • approach your target — the closer you are to them, the more powerful an effect your eye contact and body language will have;
  • ask for their name and use it often as you have a short, warm conversation;
  • evoke the assistance of their friends to provide gentle encouragement;
  • if they are visibly wavering, ask for a round of applause to push them over the edge.

As a last resort, some presenters will ask for a round of applause for the volunteer, then immediately turn around and walk away as if they expect the person to follow them onto the stage. This technique can place a lot of pressure on the target, though, and I am not comfortable using it in my own presentations.


Break the tension with humour [ADVANCED]

Experienced presenters sometimes use humour and mock pleading to reduce any anxiety that their volunteer search may provoke. Calling out this situation safely, though, takes great skill — the audience must understand you’re joking and you’re still in control, rather than becoming desperate. This technique works better with groups which are only moderately unresponsive. Typical lines are, “Hmmm… why is everyone suddenly fascinated by the floor?” and “Can you come up and help me? Sorry… you made the mistake of smiling at me at the wrong time.”


Target the alphas [ADVANCED]

By watching the interactions, eye gaze patterns, and body language of people as they enter and during the opening, you should be able to identify the alpha audience members. These are the most confident and highest-status members of the tribe. Others look to them for signals as to how to react to what is happening — especially at the start of the presentation. They tend to sit either at the front or the back of the audience, if they have a choice. You’ll notice the small group of hangers-on around them always laugh or react to whatever they say. Often you can recognise them as the most fashionable audience members, e.g. from their branded clothing, hairstyle or how liberally they have interpreted the school’s uniform policy.

Inviting an alpha to be your first volunteer can be powerful. If they agree quickly and you help them look good, the audience will relax and follow their example when you next ask for help. Their mantle of high-status, however, makes some alphas demanding and sensitive to work with if they think you are challenging them. If they refuse to join you or, for whatever reason, they do not engage properly on stage, you’re going to be in trouble for the rest of the presentation. So, treat them with particular caution.



Winning the alphas over

One of my toughest ever audiences was during an outreach show in a secondary school that was being closed at the end of the term. The 60 students remaining were the ones who had, so far, failed to get a place in the surrounding schools. They felt the system had given up on them, so they gave up on the system. This difficulty was compounded by a 5-year age span across the group.

After failing to create any engagement with my opening, I was dying on stage. Normally, at this point, I would allow them to throw around a giant inflatable beach ball to illustrate how forces change the speed, direction or shape of an object. For several reasons, I didn’t want to risk this activity with this audience.

So, I decided to target the leader of the pack — a 16-year-old boy who had positioned himself in the centre of the front row. He’d been sitting impassively, slouched back, arms crossed.

I took a calculated risk.

Standing 2 metres in front of him, I suddenly bounced the ball off his forehead and caught the rebound, with a swagger and a smile. I then improvised, “Did you see it change shape? …… The ball … not his head.” The combination of surprise, co-ordination and humour broke my harshest critic, and he started laughing and interacting with me. Magically, everyone else followed and the presentation, which started so badly, ended up being one of my most rewarding shows.

This is an example of an edgy technique that I discuss in 4.3 and 7.1, and I am not advising anyone else to repeat it based only on this brief account. These kinds of hooks always look higher-risk on paper than they were in reality, because they fail to capture the full context of the situation and the number of factors the presenter may have taken into account in deploying this hook.


Have a back-up plan

When you’re presenting to these potentially unwilling audiences, it’s always sensible to prepare a back-up plan for your first couple of volunteer routines. Think of how you could deliver a version of the routine if it proved impossible to convince a spectator to participate, e.g. by choosing the person who organised the event or a teacher to help you; or by changing how you present the activity so you can perform it without assistance. Avoid using these emergency plans, though, as excuses not to work hard to find a volunteer.


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