Volunteers like people who like them. Children, especially, are experts at knowing if you genuinely care about them. If you don’t enjoy working with people, I’d argue that you’re not well suited to the role of an informal educator. Any apathy or dislike towards your audience will leak out most through your spontaneous, one-on-one interactions with volunteers.
As you gain experience, your skill in selecting and managing helpers will lead to fewer problems as you interact with them. You will start to give out hundreds of tiny cues that you won’t be aware of, which will eliminate or mitigate issues before they become visible.
Put yourself in their shoes
Perhaps the most difficult skill in volunteer management is being able to put yourself in their position. This can be hard to do when you are comfortable on stage and have everything else to focus on. I recommend occasionally volunteering during performances you are attending as an audience member. This experience will remind you how confused, vulnerable and manipulated our helpers can feel during our own presentations.
By volunteering, they are putting themselves in a compromised position — they are unfamiliar with standing and moving on a stage; they can feel self-conscious; they don’t know what they are going to do; and they are at risk of making a simple, extremely public, mistake. In these strange settings, people often behave and react unexpectedly. Basic tasks can become difficult.
Always protect your volunteers
Be visibly attentive to the physical and emotional safety of your volunteers at all times. This care is not only necessary to fulfil your responsibility to your helpers but also for the sake of your connection with the group.
Any insults from the crowd aimed at your volunteers should be stepped on before they can escalate. It is the target who gets to define how the treatment is making them feel — not the person who may think they are only “bantering”. Occasionally, by chance, you will choose a student who is unpopular with his or her peers. Even if the audience don’t say anything, you’ll feel the atmosphere change as this omega audience member comes onstage. This is when you need to protect your play bubble most fiercely. I have a zero-tolerance approach to any bullying behaviours in my presentations. To implement this, however, I may have to use up some of my trust bank (1.4), e.g. challenging any bullying remarks directly and therefore risk having the bully and their friends turn against me for the rest of the presentation.
Listen because you care
More than anything else, children crave to be listened to by adults who care about what they say. Never underestimate the value of taking the time to do this with your volunteers. They can tell. It will make all the difference to how they perceive and interact with you.
As adults, we mentally downplay some of their questions or statements because we know how commonplace they are. But to the child, they matter to them greatly at that moment. So, they should matter to us.
Give them room to shine as a hero
The audience is interested in the personality and motivations of the new person who has joined you onstage. You’re doing an improvised double act with your assistant, the would-be hero. But you need to give them time to warm-up and grow into their new role. You can’t rush this part.
Allow them room so that elements of their personality can emerge. Stop hogging the conversation. Play off their authentic and spontaneous contributions for as long as you dare. When you can, build on the offers they give you — their unexpected reactions; quirky answers; funny expressions; traces of attitude. Accepting their offers will encourage them to risk making bigger contributions like this and their role will grow. This is part of the on-the-job training you must give volunteers. You can’t expect them to know this is how you want them to behave unless you show them.
Assign them tasks which will be within their abilities and which have an empowering outcome for them and the audience. As their improv partner, it’s your job to make them “look good” in front of their friends — no matter what happens. Street performers call this process “making them a hero”. If something goes wrong at the hands of the volunteer, reassure them it wasn’t their fault, but rather it was the way you explained it or because the prop malfunctioned.
“The volunteer should never lose, otherwise the street performer becomes a thug.”
David Cassel (busker)
Prospect for golden volunteers
Occasionally, you will discover a volunteer who says exactly the right things at the right times; who is wonderfully expressive and vulnerable; who is naturally funny; who plays off your personality well; and who has the audience in the palm of their hands. These are the magical moments presenters live for. The entranced crowd can sense these incidents too. Street performers call such a helper a golden child — it is usually only young children who have the presence and authenticity to pull this off.
You should prospect every assistant you work with looking for such gold, but don’t expect to uncover golden volunteers often. When you do, though, make the most of them. They will make your presentation unforgettable.
Can you share any memorable stories from your experience of working with volunteers? 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.
Keep them engaged
Make sure that every volunteer you use has a demonstrably worthwhile task to do and that you keep including them in your eye contact. Less experienced presenters can sometimes unintentionally abandon them during a routine — to become stage orphans. This is uncomfortable for them and distracting for the audience. Also, under such circumstances, younger children may create their own diversions or wander off.
An important skill is to be able to move the audience’s focus between you and the volunteer during the routine. Watch how TV chat show hosts do this in their interviews — becoming animated when asking the question or during short exchanges, but then freezing when the guest is giving a long answer.
Give clear instructions
Explaining what you need your helpers to do is vital to the success of any activity. These instructions need to be crystal clear. However, your curse of knowledge makes it hard for you to appreciate the confusion that someone may encounter on trying to complete a task for the first time, under pressure, onstage. The more familiar you are with the task, the harder it becomes for you to genuinely put yourself in the position of someone who doesn’t share your knowledge.
Although essential, these directions are rarely interesting to the audience, so make them as concise as possible. It is surprisingly easy to spend several minutes explaining how to do something, for the activity itself to be over quickly and with an impact that does not justify the set-up time.
The best instructions are developed through deliberation and a series of fine adjustments in light of experience. Use simple words. Break complex requests down into separate steps. Model actions through body language. Make sure that your volunteer understands what they need to do at each stage before they do it. Repeat or rephrase instructions as necessary.
Don’t put them on the intellectual spot
Try to avoid putting the volunteer under pressure by asking hard questions which have factual answers. Brains often freeze when they are caught in the spotlight and your helper shouldn’t feel they are being tested in public. One way of dealing with this is to, through your verbal and nonverbal language, address the question to both the volunteer and the audience, e.g. “Does anyone know…?” This flexible handling still allows your assistant to reply if they are confident enough, but it does not make them feel as if they must respond.
Look for the safe laughs
The more freedom you can give volunteers, the more opportunities they will generate for you to create humour by commenting on the situation which has developed. We’ll explore this low-risk covert humour more in the next tool (7.2 and 7.3). Remember, though, that any time the audience laughs at a predicament onstage, it is dangerously easy for the helper to feel as if they are being laughed at. That’s why you need to reassure the volunteer that the crowd are laughing with them at the situation.
Involve multiple helpers
Using more than one volunteer onstage at the same time can open up new possibilities as you can now exploit the relationship that develops between them for interest and situational humour, e.g. instilling a sense of friendly competition between them to complete a challenge first.
Work with volunteers in the audience
Occasionally, you can create a fresh dynamic by going out into the audience to conduct part of the activity with the volunteer whilst they stay seated. Or, from the stage, you can have an extended interaction with someone who remains seated. These techniques are useful when — you need to save time; one area of seats is inaccessible; or a spectator has restricted mobility. They should only be used for brief segments, however, as it can be hard for the group to see and hear properly.
Place teachers in apparent jeopardy
Routines with teacher volunteers are often used near the end of school presentations, as they create so much excitement. They are hard to top for audience response. The secret to these routines is to ensure that, no matter how bad the developing situation looks for the teacher, they can instinctively tell that you’re not going to humiliate or hurt them. They will have to continue to teach those students for years after your presentation and teacher reputation is a hard-won and precious currency in any school.
Because they start off with high status, however, you can afford to be quite edgy with them and to place them in situations of greater apparent jeopardy than you would with a student volunteer. Jeopardy is a term used in storytelling to describe what is at stake to a character in a story at a moment of conflict. In our context, this means devising risks to their physical being, their property or their dignity, e.g. persuading them to sit on a chair of nails in a science demo about pressure. Most will take the hint and play up to the drama and humour of the situation. In general, primary school teachers will tend to be more expressive and playful than secondary level educators.
Even if the teacher loses in some way in the routine, you can still laud them as a hero when they return to their seat, because everyone knows it was a set-up. They “win” for playing along and for taking it all in a good spirit.
Exploit family ties
Using parents as volunteers from family audiences allows you to mine lots of family relationship tropes. These routines will be of most direct interest to the relatives of the person helping you, but by highlighting the familiar relationships in a family unit, you can engage everybody else.
You can also put parents in apparently risky situations, but you will need to treat them more cautiously than a teacher. You cannot expect them, necessarily, to have the experience of being comfortable standing in front of a group and playing up to the dramatic situation you have created. Many parents will co-operate well in their role, but you may need to give them lots of encouragement to be expressive and vulnerable at the start of the routine.
Re-incorporate volunteers [ADVANCED]
Veteran presenters impress audiences by being able to re-incorporate volunteers from earlier in the show by name. This is a powerful technique because it suggests that they matter to the educator personally. Calling back to your helpers at relevant moments will also make you appear quick-witted, whereas you’ve simply used your re-incorporation radar (2.3) to spot a response or trait which you know you can refer to later in the presentation.
“I bet you can’t …” [ADVANCED]
A common hook is to challenge your helpers to attempt a task at which you have failed. Audiences enjoy seeing someone reveal their character by taking on the high-status presenter and volunteers love getting one over you. Younger children will need more support to challenge you openly on stage, e.g. establishing your playful character early; building up a strong trust bank; beginning the defiant behaviour pattern slowly in small steps; and giving them lots of strong eye contact to reassure them until the game becomes obvious.
In a show about the science behind toys for young children, I discover two 1 meter long, corrugated plastic tubes. Despite my best attempts, I cannot work out how to use this toy (e.g. looking through it; blowing into it), much to the amusement of my excited audience.
Eventually I hear one of the call-outs to whirl it to make a sound, but when I try this, I “accidentally” cover the end I’m holding the tube by with my hand, so that no sound is produced. The more exasperated I become with my failure, the funnier and more empowering they find this.
I challenge one of my most vocal critics, “OK… if you think you’re so smart, let’s see you try it.” Of course, she is able to produce the sound as soon as she spins the tube. At which point the room erupts again. My nonverbal expressions of shock and anger lift this response further.
Then through a series of leading questions, I’m able to let them “point out to me” what I was doing wrong — by covering the tube, I was stopping the air moving through it, so that the air couldn’t be wobbled by all the bumps along the tube to create the sound.
Milk the awhhh factor [ADVANCED]
Audiences love watching children being children. Young children are so watchable, street performers use them as magnets to attract crowds. But experienced performers also know how easily a child can steal the scene. You need to be prepared to harness this power so it helps, rather than hinders, your routine.
“Never work with children or animals.”
W.C. Fields (comedian)
The more deeply you understand the traits which comprise the awhhh factor, the easier you will find it to elicit these behaviours from younger volunteers, e.g.
- expressive and high-energy;
- smiling, laughing and giggling;
- insatiable curiosity;
- extremely present and in-the-moment;
- willingness to play and to “find the game” in everything;
- not afraid to be wrong in public;
- innocence and naivety;
- shyness in some social situations;
- the charming, but brutal, honesty of some of their responses;
- lack of awareness of certain social rules;
- indulging in long and seemingly irrelevant stories;
- earnestness and determination to complete a task;
- the need to show-off their knowledge or skills to others;
- sagely mimicking adult phrases or behaviour they have observed, e.g. telling you off;
- fantastic imaginations and openness to indulge in nonsense thinking.
Once you’ve drawn out one of these cute behaviours, the adults and older children watching will experience a shared moment of recognition and warmth. This helps to melt the audience together. It is also an opportunity for you to demonstrate how much you enjoy your job, through sharing a knowing look and a smile. Sometimes, you can throw in asides which narrate the trait, without mocking the child (7.3).
Many of these behaviours are driven by the egocentric nature of children in these early years. They are not aware of, and cannot control, these actions. That is one reason we find them so appealing. But if the audience detects any sense that the child volunteer is “playing cute” on purpose, to please the adults, this self-awareness can destroy their enjoyment. So, there is a fine line to walk here between encouraging endearing behaviour and feeding attention-seeking antics.
“If you want to stop the world, stop a child.”
Jim Cellini (street performer)
Endow your volunteer with certain traits [ADVANCED]
Your job is to relax the volunteer sufficiently and interact in a way which allows facets of their personality to emerge naturally. You can then take these traits or attitudes and exaggerate some of them playfully, so you endow them with one or two strong personality attributes, e.g. encouraging them to be oppositional by treating them as a trouble-maker (“I knew you’d be trouble.”) The rest of the group will find this expression of their character interesting and often amusing.
The assistant doesn’t necessarily know the role you have bestowed upon them. So, you need to give them clues in the way you interact, so they can exaggerate these characteristics. Ideally, you should be able to find a way to incorporate these attributes into the plot of the routine. If you decide to focus on any derogatory traits, this technique needs to be used carefully and they must trust that you are only playing.
Curiously, it doesn’t seem to matter if the trait which you pick up on was only exhibited in a minor way. Provided there was a trace of that characteristic present in their attitude or tone, you can exaggerate this quality and the audience will find this credible.
Delay making your volunteer a hero [ADVANCED]
The most interesting and inspirational protagonists are the ones who succeed despite the escalating obstacles they face. So, make some of your more confident assistants work for their acclaim as heroes. The volunteer and audience, though, need to understand that you are setting these challenges as a game and not just to exploit your power. This distinction is critical to their trust in you.
Giving written examples of edgy interactions can be dangerous, because if you apply these hooks in the wrong context they can backfire disastrously. With that caution in mind, though, there is a technique I use in the uphill tin demo (2.3) which makes the person who suggests that the tin might contain a hamster work for their eventual status.
If I sense that this person is confident, from previous interactions or from reading their tone and body language, I will often mock their suggestion at the start. For example, replying in disbelief, “I know I said to be creative, but … a hamster? Really?” I’m goading them into defending and explaining their idea.
Once someone has listened to the tin being shaken to rule out the hamster explanation, though, I then apologise and acknowledge what a creative solution a hamster was. Up to that point, it was as valid as any other physically feasible explanation. I praise them for having the courage to say aloud what some others may have been thinking and stress how important this strength is when you’re being innovative. The narrative arc they have been through and the way they have stuck to their convictions makes them an even bigger hero in the eyes of the audience.