There is no single best way to develop your delivery skills as an informal educator. What is important, though, is that you find a process that works for you and that allows you to keep reflecting on what you do onstage. Reflection is key.
Implementing new techniques
Be open-minded when trying any new ideas from the toolkit. Take performance risks. You can only discover your presentation limits by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone occasionally. However, it is best to become confident in your content before you experiment with how to present it; and to implement one major technique at a time when you are learning.
Integrate the techniques which work for you and ignore the ones which don’t. But don’t expect using a new hook to feel comfortable at first or to give you the audience response you were seeking immediately. Your inexperience, tension and timing will make your execution of the technique awkward. This will subtly affect the audience in ways they are not even aware of. You’ll need to try it with several audiences before you can properly judge whether or not to add it to your personal engagement toolkit. Avoid rushing to this judgement too soon.
Learning any complex skill normally involves moving through a sequence of stages. One popular model for this progression is known as the four levels of competency:
- unconscious incompetence — you don’t even know you are failing in a particular skill;
- conscious incompetence — you know you need to improve that skill, but you don’t know how to fix it;
- conscious competence — you improve that skill by breaking it down and by concentrating hard on delivering each part;
- unconscious competence — you are so fluent in that skill, you are not even aware when you instinctively use it.
Many of us will be able, in retrospect, to relate to progressing through these stages when we were learning to drive. Having to execute so many new tasks at once seemed daunting at first. As you learnt each skill, though, it became second nature. This freed up your conscious brain to focus on other actions. Similarly, like me, you will be at different levels of awareness and competence for each of the techniques you try to learn from this book. Be patient with yourself.
“Before you can be great, you have to be good. Before you can be good, you have to be bad. Before you can be bad, you have to try.”
A. L. Williams (business leader)
The privilege of experience
One of the most valuable parts of being an informal educator is so obvious that we often take it for granted — we’ve conducted every activity we present before, whereas these experiences are new to our audiences. Sometimes we’ve done them thousands of times before. This privilege of experience (2.1) is priceless to any presenter. As well as allowing us to prepare for the most common responses, this repetition means we can hone the technical skills of presenting over time.
“A professional is someone who does one show a lot of times, while an amateur is someone who does a lot of shows once.”
Albert Goshman (magician)
The discipline of reflection
Merely building up your stage time, however, is not enough by itself. It’s dangerously easy to coast as a presenter, enjoying the experience, without considering precisely how you are coming across to your audience. The only way to achieve presentation mastery is through continually reflecting on the details of your delivery. In this way you will become more deliberate about how you engage your audiences. This takes commitment and perseverance.
Don’t rely on your memory to reflect. Write down your observations and insights after a presentation — otherwise you will lose them as quickly as they came to you. Using an audio or video record of the session can help you remember the most instructive incidents.
One of the most powerful ways to help you reflect is to seek honest and constructive feedback from your experienced colleagues. Their responses can help you to focus your attention on particular aspects of your performance. Sometimes the questions they pose will be more instructive than any detailed suggestions they might make.
Try to find creative ways to evaluate what your audience thinks and feels, which do not detract from their experience. Use this feedback to help you identify which parts of your delivery you need to develop further.
“Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.”
Aldous Huxley (author)
The value of study
The problem with restricting yourself to learning how to present only through experience and reflection is that this process is painful, slow and public.
Study can help you avoid having to learn solely from making your own mistakes in front of audiences. You can cheat by learning from the experience and reflection of others. Make time to observe other informal educators and their audiences; commit to induction and ongoing training offered by your organisation; read blogs, articles and books; participate in online discussions; attend conferences; observe and learn from professional performers in related art forms; listen to podcasts and watch videos online; and take part in improv and stand-up workshops.
“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.”
Vernon Law (athlete)
The cycle of improvement
I believe the most efficient way of improving as an informal educator is to follow a constant cycle of study, experience and reflection. Study and reflection allow you to maximise the benefit from each of your experiences.
Thankfully, effective presenters never stop learning. Hopefully this book has been able to suggest lots of principles to consider and techniques to try. The experience and reflection parts are down to you. My only wish is that these parts bring you as much joy and satisfaction as they have to me over the years.
In light of the impact of Covid-19 on the informal education sector, I’ve made the text of this book available online until the end of July 2021. You can purchase print or ebook versions at HookYourAudienceBook.com