The toolkit in this book is a collection of emotional engagement techniques for informal educators who give interactive presentations to learners as their career. Their audiences are typically schools, community youth groups and families, e.g. a demonstration show in a science museum, a public presentation to help interpret the significance of a historic house, or an assembly talk on recycling by an environmental organisation.
Use the toolkit to help you reflect
Informal educators seem to use a common set of techniques to engage their audiences across sectors and across countries. These are learnt informally — mainly through apprenticeships with their peers, personal experience and by imitating performance artists. Surprisingly, most of these techniques aren’t written down anywhere, in detail, for educators to follow. Correcting this omission was one of the purposes behind this toolkit.
Whilst most of the information in this book is not new, the educators who I train tell me that they value how the techniques have been collated into a practical toolkit, as well as the opportunity to reflect on exactly why and how they use each device.
The number of techniques described in each tool can easily be overwhelming, particularly if you are less experienced. So, I’ve written the book in short chunks with subheadings and end-of-chapter summaries — to allow you to scan and dip into sections in order to explore specific issues you may have at that time. To get the most value out of the toolkit, take your time and reflect on each technique as you read. Examine how the advice relates to your experience and how you might implement any new suggestions in your presentations.
Start with your purpose and your audience
This book concentrates on delivery skills rather than on how to write interactive presentations. It assumes that, for each presentation you want to use these techniques with, you have already clearly identified your purpose and your audience. I’ll talk more about these two vital contexts in the introduction (0.1 and 0.4), but it’s impossible to effectively implement any technique in this toolkit without first understanding who you are interacting with and what outcomes you want to achieve with them.
Navigate the toolkit in a way that suits you
I’ve grouped the techniques into seven tools. To limit repetition between the tools which overlap, I’ve used cross-references and provided a glossary of key vocabulary.
The opening chapter, “Hook their attention”, introduces some of the most fundamental principles which underpin the approach of the toolkit. These background ideas will help you apply the techniques in the later tools.
The first three tools are quite conceptual in nature. Although these ideas are central to being an emotionally engaging presenter, they contain models which are likely to take time to reflect on before they can be implemented. The remaining tools are much more immediately applicable. Individual techniques within a tool which are more difficult to execute have been signposted with an [ADVANCED] label.
The book concludes with guidance about how to improve as an informal educator through a cycle of study, experience and reflection.
I have illustrated some of the techniques with examples and extended anecdotes from my own experience of presenting science demonstration shows. However, please note the specific activities described in these sections should only be carried out after you have conducted your own research and risk assessment.
Don’t become a clone
As educators gain experience, they learn how to adapt a technique to suit their purpose, persona, presentation style, audience and the unique context. There is more than one way of using any engagement device. The principles are universal, but the techniques can be customised. As you begin to figure out the best version of yourself onstage (Tool 1), you’ll be better able to predict which devices will work well for you. This is something no book can show you.
Accept that there are no rules
The toolkit will discuss many principles and techniques, but none of these are “rules”. There are no absolutes in informal education. It is too complex and context-dependent an activity to reduce to such rules.
It might appear as if I have forgotten this truth when you read my later advice, though. I’ve phrased each idea for impact and brevity — to provoke reflection. A book littered with “it depends…” qualifications would be even more tedious to read than it would be to write. However, my guidance is not intended to be dogmatic.
It is easy to find exceptions to any concise tip about working with audiences. Take, for instance, the seemingly straightforward advice to maintain strong eye contact. This basic guidance hides qualifications that depend on the context, e.g. when working with shy volunteers; some non-Western audiences; some people with learning difficulties; and learners who hold a strongly opposing view to the objective of your presentation. This caution is especially relevant for the quotations I have included throughout the book — to me, the value of any aphorism lies, not in its universal truth, but in the reflections it triggers.
This toolkit has been written for educators working with children in mainstream schools and family audiences in public venues. It is important to understand, though, that a number of spectators in these settings may have physical disabilities or special educational needs. Some of the techniques will need to be adapted when interacting with these learners in one-to-one exchanges.
At one time or another, I have seen talented educators successfully bend, or even break, most of the ideas in this toolkit. But I believe they can only do this effectively because they understand the rationale behind each guideline in the first place.
Adopt a shared language
The lack of a common vocabulary among informal educators can be one of the biggest barriers preventing us from reflecting on what we do. When a term already exists for an engagement device in a performing art, I’ve simply borrowed this terminology. However, occasionally I have had to invent a new phrase to describe the technique.
Any key terms in italics appear in the glossary. For reasons of readability, though, these phrases are only italicised in the text when they are discussed at length. So, if you’re dipping into the book and you encounter an unfamiliar term, you should find it explained in the glossary.
As you read the toolkit, you may wonder about the evidence supporting it. This sceptical approach is an important part of being reflective as an educator.
There are broadly three types of assertion which the toolkit relies on:
- principles supported by research — many of the fundamental principles in the toolkit are well-supported by established psychological or educational research, e.g. situational interest (0.1); the power of emotional cues (0.2); interpreting nonverbal language (0.4); varying your social persona (1.2); emotional contagion (3.1). You’ll find brief references to these models in the glossary and the Notes section. However, in writing this book, I decided not to describe detailed research evidence, to keep the guidance as actionable as possible.
- models I have devised as tools for teaching — these explanatory models are based on my experience as a presentation trainer, e.g. internal and external hooks (0.2); your trust bank (1.4); the spontaneity spectrum (2.1); the zombie presenter (Tool 3); degrees of ignorance (5.5); and the comedy continuum (7.1). They are my attempt at tackling the central problem that much of the craft knowledge an informal educator possesses is tacit — it is acquired mainly through experience and it is hard to communicate, let alone research.
- engagement techniques — most of the specific devices are also based on practitioner wisdom. These have been curated from my experience, the hundreds of presenters I have trained, and resources published by performers. Researchers rarely investigate individual engagement devices and when they do, it’s often difficult to apply their findings directly to real audiences. The contexts within which research takes place are necessarily different from the messy, real-world settings of informal education. Context is king.
“It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.”
Everything was going so well. I should have known better.
It happened as I was trying to finish a successful science magic family show at a festival. Near the end of the show, I spin a cup of water on a tray, which is suspended by three strings, around my head.
On this occasion, however, the hall was packed and I miscalculated the distance to a tall prop on my table. In horrific slow motion I could see the tray clip the prop and the plastic cup leave its circular path. It headed straight for a young girl and her Mum sitting on the floor at the front.
Three-year-old goes into silent shock. Mum is embarrassed. Audience, in excruciating pity, do nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Then the inevitable happened — resounding cries filled the room as the soaked child moved into Stage 2 shock. I tried to console her as she buried her face deeper into her Mum. I tried not to panic. I tried not to even think, hoping that my gallant unconscious would ride to the rescue with a compassionate but apposite line. Anything that would allow the show to limp to some sort of ending over the growing tantrum.
Like my co-ordination, it turns out my unconscious was having a bad day too. All I came up with was an apologetic, “I’m so sorry. You’re right … it doesn’t help the big finale of the show to end by .. err .. making a small girl cry.”
Another awkward pause while the audience process the line. Amazingly, they collectively unclench and start to smile. Hang on … this might be OK. If I can just close the show now, then I can work on reassuring the distraught child and her mother.
But then a plaintive, horribly distinct cry echoed around the walls of the hall. A plea which will, no doubt, reverberate in my performing nightmares, “I’M. A. BOOOOY! ARRRRRRRRRGH!”
Tantrum escalates to Stage 10. Some days, I just don’t know when to stop digging a deeper hole.
In reviewing this painful incident afterwards, I was able to work out the factors which had affected my miscalculation of the swing of the tray, to reduce the chance of this happening again. As they say, you can often learn more from your failures than your successes.
Fail fast. Fail often.
Much of the advice in this toolkit was acquired one painful mistake at a time in front of my incredibly forgiving audiences. I will consider this book a success if some of you who are near the start of your journey are prevented from making a fraction of the many mistakes I’ve made over my career. Despite this objective, the nature of learning a skill as subtle as presenting means there will still be plenty of opportunities to grow by taking your own wrong turns onstage.
Nod, shake or tilt your head
To be frank, the ideas in this toolkit are not as important as how you engage with them. This is the main purpose of this book — to present a framework of engagement techniques which helps informal educators deliberate on their practice more deeply. Provided each idea makes you reflect so you either nod your head in agreement, shake it in disagreement, or tilt it in consideration, nothing else matters.
“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”