Snuggled in an unremarkable side street next to Euston Station in London lies a building full of secrets. You could easily walk past the grey headquarters of The Magic Circle without realising. Yet its basement contains one of the most comprehensive collections of magic books in the world.
In researching this book, I was fortunate to be able to visit this treasure trove of secrets several times. It houses over 6,000 volumes related to magic in all its myriad forms, but my mission was to find those books which taught how to present magic rather than the mechanics of a trick. This search produced only a handful of books.
Most amateur magicians are fixated with finding the latest effect which will stun their audience. They suffer from “trick fix”. Most professional magicians, however, know the biggest magical secret of all — people are more engaged by how you present the trick, rather than by the trick itself.
As an educational presenter, I recognise the “trick fix” addiction. Many of us search constantly for a new demonstration or hands-on activity to grab our learners. Yet, in comparison, how much time do we spend improving our presentation skills for each activity we already do?
Why I wrote this book
As a shy child, I was obsessed with two things — exploring science and performing magic. As a shy adult, I stumbled into a way I could combine these interests in what, for me, is the best job in the world. I’ve spent over 20 years working as an informal science educator in the UK and Ireland. During this time, I’ve presented interactive science shows and workshops in science centres and my own outreach organisation. My work has also involved training other educators across the UK and internationally.
For someone as chronically shy and introverted as me, the career of a presenter seems an odd choice. However, I’ve discovered that the same engagement techniques, which allowed me to hold audiences whilst performing magic as a child, enable me to share my passion for science as an informal educator with audiences of hundreds. I’ve always been struck by the similarities between many of the techniques used by performers (e.g. magicians, stand-ups, street performers, actors, improvisers and children’s entertainers) and those used by educators. This innocent observation turned into a research study investigating how teachers create interest in science through their performance. Having a PhD in being interesting is, amusingly, one of the most interesting things about me.
This curious journey has led to this book — a toolkit of engagement techniques used by performers to help informal educators fulfil their own purposes.
Who this book is for
Of course, anyone is welcome to read this book, but it is primarily aimed at educational presenters who are working in visitor attractions or outreach organisations as a career. Many of the techniques in the toolkit will make more sense when you have had, at least, some experience of presenting in these settings. These presenters will be referred to as informal educators throughout the book.
Although my direct experience is in science communication, the techniques in this toolkit should stimulate those who give interactive presentations to schools, community groups and families in most subjects and informal education settings. This includes museums; science centres; planetariums; zoos; aquariums; historical and natural heritage centres; commercial attractions; outreach organisations; theatre-in-education practitioners; and children’s entertainers who perform educational shows. My subject bias, though, will be most apparent in the examples I’ve used to illustrate the techniques.
I have written this toolkit mainly from the perspective of UK audiences, so international readers should bear this context in mind when applying the techniques. When I refer to primary school audiences, I mean children aged from about 5 to 11 and secondary school groups can span young people from 12 to 18 years old.