Demonstrators as bullies
Science presenters need a passion for their audience, argues Debbie Syrop.
Science demonstration shows can be deeply inspiring. Many scientists refer to the annual Royal Institution Christmas Lectures as being influential on their choice of future career. As Plutarch wrote, 'The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled’, and it's often acts of real combustion that ignite this feeling.
However, the art of mesmerising several hundred people with your every gesture, whilst simultaneously not setting fire to your hand, is a niche skill. Experienced presenters have a great store of practical knowledge, but unfortunately very little information on demonstration performance has been published.
It was with this in mind that I set off on a Winston Churchill Travelling fellowship to spend several months researching best practice in science demonstration performance in the UK and Australia.
I spent time with many different groups including the Excited Particles, a professional theatre troupe based at Australia's National Science and Technology Centre, Questacon, in Canberra. They bring many of the skills used in children's theatre into demonstration-based science shows. I was particularly impressed by their audience-handling skills.
On the other hand, I have noticed audience bullying on the increase in UK presenting. Science presenters here often have a naive view of theatre as if it's just a case of saying a funny line and making a face. I often sense a feeling of superiority. We make the mistake of thinking children's theatre is trivial because it looks trivial. Presenters need to be entertaining. However, I'm disappointed to see useful techniques used inappropriately.
'Repeat after me...I can't hear you! I still can't hear you! And again. C'mon!' There is a delicate balance between cajoling and coercing. I have seen presenters demanding constant applause, getting easy laughs by making fun of an audience member, pantomiming fake emotion, relentlessly repeating the message.
These techniques are perhaps most appealing to early-career science presenters. It's the underlying attitude that troubles me most: that your audience is a crowd to be controlled, an unruly mob to be quashed by your superior knowledge and power. Yes, you can get a laugh making fun of a child, but you also make them feel small whilst everyone else quietly loses respect for you. The audience obeys you, not because it likes you, but because they are worried you will pick on them if they don't.
Context and character
It's not just about techniques, it's about context: how engagement techniques should best be adapted to suit age, cultural background and expectations.
Your presenting style must fit your character. Innocent teasing from one person sounds unnecessarily threatening from the lips of another. A funny aside may sound hilarious from one, but insincere and petty when used by another. The Excited Particles recognise this. They allow their presenters to adapt the engagement in a show to fit their individual style.
Live audience skills take years to develop. When an experienced presenter, like Excited Particles coordinator Patrick, jokes about a volunteer getting hurt, it's easy to miss the subtlety. He has spent the first half of the show carefully building up a level of trust between himself and the audience. This started even before the show, when he greeted them at the door.
He has already established his cheeky character and shown genuine warmth towards the audience so that everyone in the room knows it is not malicious. He has selected a volunteer who is sufficiently robust, and ensured that person leaves on a high, not feeling cheated.
We often talk about the requirement for presenters to have a passion for their subject. Rarely, if ever, do I hear about the need to have a passion for the audience.