Rat basketball- hook and reveal

21 01 2011

You’ve gotta see this- Rat Basketball!

What on earth is going on? Hopefully you are intrigued. Hopefully you are feeling what I felt the first time I saw this at Discovery Place Science Centre in North Carolina. I hope you want to learn more.

Showing before explaining is a powerful presentation technique often called hook and reveal. It is almost always best to show first (hook) and explain after (reveal).

I came across Rat Basketball when I was working in Florence, South Carolina for a company trying to set up their own science centre. We went on a visit to the closest existing centre a couple of hours drive up Billy Graham Highway in Charlotte, NC. Walking around we were struck by the colours, the noise, the exhibits, everything looked pretty much as you’d expect a science centre to look. And then a guy in a striped umpire shirt pushing a trolley started shouting “Rat basketball, rat basketball”. The crowd went mad, they surged to get around him. Not wanting to miss out we hurdled a pram, shoved some kids out of the way and sat down to watch.

He didn’t say a word about the science. He just took a rat out of a cage from under the trolley, put it in the tank and said, “Shooting for the red team- Molly!”. He took another rat out of another cage and dropped in the tank, “Shooting for the blue team- Michael!” He put a whistle to his lips, held a small ball over the tank, he blew the whistle and the game began.

The reaction was just as you can hear on the video. Cheering, shouting, laughing. What would you expect from an audience seeing rats play basketball for the first time? And then he blew his whistle, took the ball and said, “That’s half time. Let me tell you how we get the rats to do it.” And in that busy noisy science centre, at that moment you could have heard a pin drop. We had all been hooked by seeing the rats perform, now we were desparate for the presenter to reveal how it was achieved.

The explanation he gave was good. He took another younger rat out of a third cage and stroked it as he spoke explaining that the first step is to get the rats used to the environment. Then they put the rats in the cage and reward them everything time they get closer to performing the skill. There was more to it but that’s not important here. The point I want to make is that children and adults alike were hooked, we didn’t need to made to care about how it was done, we were desperate to find out. I’ve never heard a group of people concentrate so hard and for so long right in the middle of a busy science centre. Once he’d finished explaining he then gave out pom poms and split the audience into two cheering teams for the second half and we watched over again. This reinforced everything he’d just told us. It truly was a brilliant piece of science communication.

If you’ve been presenting for some time you might think that it is obvious not to give away what is going to happen in a demo before it happens but it is a surprisingly common fault in science presentations. Novices are particularly liable to fall into this trap and I think it is because they think they need to sound intelligent. They are not confident to let the demonstration speak for itself.

Paul McCrory has examined this in detail and I can’t wait to read about it in his forthcoming book. Until we get that chance think hook and reveal, think rat basketball.

If you want to train your rat to play basketball and learn about Operant conditioning you can find out more by visiting Ratty Corner. And thanks to Paul McCrory for his advice on this post.

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