Volunteer theory

18 02 2016

In previous posts I have discussed general points about using volunteers and given an example of how one presenter used a volunteer when it wasn’t necessary

In this post I’d like to argue that there are six reasons we might employ a volunteer and that the effectiveness of using a volunteer in a show can be judged by considering each of these reasons. 

I’d be very interested in your feedback if you agree or disagree with this breakdown. Please email me at scienceshowsforschools@gmail.com or leave a comment. 

Before we start we must acknowledge using volunteers comes at a cost. The selection, the movement, the introductions and the giving of instructions all take up valuable time. By requesting volunteers we inevitably give up an amount of control (selecting a volunteer fairly and calmly requires behaviour management strategies to be employed or audiences can misbehave, once on stage a volunteer can misunderstand and/or mess up their task). And using volunteers can be a distraction diluting the message we are trying to get across (a volunteer might deliberately not cooperate or mess about, and sometimes even a cooperative and competent volunteer on stage can shift the audience’s focus from where you really need it.) 

Having said that those costs can be significantly outweighed by the benefits if a volunteer is used effectively. 

Effective use of a volunteer means they are useful (extra hands and/or naive actors), their presence should elicit positive emotions (we empathise and can watch them react) and they can provide drama (by increasing jeopardy and using their voice).

Every volunteer in a show should perform one, and ideally more than one, of these roles:

An extra pair of hands: at the most basic level we can select someone to do a job we couldn’t physically have carried out ourselves. One example might be to hold one end of a slinky whilst you vibrate the other to show different sorts of waves. 

A naive actor: (by naive I mean innocent, unaffected and natural) we can use a member of the audience to confirm there is no trickery going on or to do something instead of the presenter to prove it took no special training. An example might be to confirm for the audience a suction cup has no glue, tape or Velcro on it or to swing a tray around with a cup resting on it to prove the science keeps the cup in place not any special training. 

To elicit empathy: empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. This can be a valuable tool to capture the attention and engage the audience however it can backfire as well. It occurs when you place yourself in another’s shoes and feel what they are feeling. If your volunteer is having a positive experience the audience will feel part of that positivity too. But be warned, if your volunteer is having a negative experience the audience will empathise negatively. They will literally feel your volunteer’s pain. 

To increase jeopardy: if a naive actor is placed in perceived danger you can feel the tension (and hopefully the engagement and attention) increase in a show. A presenter might ask a volunteer to do something but allow them to “retreat to a safe distance first”. As long as the volunteer is treated sensitively and not scared this is a time-honoured way to play with a volunteer. Remember the empathy though- they must be happy to be part of it or the audience will pick up on it. 

To react: not everyone in an audience can be right up close but we can use a volunteer to experience, show and share emotions on behalf of the audience that they can then vicariously experience. I use a volunteer to experience the impossibility of stopping strong magnets attracting each other. Everyone knows the magnets are going to be attracted eventually but the reaction of the volunteer when they personally and violently experience the strength of the force really sells the effect. 

A different voice: some shows last one hour and that is a long time to listen to just one person speak. In addition to the above benefits having a conversation with a volunteer or getting them to describe something is a way to allow the audience to hear another voice. This can have a refreshing effect. Lecturing (without taking questions) allows just one interaction- presenter to audience. By introducing a volunteer we now have four potential interactions- presenter to audience as before but also volunteer to audience, presenter to volunteer and volunteer to presenter. 

These six reasons can be boiled down to three categories: volunteers must be useful (extra hands and/or naive actors), their involvement should elicit positive emotions (we empathise and can watch them react) and they can provide drama (by increasing jeopardy and by using their voice).

Now we have a theory as to how to effectively use a volunteer we can ask the following about our own use of volunteers and their use by others:

is the volunteer being useful, are they eliciting positive emotions and do they provide drama?

If the answer to most of these questions is no we then think about whether using a volunteer is necessary (ie: worth the costs) or how the volunteer could be used more effectively. 

Here is an example we can evaluate. If the link doesn’t work search The Wonders of Physics 32 on YouTube, scroll to 22:30 minutes. Here you’ll find a volunteer holding up and shaking three boxes containing ping pong balls to represent the three states of matter. 

As this demo is presented in this video the volunteer is not needed as an extra pair of hands (the presenter could easily have done it himself), she does not serve as a naive actor (she is asked to confirm nothing), there is little empathy elicited (it all seems a bit low key and pointless), the volunteer isn’t used to increase jeopardy, she is not encouraged to react, and finally apart from saying her name, we don’t hear her voice

Whatever the good intentions of the presenter this is not a good example of how to use a volunteer: 

Low benefits: their role wasn’t useful, their presence hasn’t heightened positive emotions and their use hasn’t added to the drama. 

High costs: by using a volunteer the presenter lost time to selection, movement, introductions and instructions; he gave up control by asking for a volunteer in the first place; and he arguably introduced a distraction from what he wanted to show (the differing movements of the balls). 

My advice to this presenter would  be to just show the boxes himself. There is no reason to use a volunteer, the costs here outweigh the benefits. 

If he wanted to make more of this demo and keep the volunteer element then we could advise him to use the six reasons to help make the demo more impactful and worthwhile for everyone.

Perhaps if he could mime providing energy to the system to make the atoms move (by pretending to be the flames of a fire underneath or by “heating” the cases with a hairdryer) all of a sudden the volunteer becomes useful because he can’t do both jobs. She becomes a valid extra pair of hands

If he asked the volunteer to confirm for the audience that those were just regular ping pong balls and there was nothing holding them together in addition she provides the useful role of a naive actor. (I think doing this would better illustrate what the audience had to look out for as well as the cases were moved.)

If the presenter could be encouraged to have more fun and our volunteer then started to have fun as well (“That’s it! Keep jiggling”) then the audience would have empathised her positive emotion, they would enjoy the whole experience more and would probably pay more attention. 

Our volunteer could easily have been asked to react (“watch closely and tell us what you see”) and then explain what she could see allowing us to hear another voice. (We would have empathised positively here as well seeing her enjoy providing the correct answers. This would also have been clearer than taking shouted out answers from the audience.)

It probably would be possible to include jeopardy but perhaps that would be too much and dilute the message. 5 reasons out of a possible 6 isn’t a bad score anyway! 

I think you’d agree by considering these reasons to use a volunteer and then making the adjustments we’d make the demo much better. 

These categories are useful for both for evaluating and improving existing volunteer work, to script future work but also to validate anyone’s choice to NOT use a volunteer. 

If you can’t think of a way to use a volunteer effectively it’s OK to not use a volunteer at all. Using a volunteer because “that’s just what you do” or because “that’s what people like to see” isn’t enough of a reason to bring someone out on stage. As we’ve discussed there are costs involved in bringing people out on stage and because audiences will empathise with a volunteer if you treat them badly (whatever your intention) the audience will feel their boredom, discomfort, embarrassment or fear. 

Volunteers should be useful, elicit positive emotions and perhaps add to the drama of your piece. And if your volunteer sections currently don’t do this I hope this post has given you ideas about how to improve their effectiveness. 



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