Volunteer theory 3

29 02 2016

Here are three examples where presenters are speaking about exponential growth. 

Richard Dawkins (speaking about population growth) and Chris Bishop (speaking about computer processing speed increases) use volunteers to carry out their demonstrations. David Suzuki (speaking about human impact on the atmosphere) chooses not to.

I find Suzuki’s explanation of exponential growth clearer than either Bishop’s or Dawkins’ and this is in part due to his choosing not to employ volunteers. 

As I explained in this post there is a cost to employing volunteers. It takes up valuable time, it relinquishes control and it can be a distraction. If volunteers are used effectively then those costs can be outweighed by the benefits but that means the volunteers must actually be useful, promote positive emotions and add drama. If their use accomplishes none of these objectives then it is better not to use them. 

If a volunteer isn’t performing at least one of these six reasons to use a volunteer (extra pair of hands, naive actor, promote empathy, to react, to increase jeopardy and/or provide a different voice) then they have no place up on stage with you but more importantly it is OK for you not to use them. 

My advice to both Bishop and Dawkins would be to just carry out the demos themselves. The benefits of using their volunteers is outweighed by the costs. Worse, the clarity of their descriptions of exponential growth suffer because of the volunteers. 

Richard Dawkins [watch from 6:30 mins] gets two volunteers to fold a large piece of paper.

He wants to show us the effects of doubling a bacteria population 50 times. His volunteers aren’t acting as an extra pair of hands, he could easily have done this himself; they are not acting a naive actors, there is no possibility for trickery and they are not asked to confirm anything; we don’t empathise positively with them, if anything I felt awkward and embarrassed with and for them as they were allowed to “fail”; they don’t react, we don’t see them struggle as their backs are to us; their use doesn’t increase jeopardy and they are not invited to speak so they can’t provide a different voice

Watch how Dawkins has to cut into his explanation at 8:25 to send them back. They are a distraction to him. And listen to how luke warm the applause is as they go back to their seats. They haven’t brought anything to this explanation. 

He then goes on to tell us that the paper, folded 50 times, would be some fantastical thickness but he doesn’t make use of the paper he’s just asked them to fold for him. You can see it sitting to his right:

So what was the point of using the volunteers? There wasn’t one. 

Just because folding paper is something you can ask a child to do and you think science presentations should have volunteers that isn’t sufficient justification to get volunteer children to fold the paper! It’s OK just to do it yourself as you explain its significance to your argument. 

I’ve written about Chris Bishop using his volunteer already so I won’t repeat myself again. Some people commented after that post that “people still like to get involved” and “offering that opportunity to a volunteer was generous” and I’d agree (and thank them for their comments) but that’s not enough of a reason to justify the cost of using any volunteer let alone this one. 

The time spent selecting, moving and instructing the volunteer, the loss of control as everyone clamours to get picked and the crashing disappointment they then feel having not been picked and the distraction as we are being encouraged to look at a volunteer as well as the balls isn’t outweighed by this volunteer’s presence. 

Worse, as with the Dawkins example, the actual explanation of what exponential growth is gets relegated when that should actually be the whole point of both demos. 

Compare that to David Suzuki’s explanation. The time it takes to select a volunteer is better used defining exponential growth:

anything growing steadily is called exponential growth and anything growing exponentially has a predictable doubling time.

Then instead of carrying out a physical demo we are asked to imagine a test tube filled with food for bacteria. 

The test tube and the food is our planet and the bacteria are us. I’m going to add one bacteria which will divide every minute. That’s exponential growth. 

At that point a single light is illuminated behind him. 

This is his demo and it’s going to go on behind him as he speaks. Mirroring what he explains verbally that one light becomes two, then it becomes four, then eight. We can see the number of lights growing exponentially. 

At the beginning there is 1 cell, after one minute there are 2, two minutes there are 4, three minutes there are 8, that’s exponential growth and at sixty minutes the test tube is completely filled with bacteria. 

He could have got two volunteers out of the audience to successively switch on double the previous number of lights (like Dawkins), he could have got a volunteer to come out and press a big red button to start the lights off (like Bishop) but he knows there’s no point. 

Not only could he do it himself (the volunteers wouldn’t be useful) the time is better spent making the best possible explanation he can that has the most impact. He doesn’t even draw our attention to the fact that the demo has started. 

So when is the test tube half full? he casually asks. 

I’ll give you a moment to think. Don’t scroll down until you have an answer…

And, of course, the answer is at 59 minutes. At 59 minutes it’s half full but at 60 minutes it’s completely full. So at 58 minutes it’s twenty five percent full, at 57 minutes twelve and a half percent full. 

This blew my mind. Forget paper folding or ping pong balls, with just some multiplying background lights and no volunteers to distract us we given the opportunity to get the reason why growth being exponential is so important. It is the amazing rate of change. 

You might have assumed (like I did even having watched Bishop and Dawkins multiple times) that the tube would be half full half way through the hour. But:

at 55 minutes of a 60 minute cycle the test tube is just three percent full. 


And look at all those lights. 

Suzuki is stressing exponential growth because of human impact on atmospheric pollution, Dawkins because of the survival of only the fittest and Bishop about Moore’s law and growth of computer processing power. 

They are all trying to get across the same point but Suzuki doesn’t risk muddying his message by using volunteers where they are not needed. As such his explanation is so much clearer and has a greater impact.  

The message of this post is very important. If you can’t think of a reason (beyond “wouldn’t it be nice…” or “isn’t that what we have to do..?”) to use a volunteer or if using a volunteer will cost more than it will bring in benefits then it’s OK to not use them. 

Using volunteers can be hugely effective but only if you follow the six reasons, to ensure they at least serve a useful purpose, and that they hopefully also promote positive emotions and add to the drama. 

Be like Suzuki. Have confidence that what you are saying or what you are showing is impactful enough. Don’t be like Bishop and Dawkins and fall into the trap of using volunteers where they aren’t helpful. It’s not good for your argument and it’s not fair to the volunteers. 

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. 

Perfect stage set up

19 05 2015

I got an email today from a friend wanting me to visit TEDx in Glasgow with him. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to make it.

It did inspire me to waste 20 minutes by watching a TED talk. The thing that struck me most (because I didn’t pick a particularly interesting talk) was just how brilliantly they set up the stage for the speaker.

This is a wonderful stage to be faced with as a speaker. I wish all of my stages were as well set up as this.

1. Lighting
This stage has been brilliantly lit. The producers have two concerns here. Firstly the stage needs to look good for the audience in the auditorium but more importantly there needs to be bright sections so the cameras can film the action clearly.

How did they ensure that their speakers remain in the brightly lit section? The red carpet.


The speakers are told to not step off the carpet.

When I am performing I always get someone to check for dark spots on the stage in the rehearsals. I will then place gaffer tape on the floor to help me stay out of those spots during my performance. Often the very front of the stage is the darkest place. It doesn’t make any sense to you whilst you’re on the stage but the closer you get to the audience the harder you can become to see. Checking and then taping helps me avoid this.

2. Pacing
The other advantage the carpet gives is it stops people nervously pacing to and fro.

If you are a pacer by placing tape on the floor, perhaps three X’s, you can stop yourself mindlessly pacing to and fro by allowing yourself to move calmly between a set number of places on the stage. In the theatre plays are “blocked out”. the actors are told where they should be at certain times. These places are sometimes indicated with tape and known as “marks” or “spikes”. Actors are expected to be able to “hit their mark”. You can do the same.

3. Talking at slides
Talking at slides is such a common thing to do that sound engineers will pin your microphone on to the lapel of the shoulder you will most likely be looking over during your talk.

How do the TED producers stop this? They provide two “confidence monitors” at the foot of the stage.

Can you see them on the floor? With confidence monitors it is now easier for the speaker to glanced down then to turn and look over their shoulder.

When I am speaking I use a Mac, running Keynote, and I engage presenter view. I also bring with me a 10 meter VGA extension cord which allows me to place my laptop in front of me rather than leave it on the lectern.

This allows me to see what’s on the screen behind me without having to turn around.

3. Sticking to time
Look at the picture above. Can you see there is also a countdown clock to keep the presenter talking to time?

In situations where I can’t see a clock showing the correct time I use an iPad with a countdown application to mimic this. I can set it up so the clock changes colour when I have five minutes remaining. Putting it at the foot of the stage means whilst the audience can’t see it, I can’t miss it.

I will also ask the producers what time they need me to finish by the time on my wristwatch. I will then leave myself an easy to read note with the time clearly displayed so I can finish exactly on time.

4. The lectern
I was surprised to see this lady so reliant on her notes. Normally TED producers don’t allow you to use notes. What the producers have done brilliantly though is ensure that the lectern doesn’t allow her to hide behind her notes.

Instead of using a large heavy and often branded lectern that people can grab hold of and hide behind they’ve used a simple table with a flat top that doesn’t restrict our view of her whole body.

If I need to use notes I will place them on a flat table rather than prop them up on a lectern. This allows me to take a quick glance rather than having to walk behind the lectern and make a big deal about looking at them.

5. The screen
They use the screen to great effect because the image on the screen adds to what the audience can see. There is no point using a camera to project an image of the stage onto a screen that is actually smaller than the image the audience sees from their seats.

If you are going to make use of a big screen make sure it adds to what the audience can see and doesn’t just act as a distraction.

If I am being filmed for the benefit of the audience in the auditorium I will make this point very clear to the film crew.

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1 09 2014

I found a video on the Internet the other day of my old chemistry teacher doing a show at the Royal Institution. If the link doesn’t work search YouTube for ‘The Magic of Chemistry – with Andrew Szydlo’.

I remember fondly at the end of every school year when he would blow the remaining chemistry budget on spectacular versions of demos too dangerous to do in class. We used to crowd round the top of a disused outdoor swimming pool watching him perform these chemical spectaculars on the floor of the pool below. It was cool to stumble across a video of him on the Internet.

There is lots to like about this RI presentation. For instance I really like the way he starts with a personal story to draw us in and I like how he allows the demos to unfold as he is speaking.

There’s also lots about the presentation that I might do differently but I’m not going to pick a fight with one of my old school teachers here..!

Fast forward to 10:30 and you’ll see he has an interesting treatment of the iodine starch clock reaction.


A colourless liquid changes instantaneously to black apparently ‘because of musical energy played in the key of B minor’.

I think his spoof explanation is confusing for the audience, I wouldn’t present it like this but it’s what happens after the chemical change that I found the most fascinating.

The audience began to applaud.

Instead of acknowledging their applause Dr Szydlo says:

Please, please, no, children. I am not here for applause, do not applaud. I am merely here to explain to you the principles of science.


He seems to get genuinely flustered. It really surprised me to see him react that vociferously against a simple and heartfelt round of applause. He seems to be suggesting that the very act of the audience applauding will somehow cheapen the science that they are watching.

Sorry sir, this is where we will have to disagree.

The audience clapped here because he had hardly stopped to catch his own breath, let alone allow them to catch theirs, for almost 11 minutes; the demo was also genuinely worthy of a round of applause; and on top of that the chemical colour change happened instantaneously, instantaneous or percussive things often encourage applause.

Applause can be cheap and meaningless. It is far easier to get an audience to clap than to get them to laugh. The word claptrap, which we now take to mean nonsense, originally referred to a cheap, meaningless trick that a performer might use to trap his audience to clap.

But genuine, heartfelt and carefully planned applause points are really useful in a science presentation.

The audience in this video wanted to clap. They hadn’t been tricked into it. The applause was genuine, generous and heartfelt. By denying them the opportunity to clap I think he inadvertently comes across as slightly arrogant and even a bit rude.

Why do we clap?

Clapping as a way of expressing approval seems pretty universal across most cultures. Some have suggested that it is a way of virtually patting someone on the back.

Children who are excited sometimes can’t help themselves but clap. As adults we might have worked out rules as to when and where it’s appropriate to clap but clapping is still something expected every time you watch a show (compare classical concerts where you don’t clap between movements only at the end of the piece; opera where it is common to clap after a well-sung segment; and musical theatre where a show can’t be considered a great show without a ‘showstopper’).

Why is clapping important?

Clapping allows us to show our approval and to express our gratitude towards a performer. It also allows us a moment of relaxation, a chance to get our breath back and refocus for what’s to come next.

As performers we can use it to help our audience refocus. Encouraging an audience to clap at something (that is genuinely worthy of a round of applause) is a great way to bring a section in show to an end. It acts as a bookend.

A good round of applause also allows audience to have a cough, a wriggle in their seats or even exchange a few words with the person sat next to them without being rude and disturbing the rest of the performance.

It also gives you a chance to take a sip of water or ready yourself for what is to come next.

Clapping is something we traditionally do when bringing an audience member onto or letting them leave the stage. In both directions it is not just a polite thing to do but it can helpfully cover the dead time it takes the volunteer to get from their seat to the performance area.

On the way to the stage it can be used to encourage a hesitant volunteer who otherwise might refuse to come up. If you say Give them a round of applause as they come up on the stage… it is very hard for someone to refuse- it sounds like a done deal and they’ve no choice. I sometimes might say she looks nervous, if we gave her a round of applause she might come up and help… and again it’s really persuasive- the audience starts to clap and the volunteer doesn’t want to appear rude by letting them down and not coming up.

After a volunteer has helped it is normally essential to give them around of applause to thank them for their help up on stage.

A slow rhythmic handclap that builds up to something is an effective tool to focus the audience’s attention at a particular part of the stage at a particular time. It can also build tension and expectation.

And counterintuitively you can use noisy clapping to help you get a group of noisy children quiet.

One common teaching technique is to use a rhythmic handclap which the class then repeats back to you as a way of getting everyone’s attention.

And in a show situation if children have lost focus getting them to applaud gives them the permission to make noise and then suggests to them the expectation that they are going to be quiet afterwards. Young children in my shows sometimes lose focus when a rocket balloon has been flying around the stage. The laughter descends into chatter and rather than telling them to be quiet I might say let’s give the balloon around of applause. You might think this is a perfect example of claptrap but what happens is as the applause dies down the children naturally and instinctively return to being quiet.

As the presenter you can encourage a round of applause to thank those that have helped you put on your show. At the end of a run of shows it is considered polite to offer a round of applause to the technicians and the organising staff.

If you are in a noisy environment where you might have to get people to notice that your show has started a loud round of applause at the start of the show can be the perfect signal. We can copy street performers who get audiences to clap to encourage other people to come and see what’s going on.

People in a shared space who are making noise will often stop if they hear applause because they realise a show has started elsewhere.

Different environments, different styles of presentation, different ages in the audience will mean different amounts of applause but applause is a natural phenomena all the same.

Claptrap should be avoided, making an audience clap for something that doesn’t warrant it or when they don’t want to is a waste of time and good will. But if an audience wants to show their appreciation of what you’re doing by giving you a round of applause you should politely and humbly allow them to do so.

If we go back to Dr Szydlo’s RI talk at 25:00 mins he starts to do another explosive demonstration.

He squirts a small amount of petrol into a tin can which has a hole in its bottom.

Having warmed the petrol to allow it to vaporise he lights the bottom of the tin can and the lid goes flying up to the ceiling.

I urge you to watch this clip and see what happens.

The audience collectively cries out in surprise, they laugh because they’ve enjoyed it, and you can feel the release of the tension as they are finally allowed to express themselves. You can see them having a bit of a wiggle and they start to chat. A smattering of applause starts up but…

again the presenter squashes it.

It’s such a shame. The applause here is not a problem. It’s a natural thing the audience not just wants to do but needs to do as well.

The audience wants to let him know that they really liked the demo and what has gone before. And they need to have a wiggle and a bit of of tension release.

Unfortunately they’re not given the chance.

If you are of the opinion, like Dr Szydlo, that applause is never appropriate in a science demonstration watch this clip and tell me that it isn’t the perfect proof that actually applause is sometimes a necessary thing.

I’d argue applause doesn’t cheapen a science presentation, it can be a really useful tool and applause is a natural and necessary human reaction.

Using volunteers usefully

23 07 2013

I was surfing BIG chat and a contributor pointed me to a RI Christmas Lecture video.

If you are going to use a volunteer they should be used for a reason. I doubt the presenter or the producers of this show could give us a reason for using a volunteer here beyond ‘well isn’t that what’s expected in an interactive science show?’

There is no reason that I can think of to use a volunteer in this instance. The use of a volunteer doesn’t bring anything extra to the demonstration. In fact, the announcing the need for a volunteer, the selection, the time it takes for the volunteer to come out and the need to instruct the volunteer serve only to take attention away from what is important in the demo.

If the balls could be triggered by some trick then a volunteer might have been necessary- to show there was no subterfuge happening on stage.

If the balls weren’t enclosed in a perspex box a volunteer might have been used- to react to and highlight the force and number of ping pong balls flying around.

If the presenter had needed to do something else, like hold a close-up camera, whilst the event was triggered then a volunteer would have been useful- as an extra pair of hands.

If you watch the presenter and the volunteer they are both a little embarrassed afterwards as they both know the volunteer has been asked to do something trivial and unnecessary. It’s a shame because it’s a nice demo…

The lesson to be learned here is simple: if you are going to use a volunteer make sure you know why and how they are going to be used. And if you can’t come up with a good reason to use a volunteer then don’t!

Lines of sight

14 06 2013

This is a quick rant plea to event organisers to consider the sightlines for their audiences.

Just because a venue is rated to hold x doesn’t mean x people can comfortably sit and watch an interactive show in it.

Beyond five rows back this is the view people get:



Can you see the presenter? He’s there. Hidden behind the lectern.

Can you see the child volunteering at the front? No, neither can anyone more than five rows back.

Can you see the table top where all his experiments have been placed? Fat chance.

If your venue is flat (ie: there is no rake to the seats or a raised stage) and you have booked an interactive show don’t expect to fill the venue with more than 5 rows of seats. And if that means that half, or three quarters, or most of your room is empty then so be it.

If you want more people in then go and find a stage for your venue or better still, go and find a new venue.

Demo chains

25 04 2012

ImageA science teacher gets two years to teach a group of children. A science presenter typically gets between 20 mins and one hour. Can science presenters teach anything in such a short space of time? How can science presenters make the most of the short time they have with their audiences? One answer is demo chains.

Before you can effectively teach anyone anything you first need to find out what that person knows about the subject- there is no point trying to show someone the effects of increased air pressure if they don’t know that air weighs anything.

You also need to find out what they think they know but actually don’t know or only understand partially- it is no good trying to teach someone about generating electricity by moving magnets in copper coils if they believe all metals, including copper, are magnetic.

Only once you have filled in the educational blanks and repaired those damaged bits of knowledge you can begin to build further understanding. This is why formal teaching takes so much time.

In science presentations before we perform demos or introduce concepts we should also check for gaps in knowledge and address misconceptions but how can we do this in the short time we have? The best way to do this is with demo chains.

Let’s imagine we are trying to demonstrate that ‘air pressure is exerted in all directions’. Instead of showing a single air pressure demo, let’s say the upturned cup and card trick, and hoping they understand what is going on you should craft a series of demos that will help your audience understand.

Before we start we might get our audience to waft air with their hands against their faces so they are reminded they are surrounded by air. Then we could do one demo to show air is pushing down, a second to show that air pushes sideways as well as down, before finally showing the third demo in the chain which is the upturned cup.

Hopefully by using a chain of demos we will have brought everyone up to speed before they see the upturned cup. Hopefully the will understand about the pressure pushing in all directions better than if they had just seen that demo by itself.

A nice way to think of this technique is as a bus journey. Instead of just plonking people at their final destination different people are picked up at different stops on the route. Everyone is taken on the same route, which might be totally familiar to some, partially familiar to others and totally new to a few, but they all get to see the same route before finally being dropped off at the end of the line.

When we perform demos singly we are assuming too much of the audience. Why take the risk that there might be missing or damaged pieces of understanding that will render your demo meaningless? A much better strategy is to design a demo chain to bring everyone up to speed before you then take them further.

Why do people hate magic?

17 08 2011
Wayne Kawamoto is the author of Picture Yourself As a Magician, a beginner’s book on magic. He has written a blog article called: The Five Biggest Mistakes made by Beginning Magicians that should be read by all science presenters. It is uncanny how easy it is to switch out “magic” for “science presenting”.

Wayne says: Why do so many in the general public say that they hate magic? It’s probably because they’ve seen poor magic or an arrogant, boorish magician, or both at the same time.

Now to the best of my knowledge “the general public” don’t say that they hate science shows, at least not yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from a magician’s advice. The parallels between performing magic and performing science are too similar for us to imagine we won’t have fallen into the same traps. And we certainly don’t want science performing to make the same mistakes if people are going to end up hating us.

Wayne lists five commonly made mistakes made by beginning magicians and notes that it is not always just beginners who make them. When I think about my own shows I have to admit that I have been guilty of 3. and 4. and not just in the dim and distant past!

1. Arrogance and Acting Smarter Than the Audience

No one likes a performer, or even a person, who thinks he or she is smarter than everybody else and tries to demonstrate it. Magic is not an opportunity for a magician to show off or demonstrate how clever or intelligent he or she is.

When magic is performed in a manner that says “ha ha, I know the secret and you don’t,” it’s been turned into a puzzle and the audience is only encouraged to try and discover the secret. Also, many magicians don’t understand that what works for Amazing Johnathan is not necessarily what they should be copying and doing in their shows.

The Amazing Johnathan is an acerbic performer who humiliates his audience and assistants for comic effect. You can see some of his work here. I don’t know of any science performers who deliberately set out to offend their audiences but there are plenty who inadvertently come across poorly by showing off how clever they are.

The most important trait for anyone on stage to have is likeability and no-one likes a smart arse. The best way to get audiences to like you on stage is to act as you normally would in real life. Be nice. Be generous. Be polite.

A science performance is not a lecture and it is not a lesson. University professors and school teachers will almost certainly have to alter their regular styles to connect to a science show audience. Novices especially will have to avoid becoming “the sage on the stage” and over compensating for nerves and lack of confidence by trying to sound intelligent.

Your job as a science presenter is to share what you know with your audience and try to make them feel as excited about it as you do. Coming across as arrogant or acting smarter than the audience won’t get you very far at all.

2. Humiliating or Embarrassing Volunteers

When audience members come up to assist, they are going out of their way to help the magician. It’s imperative to treat volunteers with respect and not go for the easy jokes that get laughs and belittles and embarrasses volunteers. Sure, there are lots of bald, fat, ethnic, gender and more jokes that one can utter, but for entertainment of a higher level, these can be left behind.

I have written about this at length in another post and I think the secret to using volunteers is to know exactly why they are being used and then to send them back a hero. There is no more effective way to lose the sympathy of an audience than to treat a member of that audience poorly.

I don’t know of any science performers who would deliberately humiliate a volunteer but I’ve seen it done accidentally. Think long and hard before inviting someone on stage with you, make sure what you are asking them to do is suitable, ensure that they never “fail” and send them back to their seat feeling two inches taller than when they came up on stage.

3. Inadequate Preparation

Magic is not simply a matter of visiting a magic shop, purchasing a trick or two, taking them out of the package, reading the instructions and then performing them. Entertaining and baffling magic takes time to develop and practice, and routines need to be engaging, dramatic or funny, whatever works best for a magician’s personality or character.

And the same goes for science performing. An old saying in magic goes like this: an amateur practices until they get it right, a professional practices until they get it right every time.

If you agree to perform a science show then don’t underestimate the time it will take to properly prepare. You have to give yourself enough time to 1. write the show, 2. get the props together, 3. rehearse the demos, 4. and then work out how to perform them.

Just because, as a beginner, science performing isn’t your main job doesn’t mean that you can get away with preparing poorly. In fact because it isn’t what you do on a regular basis you will need to prepare for it that much more.

I would suggest, as an absolute minimum, you’ll need to set aside between ten and twenty times the length of the performance for the preparation. A ten minute presentation needs between and hour and a half and three hours to prepare. An presentation that lasts for an hour would require the best part of a working week.

4. Not Properly Structuring a Show

Tricks in sequence should be varied. One card trick where a spectator selects a card and the magician finds it may be entertaining, but five such tricks in a row are probably too much. Mix up the effects.

Wayne gives excellent advice here that I’d like to take further. Structure goes beyond mixing up your demos. Structure is essential in any performance and structure comes from knowing exactly what you are trying to do. Every show should have an ultimate ambition, you should be able to say in a single sentence what the whole point of the show is. Once you’ve identified this end point you can then decide where to start and how to get from the start to the end.

If you have identified a clear reason why you are performing your show you won’t end up performing the equivalent of five card tricks in a row because you won’t just be performing card tricks you will be taking your audience on a journey that will require a good selection of exciting demos.

5. Wearing a Character Costume

Many beginning magicians may feel or know that their magic is inadequate and will consider wearing a costume – a clown suit, wizard outfit or more – to seemingly make up for this. After all, the logic seems to go, if one doesn’t feel that they are optimal at magic, at least they’re dressed up as a character.

However, this is completely wrong. And unfortunately, entertainers in costume are too often a sign of awful magic.

A costume should only be worn to reinforce the character that an entertainer is portraying, which, in turn, supports the theme of the magic effects. If an entertainer is dressed as a wizard, for example, what’s he doing with a deck of cards? Shouldn’t he be casting spells or causing things to float and such?

This is great advice. Do you really need that lab coat? Perhaps if you are going to do something messy you should wear it but do you need to wear it at the start of the show or after the messy section has finished? And what about that clown suit? If you have been to clown school and perform a science show that includes real clowning then you might need it but otherwise why are you wearing it? And as for that comedy mad-scientist wig, those thick-rimmed glasses and the tie-died lab coat… I’ll let Wayne have the last word on that:

Bottom line, the path to good magic is to build solid magic and presentation skills and perform in an entertaining manner. Save the money and forget the cheap costume. Work on the magic instead and in the long run, become a far better entertainer.

And I think the same goes for science performing.

A quadruple whammy

9 04 2011

Every now and again you walk into a venue and it is perfect. Pin-drop quiet, perfect lighting, comfortable seating and great A.V. But more often than not your venue isn’t perfect. Sometimes it is far from it.

If you know the sorts of things that are going to make your job harder then you can plan for them.Last week I found myself in a venue that had nothing going for it and I’ve never had to work so hard in my professional life. It was noisy- other classes were working all around us, it was busy- children carrying registers and adults running errands constantly walked in and out of the performance area, it was cramped- far too many kids were squeezed into too small a space, and it was bright- so bright that the screen was almost invisible behind me.

Being aware of what is going on around you as you present is something that comes with confidence but can be improved with practice. A good presenter isn’t just thinking about what they are saying and doing, isn’t just aware of their audience, but is also able to react and adapt to other events that happen in and around the venue they are working in.

In an ideal world your venue would be like a theatre- pin drop quiet with no one walking in and out. Unfortunately most venues we work in are nothing like theatres…


Children and adults are incredibly easily distracted. If you know there are likely to be distractions- eg: slamming doors or people walking through the room you are in- you can keep your eye out and try to anticipate them. You can then move to be as far away in your stage area as possible from the distraction. You could also make your voice louder or make a bigger gesture to coincide and compete with the distraction.

Background noise

The hum of an air conditioning unit, the drone of a kitchen cooker, chatter from an adjoining classroom or corridor, even road noise is enough to make your life a misery. The noise itself isn’t all that much of a bother but if the kids are clapping, or laughing or cheering and then try to get quiet they will hear this background noise, mistake it for people around them talking, and then begin to talk themselves. Often you won’t notice this noise yourself but when it ends a chatty and restless group will suddenly become silent. I will often point out the background noise and tell the kids that they are going to struggle to get quiet unless they try especially hard to.

Poor lighting

Too little light can be bad as children assume they can’t be seen in the gloom and begin to play up. Too much lighting is worse. Sunlight shining into children’s eyes is incredibly disturbing and sunlight shining onto a projector screen can wipe out a presentation. If you’ve started the show and not made plans for losing the screen or the light panning across the audience then you’ll be in trouble. If you can’t move the screen or audience you can let them know it is going to happen and warn them in advance. I often tell children that the sun might be in their eyes but that the sun moves so all they need to do is to sit still, shade their eyes and it will be in someone else’s in 5 minutes. If you know the presentation is going to be washed out you can choose to not use it at all or anticipate when to turn it off.

Over-packed audience touching each other

Children and adults fidget. It has to be a very good film for me not to move around in my seat. If I was sitting on the floor I’d be even worse. Make sure that your audience isn’t so close together that they can’t move without disturbing someone else. When getting children to sit on the floor ensure they have enough room to get their knees on the floor as they sit cross-legged. When sitting on chairs make sure there is enough room to the sides and in front and behind that they are not disturbing each other. You will find that a challenging group will transform if you take a couple of rows of seats and a couple of seats out of each row. Spaced out all of a sudden they will sit nicely and not mess about but packed in the same group would be a nightmare.

Mixed audiences

25 02 2011

You can’t treat every audience the same. Groups of school kids with their teachers react and need to be spoken to very differently than kids out with their parents. Sometimes you can get into trouble when those groups are mixed.

I’ve just returned from Engineer’s Week in Ireland and throughout the week I was performing to big groups of kids- sometimes in theatres and sometimes in lecture halls- but the audiences were always made up of class sized blocks of kids with teachers in tow. The groups were homogeneous and so it was easy to decide on how they should be treated. On Saturday I performed for the Engineer’s Ireland family day to a very mixed audience. I thought this last show would be the easiest of the week but it turned out to be one of the hardest. The reason was the different way that you needed to approach the kids.

The first four rows were four Scout packs and the ages ranged from 5 to 12. These guys were out of school on a Saturday morning, wanting to have fun, being supervised by leaders who had less control than your average teacher. Behind them I then had another 5 rows of families with their kids.

The Scouts at the front needed to be “sat on”. I have a saying- a quiet child isn’t necessarily listening but for a child to hear it needs to be quiet. This group (quite understandably because of their age mix and the fact that it was a Saturday morning on a Scout trip not a Monday morning at school) wanted to wriggle and chat and generally play up. I knew they would enjoy the show if they could be got to listen so I had to be firm but fair with them.

Behind them we had the families. I love working for families as I don’t normally get the chance to do it and because if you’ve brought your kid to a science show chances are you are the sort of parent that knows how to behave, and more importantly, cares that your kids behave during the show. No-one wants to be seen as the parent with the unruly kids. And this means as a performer you can be a lot more subtle in your behaviour cues because the parents will pick up on them and then nudge the kids to be quiet.

The show went great and everyone enjoyed themselves. Luckily apart from the mixed audience the venue was perfect- small curved amphitheatre-style seating, excellent sight lines with great audio and video facilities. But I had to work very hard to keep the Scouts in order so the parents could enjoy the show with their kids whilst not seeming so strict that I alienated those parents by seeming too authoritarian.

I think the most important thing I did was to insist that the Scouts entered the auditorium first and were seated neatly at the front. I was able to let them know the rules before anyone else came in. This also meant that the Scouts were all together in the one area. If they had been spread out around the room I don’t think I’d have been able to deal with the situation. Keeping them together and close allowed me to eyeball and peer pressure them into behaving well. It also meant that if the younger kids were a little distracted, and who wouldn’t be aged 5 on a Saturday morning watching an hour long show designed for 10 year olds and above, then their distractions were hidden from the rest of the audience and controlled in a small space at the front.

So when you are dealing with different groups of people in your shows think about the appropriate way you speak to them. Consider how you interact with them. Different groups require different treatment and if you are treating everyone the same in every show you do then I’d suggest you might want to make some changes. But watch out when you have groups that need different treatment in the same audience. It commonly happens because of ages being mixed but it can also happen as I’ve described above. Try to avoid mixed audiences if you can but if you can’t anticipate the problems and do what you can to make you life easier before you even start.