Use the stage

8 11 2017

See that stage in your venue? It’s there for presentations like mine. It’s there because on a flat floor anyone seated more than 2 or maybe 3 rows back can’t see a thing.


Just because you’ve a tiny projector screen over the door or because “there’s stuff stored up on the stage” don’t sacrifice the comfort of 4/5ths of your audience by not using the stage. It really is worth taking the time to find another screen to put on the stage and/or having a tidy up.

On a flat floor the experience of those in the first couple of rows will be so different to those sat behind them it’s like they are watching a different show. If you use the stage though everyone gets to see everything that is going on.

UPDATE Paul McCrory quite rightly emailed me to say with numbers up to 120ish this flat layout can work well. I agree with him. As long as there are less than 4 rows of seats it can work. This post refers to an audience of 240+ with 8+ rows of seats.

Today I was working on a flat floor with 7 or 8 rows of seats. You can see the children straining to see the volunteer at the front and that’s with the volunteer standing on a chair.

If I hadn’t raised the child up the majority of the audience wouldn’t have seen a thing. This isn’t just unfair to those at the back it leads to behaviour management issues as well. I wouldn’t sit quietly either if I couldn’t see what was happening but my classmates at the front could see it all.

Here you can see a teacher in the same venue just visible to the audience again having to stand on a chair.

Compare the view these children had in this venue with the flat floor to these children yesterday in a venue with a stage.

Even 11 rows back (I took the photo from row 12) every member of the audience can see all of the teacher volunteer.

As Paul very correctly pointed out you loose a connection when you use a stage, you put a “4th wall” between you and the audience, however with audiences requiring more than 4 rows of seating the benefits of everyone being able to see outweigh the negatives of distancing yourself. You can always come down off the stage to reconnect if doing so is suitable.


Today I was working in a lecture theatre and I had to make a stage.

Lecturers normally just talk (often turned to face their slides…) and so these sorts of venues only make the top third of an adult visible to the audience. Why would you need to see more of the lecturer if they’re just talking?

Look at the stick figures in the picture below to 1) see how tall I would have been when I was speaking and 2) how tall my volunteer would have been.

So people could see I found a table for my volunteer to stand on. Without it he would have been basically invisible to the audience, they certainly wouldn’t have seen those two bottles hitting the table at the same time.


When does behaviour management start?

22 03 2017

Imagine being a teenager on the way to a science show and seeing these chairs as you entered the room. What has just been happening in this room? What standards of behaviour have previously been set and what standards of behaviour are going to be demanded of you?

Now look at these chairs. Ask yourself the same questions. 

Behavioural priming is a field of psychological research that isn’t without its critics but it makes sense to me that teenagers who see the second, neater room set up will assume higher behavioural expectations have been and are going to be set than those who see the first. 

Behaviour management doesn’t just start as you begin to speak. Wittingly or not your audience will be making assumptions about how they are going to be expected to behave from the moment they enter your space. 

I have written before about the value of controlling the fill and owning the room. By stopping children at the door, making them line up and wait for their teacher to arrive you are giving them a very powerful message – that you are in control and that you know what you are doing.

Children who are guided to enter a room calmly, who then see neat rows of chairs easy for them to file along, are always easier to speak to in my experience than those who have rushed uncontrolled into a messy space. 

Now what about the way you are dressed? I’m not exactly sure why the uniform of a science presenter has become a brightly coloured, embroidered polo shirt but I’d guess they are cheap, hard wearing and in a science centre environment make staff stand out and easy to spot whilst fitting into the centre’s overall branding. 

I personally don’t like this style of uniform but in a science centre I can see how it can be justified. I don’t think it helps members of those institutions who do outreach. 

In every school there is a dress code. Even if the children are not expected to wear a specific uniform there will be certain expectations. And this applies to the teachers as well. 

Imagine we are back in school and you are a teenager entering the room for your science show. What impressions are you going to form about the show you are about to see when the people presenting it are dressed more casually than your school’s maintenance and cleaning staff?

I’ve just searched google images for “teacher” and there isn’t a single image of someone in a brightly coloured polo shirt. But science centre outreach staff aren’t “teachers” I can hear some people shout. Yes, I know where you are coming from but “informal education” refers to the style of pedagogy not how people are dressed. 

The picture above is a random pic taken from google but it is representative of the way the presenters I saw last week really struggling to manage a tough teenage audience were dressed.

Those presenters weren’t from the Science Museum in London but they’d been sent out to perform to S1 and S2 (13-14 year olds) by their own centre looking very similar. In the end they just had to stop their show. The kids’ behaviour got so out of hand that the teachers had to step in and take the kids back to class. 

We know science centres. If you are reading this blog you have definitely visited one, you’ve probably even worked at one, so you unwittingly understand why science centre staff are dressed like that. Through your past experiences you have been primed to expect a certain style of performance but not everyone has the same experiences you have. 

Imagine you are a teenager who’s never been to a science centre, who’s never seen anyone in their school dressed like that. What image are you forming of this person and what expectations will you have of their show and the behaviour expected of you?

I’m not justifying the kids’ behaviour but I can’t help but feel their behaviour might have been different if they’d been faced with people dressed in a way that demanded more respect. 

I performed to the same S2 group and I knew they were going to be tough. I don’t wear a science centre polo I wear a slightly more relaxed version of what you might expect a teacher to wear (shirt, jacket and dressy dark denim jeans normally). To counter the troubling environment for that performance I changed my shoes from my comfy performing black trainers to a pair of leather brogues. When it comes to behaviour priming every little helps.

One last point is about the way you start to speak. If the first thing you do is shout to get the audience’s attention then you are priming that audience to not be quiet until you shout again. The first words that come out of your mouth – and more importantly the way you say them – will set the tone for the rest of your performance. If you want the children to listen quietly then you will have to get them quiet before you speak. Perhaps the details of this are best dealt with in a separate post. 

Performing to teenagers is hard, assuming your material is up to scratch and not the real issue, remember the importance of behavioural priming. Behaviour management starts long before you begin to speak. Think about the behaviour you want the kids to exhibit and ask yourself if your set up and what you are wearing is reinforcing or undermining that message. 

Teenage audiences

1 03 2016

I know there are people out there who have just had shivers go down their spine reading that title.

There’s a reason most organisations provide shows for P5-S2 (in Scotland) and Years 4-8 (in England). It’s hard to do shows about science for people younger than eight but it’s even harder to do science for teenagers. 

Once audiences hit thirteen and until they reach sixteen/seventeen they can be brutal. 

In this video Jimmy Fallon is talking to the writer and star of a new musical about politics and how they’ve got funding to do the show free for 20,000 teenagers. You can imagine the kids’ reactions when they’re told that’s the school trip. A musical, about politics, for an audience of teenagers…

At 1:30 they both talk about how amazing their first experiences of musical theatre was. You can hear their enthusiasm as they speak- but one went on to be a chat show host  and the other wrote his own musical! Of course, they both loved going to their first musicals. 

They are like us the first time we saw science. We felt for science the enthusiasm they felt for musicals- that’s why you’re reading this and I’m writing it!

But as we know not everyone is like us. Not everyone gets musicals just like not everyone gets science. As the writer explains:

Teenage audiences can’t lie. They’re the most incredible audiences we have and I remember being a teenager in an audience and if it was bad people would be like “whaaack”…

“This is whack. She doesn’t like him… Why are they singing..?”

I’ve done one performance that still haunts me. It was in America, before YouTube and camera phones so don’t think you can find it, thank heavens. It was a hastily organised show written for younger kids but somehow in one of the first performances I ended up in front of 1300 teenagers.  They spoke all the way through it, they turned their backs. It was terrible.

Since then I’ve seen presenters from some of the most respected SciCom organisations in the country fall prey to the same fate. Their teenage audiences have let them know in no uncertain terms what they thought of their shows. 

My show and all those others had something in common. The shows were substandard rubbish. The shows weren’t good enough to hold the attention, they weren’t good enough to deserve the attention, of the teenage audience. 

It is possible to do musicals and science for teenagers but the key factor is that your material has to be good. If you’ve got material that’s good those same teenagers will be the best audience you’ve ever had for the same reason they can be the worst. They can’t lie. 

I’ve love working with other presenters and I love to discuss stuff with them. I’m happy for people to totally disagree with almost anything I’ve got to say about science presenting except for one thing. 

However tough teenage audiences can be, if you got roasted it’s not their fault

Remember they can’t lie. It is your fault. It is my fault. Our material and the way we presented it just wasn’t good enough. 

We should never blame the audience before we’ve had a good long look at ourselves. Yes, some teenage audiences might sit quietly and let us do our thing but they are the exceptions. Like adults they’ve have learned to lie already. Adults will smile and endure our substandard shows and then probably tell us they loved it.

The others are just expressing what the rest are thinking. Teenagers can’t lie. 

Asking questions

5 12 2015

Before you read this I want to ask have you ever thought why we ask questions to our audiences in shows?

Please take 30 seconds to think of two or three reasons and jot them down on a piece of paper or on your phone. No one else will see them and there are no right or wrong answers. We will come back to those answers later. Done it? Good. Thank you.


Often questions are asked seemingly with little thought. It’s like presenters are asking questions because that’s what they think they should do but every question in our shows should be carefully thought out. Here is a made up but typical example of how questions are often used in science presentations:

Boys and girls, what did you know about plants and food? (Pause) Yes, you? (Child one responds) Well, yes we do eat plants for food but that’s not what what we are talking about today. How about the boy in the white shirt? (Child two answers) That’s another good thing to remember but it wasn’t what I was looking for. Can anyone remember the name of the way plants get food? (Pause) Yes? (Child one answers again.) Right! Photosynthesis! How do plants do that? What do plants need to photosynthesise? (Pause) Yes you in the front row? (Child three responds.) Well, that’s one way but there is another one I’m thinking of. And so it continues.

Compare this exchange to this one.

For students in year 3 this should be revision. Plants need food just like we do but they don’t find and eat food like we do they make their own. On the board here I have a word equation for what we call photosynthesis, the way plants make food. In 30 seconds time I am going to pick people at random to tell me which four words go into the equation. Something plus something produces something else and something else. You can talk about the answers with the person sitting next to you. Time starts now

What is the difference between these two examples? The differences are huge.

In the first example the presenter is playing a game called “who can guess what is in my head”. Instead of telling the children what they should know they are asking the children to guess.

If you stand back and watch questioning like this it quickly becomes clear that only a small portion of the audience are trying to answer the questions. Some of the other children are just watching quietly but some will have switched off entirely. If this sort of questioning “goes well” (ie the presenter gets the answers they were thinking of quickly) then we quickly move on but if this questioning “goes badly” (ie the presenter gets wrong answers or people refuse to answer) it can take forever and become painful.

At the end of the process what has been achieved? One or two keen (or loud or dominant or English speaking) children have perhaps given the answers the presenter was looking for but the vast majority weren’t involved, a percentage have switched off entirely and it is doubtful anyone who didn’t already know the answers to the questions, or if they held an incorrect understanding, has learned anything new.

Compare this to the second example. The children are challenged at the start (this should be revision). Essential information is given clearly and in an age appropriate manner (plants need food etc). It is made clear the what the students should have eventually as an answer and they are given a bit of a clue (the word equation on the board). The children are challenged again but have sufficient time to think (you have 30 seconds). They are told no one can opt out (I will pick people at random). They have to do it with a friend so there is communication for both and help for those that need it (with the person sitting next to you).

Over the course of the next few posts I’ll investigate different ways we can set more effective questions in our presentations. We will look at formative vs summative questions, techniques for maximising engagement, the value of cooperative learning, how to ask questions without losing control of your audiences and how to make answering questions comfortable for all. We will also look at asking questions to assess impact and see that sometimes you need to make your audience uncomfortable to really change what they think. 

I hope this first article has given you items to add to your list. Keep it and we will fill it out more over the coming weeks. 


3 12 2015

I recently had the opportunity to watch some videos of presentations as part of a training project. The presentations were interactive shows performed by experienced presenters. In most of the videos the behaviour of the children got worse as the show progressed. In just a couple the behaviour of the audience wasn’t a problem. 

Working with the presenters watching the videos it became apparent there were two differences between the shows where the behaviour was an escalating problem and those where it was not:

1. The setting of standards

2. Consistent reinforcing of those standards

In the shows where behaviour was not a problem the presenters clearly explained to the children the standards they expected at the start. Depending on their age and stage the children were told how they were expected to sit, how they could answer questions, how they should show their appreciation and how they could join in. The children were reminded of these standards throughout the presentation and were regularly praised for meeting them. 

In the shows where behaviour disintegrated few if any standards, or confusing standards, were set and then throughout the shows unwanted behaviour was inadvertently reinforced. 

Psychologists have shown that if a behaviour is becoming more frequent and/or more intense then it is being reinforced. Watching the videos back with the presenters we were able to see that in many cases they themselves had inadvertently encouraged the unwanted behaviours and then reinforced them.

Common faults included:

– Talking when the children were talking: this tells the children they don’t need to be quiet so they won’t. 

– Not setting rules for picking volunteers or asking questions. The children would start off being respectful but as that behaviour is not acknowledged, and less than respectful behaviour is reinforced (either by the presenter choosing the noisiest child or other children laughing at the child “getting away” with being disrespectful), the behaviour gets progressively worse and worse. 

– Not commenting on desirable behaviours: there was little or no positive reinforcement.

– Not having a strategy for bringing the children back to listening quietly after they have been allowed to speak or complete an activity. This resulted in more talking over children and in some cases shouting (to be heard) which appeared like the presenter losing their temper. 

In this post from 2010 I wrote about why and how behaviour management is important. Yes, we could argue that children attending events we are invited to speak at should sit quietly and, yes, you could argue that it is a teacher’s responsibility to manage the behaviour of their charges, but if we as the presenters are inviting and then reinforcing the unwanted behaviours then I would say this is our fault and therefore our problem. 

Children as a rule want to please. If we let them know how we can be pleased then that is what they desperately try to do. Managing behaviour is as simple as switching round the mistakes identified above. 

The presenters who didn’t struggle only spoke once the children were quiet- at the start this took some time but as this rule was consistently applied throughout the presentation the children soon got the message, the children didn’t talk when the presenter was trying to. 

They also gave clear instructions about how children were to interact. This varied between age and stage and style of presentation but the presenters had thought about why they wanted the children to behave, they then planned how they were going to make this happen and then clearly communicated this at the start. 

Presenters who had few issues were quick to praise the wanted behaviours, there is an old saying catch them being good. They mostly ignored the unwanted behaviours and because those behaviours were not being reinforced they went away. 

These presenters also had thought how they were going to get the kids back before they let them go. Some just waited for silence, one would point worriedly at his watch as if they were running out of time, another would use a counter on a PowerPoint slide to indicate just how much time the children had before they had go back to attentive listening. 

Watching the good presentations was like watching a spiral reach higher and higher levels of engagement and watching the rest we could see the behaviour spiralling out of control. 

My advice to all is to record especially the start of your presentations and judge how effectively you are setting the standards you expect from the start.  If you aren’t setting standards try it next time and see if you notice a difference. If you are and behaviour is still an issue then watch to see if you are inadvertently reinforcing those behaviours yourself before you start to blame the teachers or worse the children for the behaviour in your show. 


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.

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.


17 01 2011

Primary school kids respond very differently to questions in shows than secondary school kids do. In a typical primary school your question will be met with straining kids waving frantically to get your attention, in a typical secondary no one will put their hands up and most of them will stare at their shoes.

Is there a better way to ask questions? You might want to try this simple technique: Think-Pair-Share

Instead of saying: “Who can put their hands up and tell me…” give the kids time to think about it silently by themselves, then time to compare their answer with the person sat next to them, and only then take an answer from the group. The benefits of this technique are three-fold.

Firstly, it gives everyone time to hear, digest and think about the question. Too often when using quick fire, hands-up questions we are playing a game called “who can guess what’s in the teacher’s head”. As a child it is impossible to concentrate all the time even if you are trying hard and it is much too easy to either switch off (someone else will give the answer anyway) or get lost (I missed that, what did he say?) with this technique.

Secondly, giving the kids a chance to compare their answer with someone else gives them more time to consider the question but also reinforces the point as the very process of sharing it embeds it in their brain. It takes the pressure off them as well as it allows them not to know an answer but still find the answer out.

Finally, by sharing after thinking and pairing you are much more likely to get a considered response and a response that has been considered by most of the kids in the room. Often, within a straining audience of primary school kids there are those who are hiding behind the enthusiasm of their friends. In a secondary school there are kids that want to get involved but who are too embarrassed or not confident enough. This technique catches the hiders as effectively as it gives confidence to the embarrassed.

If you want to you can ask for hands up when sharing but it is even more effective to just pick someone. No one can complain as they have all had ample opportunity to find an answer themselves or to take an answer from someone else. You can even take some more pressure off and increase the motivation to share by asking the respondent to tell you what their friend thought instead of what they themselves thought.

The most common objections to using a technique like this is that it takes up too much time and that it gives away too much control.

I think that the benefit in attention from a whole group is always outweighed by the small amount of time it takes to employ think-pair-share. You only need give 10 secs and 20 secs for thinking and pairing and the sharing is the same as the old technique anyway. And when you factor in that you shouldn’t get as many lists of wrong answers because the kids have had time to think it can even end up saving time.

Control can be a different matter. If you explain to the kids at the start of the show what you plan to do, if you give them a simple example to practice with, and if you have a way to get them back after their sharing (eg: holding up a hand, ringing a bell, fading out a piece of music etc) then kids with no experience of this technique will pick it up quickly. I have to admit that in certain cases of extremely distracted kids I have abandoned the attempts to use it but that is extremely rare.

How long should children sit? (UPDATED)

13 12 2010

I’ve been asked to do two 1.5hr presentations instead of my usual three or four 1hr presentations. The extra 30mins doesn’t sound like much on the page but I’m going to be interested to see what it means in real life for my audience.

I am working in a secondary school and the teacher seems to be concerned with filling in time rather than the educational validity of the process. I’m confident I can keep going for that length of time but how will the kids react?

At the science museum in London they aim to finish their shows within 20mins.  It has been reported to me that they think after 20mins no learning takes place… That doesn’t bode well for tomorrow! And it also doesn’t bode well for the vast majority of school lessons or university lectures either. I’ve never come across one that lasted less than 40mins. Perhaps the SM are thinking that their audience is likely to be smaller kids? But still, most blocks of time in a primary school are more than 20mins.

Most science shows that I perform are about 50mins and that allows for them to be programmed into a hour slot for festivals or squeezed into a 40min lesson. I have never asked an audience to sit for more than 1hr. I don’t think I’d like to have to sit for more than an hour as an audience member…

TV programmes tend to fit into 30min blocks. A typical soap will be half an hour and a drama might last one hour. Watching a BBC programme without a break for a whole hour can sometimes seem like quite a long period of time. It is easier on a commercial station. On a channel with adverts a programme that lasts an hour will typically have only 48mins of actual action once the ads have been inserted. US TV programmes such as Lost and Mad Men are typically only 42mins long. When shown on a commercial station they are given an hour slot and the rest of the time (18mins!) is taken up with adverts for products and upcoming shows. That makes watching them quite easy- you are getting lots of breaks. (Another way to get a grasp on this is to watch a BBC Planet Earth or Human Planet episode. At 48mins the action stops and we are treated to a “behind the scenes” feature for the next 10mins. Why? Well on commercial TV this time will be taken up by adverts and viewers there will only see the extras if they buy the DVD.)

When I go to a football match I sit for 45mins and then we get a 20min break before the next 45mins. I guess it is only at the cinema that you would typically sit for the length of time that I am proposing the children sit for tomorrow.

So what should I do? I could have a break in the middle of the show like the football or the TV people do. That would have the double bonus of reducing the time the kids have to listen for AND give them a break but is the teacher going to think that’s me copping out? The other thing to do would be to go S  L  O  W  L  Y and spread out what I would normally fit into an hour into the time slot. I’d be worried that this gets boring. I can imagine a lot of squirmy kids realising, or at least sensing, that something isn’t quite right. Or I could just keep the pace going and add extra material. If I do that I’m guessing the kids are going to be knackered.

UPDATE: It turned out the kids were “challenging” (teacher’s words not mine) and it took a long time to get them settled which used up 10mins or so of the extra time. In the end I used extra material as a carrot. I told them that I had one full show and if we got through that then a whole load of fun stuff to set fire to and explode. It worked out quite well as I could refer to the extra stuff that that were going to miss when they played up and slowed stuff down. I don’t think I’d like to do it again without writing a show designed to be that length. It felt too much of a compromise.