Teachers, what message are you giving?

23 11 2018

I’d like to start this post by thanking all those teachers who model good audience behaviour to their students by watching my shows together with their kids.

Not every child knows how to behave in a show. Not every child will be in the right frame of mind at that time in the school day to behave at their best. Your taking part and joining in the show demonstrates to the kids how they should be behaving. It will help them (and me) immensely.

I always sympathise with teachers who politely explain to me before we start why they’ll absolutely *have* to work quietly at the back. Of course, I’d prefer they didn’t but I can’t stop them and as they’ve asked nicely/explained the situation I will not be offended. I will explain that if I do need them to model good behaviour then I will subtly ask them to join the group but only if it’s really necessary.

If a teacher just assumes they can use my show as a chance to get their work done I’m afraid I do consider that to be terribly rude. If this happens out of sight of the children and I don’t need the teacher’s help I probably won’t say anything but I *will* be offended.

Please teachers do not be like this teacher here:

Please think of the message doing this will send to the kids [this isn’t important or interesting enough for me to pay attention to so why should you] and the message this sends to me as a fellow teaching professional.

And if you do do this please don’t be surprised if I call out what you are doing during a show, be grateful if I do it quietly by whispering in your ear and not in front of the kids and the rest of the staff, and expect to find yourself the subject and inspiration for an exasperated blog post.

Don’t try this at home…

23 02 2017

I can’t think of many more redundant things to say as a science presenter than “don’t try this at home” [DTTAH].

Replication of potentially dangerous demos is a genuine issue in our work and it’s not enough for us to try and hide behind DTTAH statements. We need to do much more. 

Jonathan Sanderson and I were speaking about this a few years back and he really opened my eyes. 

He told me to imagine a demo with a 1 in a 1000 chance of going wrong and then think of different people doing it. The perception of those 1 in a 1000 odds changes quickly. 

Imagine a lecturer showing a demo  (that the audience couldn’t recreate), once every other year, for the department open day. A 1 in a 1000 risk sounds pretty acceptable. 

Now imagine a science presenter repeating that same (unrecreatable) demo but doing it 3 times a day, 100 times per year. All of a sudden that 1 in a 1000 risk sounds a lot less inviting and that’s just risk for the presenter. 

Now imagine the demo is done the same number of times but in doing the demo the presenter gives out enough information for kids in the audience to replicate it. Let’s say 10 kids in every show try it just once.

Can you see how that perfectly reasonable risk for the lecturer becomes a totally unacceptable risk for the science presenter showing kids how it’s done?

Jonathan takes it further because he makes TV programmes. Imagine that demo done just once on TV but shown to 250,000 kids. Your 1 in a 1000 chance of going wrong demo would now be making the headlines on the 6pm news!

Jonathan and I spoke before YouTube exploded in popularity. Today I’ve been watching and annotating a video of a show that is on YouTube for the world to see. I’m not going to out the presenter here but I am going to send them a link to this post. I’m only 14 mins into the 48 min lecture but they’ve made 5 DTTAH announcements whilst showing and explaining 3 or 4 demos that are a replication concern.

Let’s be honest. If you are reading this blog you have always had a curious and creative personality. When you heard DTTAH as a kid I bet what you really heard was “listen closely because I’m going to show you how to do something that’s cool and probably dangerous” [LCBIGTSYHTDSTCAPD]. 

LCBIGTSYHTDSTCAPD is a not a message we want the kids to go away with. So far the YouTube video has only got a few hundred hits but that’s not to say it mightn’t go viral. So what do we do?

The key to keeping our audience safe (keeping yourself safe has been covered in other posts) is to only give out enough information so the science nugget can be explained. Let’s take the flaming bubbles ignited on the hand demo. 

(This is a random google image, it’s not the presenter I was watching although this is a demo he does in his show.)

Depending on why and for who you are doing this demo your nugget will be different. Perhaps you are showing that heat rises, or that water insulates you from heat, or that some gasses are flammable but some are not, in none of these situations do you need to tell your audience what your gas is or where they can get it – so don’t. 

Cover up and disguise the gas canister. Refer to the gas as a “special gas I have bought from my laboratory”. Do whatever you need to do so that a member of your audience won’t be able to work out how to repeat it without working unreasonably hard. 

And if your science nugget relies on revealing what the fuel is then don’t put it on your hand, put it on a flameproof container and make sure you show that you’ve taken proper PPE precautions. 

Replicability should be part of the risk assessment process for every demo we do. It isn’t hard to make simple changes that will make a big difference in our shows. 

Relying on a DTTAH warning which actually only serves to prick up young ears to something they really shouldn’t be being invited to replicate because it’s genuinely dangerous isn’t good enough. 

Annotating shows

30 07 2016

This is a picture of a page from one of my numerous notebooks where I have annotated a science show.

I’m not in a position to describe my annotation system in any detail at the moment but I will soon.

If you are reading this because of a thread on BIG chat this post will make more sense…



European peace visualised

6 06 2016

“If watching the news doesn’t make us feel hopeful about where we are heading watching the numbers might.”

My grandad was a product of his time. In the late 1980s as I was trying to find my adult political feet he was turning 70 and we would argue regularly about the issues of the day.  

We passionately disagreed about Margaret Thatcher and privatisations; Nelson Mandela and apartheid; and Alf Garnet and what one could acceptably say in public. 

So one Sunday after lunch when I asked what he thought about Europe (at the height of the ERM crisis) I was shocked at his reply:

The European Union is the best thing that’s happened to this country. 

I was a teenager looking for a good argument – I didn’t expect him to say that. 

His reasoning was simple:

My father fought in a world war. I fought in a world war. Because of the EU my children and my grandchildren haven’t had to. 

On 23rd June we will get to vote in the EU Referendum and I will be voting to keep the UK in. Whatever your opinion and voting intention I’d recommend watching this video. 

It is a powerful visualisation of the numbers of people who died in Europe and across the world in WW2. It belongs on this blog as a brilliantly simple piece of data visualisation. If it contributes some interesting information that might help you make up your mind about which way to vote all the better. 

[If you don’t have time for it all watch from 3:15 to 7:00 to see the staggering numbers of German and Russian military deaths or from 7:30 to 12:00 European civilian deaths.]

As we are shown and told in the video:

More people died in WW2 than in all the wars since despite the world’s population having increased threefold. 

The largest 44 economies of the world have not battled since WW2. And

Sometimes we need to reminded of the horrors of war to notice the peace that we now enjoy. 

I can’t guess how my grandad would have voted if he was still with us but I suspect, despite all the things we’d be still disagreeing about, we’d both agree to vote “In”. Whatever the faults of the EU it’s helped give us peace since WW2 and that’s a very good thing. 

Volunteer theory 2

19 02 2016

Yesterday I wrote about six reasons to use a volunteer and gave an example of a show where a volunteer was not used effectively. Today I will show you the opposite. 

This is Frostbite Theatre’s Cryo Show and if the link doesn’t work search YouTube for “Frostbite Theatre Liquid Nitrogen Show”. Watch it from the start until the first set of volunteers have finished helping out at 4:14.

Excellent volunteer work is characterised by their carrying out a useful role, their involvement should elicit positive emotions and they should add to the drama. 

This is excellent volunteer work and we can examine it looking at our six reasons to use a volunteer. Volunteers should be at least one of the following: extra pair of hands; naive actor; eliciting empathy; increasing jeopardy; reacting; providing a different voice.

The reason this works so well is at different times they are almost all of those things. 

Two children (naive actors) have volunteered to put their hands into the liquid nitrogen (jeopardy)!

The presenter expertly minimises the cost of using volunteers by using the time it takes for them to put protective gear on to establish the qualities of his flowers with the audience. He also ensures they get ready to the side so they are not a distraction

He uses more volunteers in the front row to confirm the flowers are real (naive actors) before explaining that if the flowers are OK in the liquid nitrogen then he’ll “make the children” put their hands inside the dewar (increased jeopardy). 

You can see an example of the cost in time of using volunteers as he has to go and help them get ready but he covers this by being friendly and jokes with them. His positive and friendly attitude here towards the volunteers will be shared by the audience (empathy).

Then the volunteers are invited to choose a flower and join him at the table. Watch at 1:35 how the girl moves to the table. She is so excited and happy she skips!

Because of empathy the audience will be sharing her joy. Because they are feeling that joy they will be paying close attention to what comes next.

The presenter gives clear instructions (to avoid the cost of her messing up which would be a distraction) and she dips her flower. At that moment the audience can imagine being her (empathy). She represents them. And then she reacts looking into the dewar. 

The focus on this dewar at this moment is perfect. The volunteer is bringing much more to this than if the presenter had done it himself even though so far the volunteers haven’t been strictly necessary- he could have done this all himself. 

Once the flower comes out of the nitrogen the real task of the volunteers becomes clear. He asks the volunteer to crush the flower (naive actor and extra pair of hands) and gives her the perfect opportunity to react

The only reason to use a volunteer out of the six he doesn’t employ is to have them speak to be a different voice. He could have asked the volunteer to tell everyone if the flower was still soft or to describe what it sounded like but really this was not necessary (and perhaps impossible given the background noise).

But what about the other volunteer? His presence is justified, he is being used usefully, because as scientists we need to repeat our findings.

Listen in the background as the second volunteer crushes his flower…

you can hear the audience members saying (at 3:25) “wow” and “oh my god”. They are feeling empathy for the volunteer and are sharing his reaction of amazement and joy. This makes the audience much more connected to the demo, it’s as if they are doing it themselves, and that’s the power of empathy.

The piece ends with an explanation of the similarities between flowers and humans. We have learned it wouldn’t be a good idea for them to put their hands in the bucket of nitrogen and they are sent back to their seats. 

As we said at the start excellent volunteer work is characterised by their carrying out a useful role, their involvement should elicit positive emotions and they should add to the drama. In this piece they do all three and as such the round of applause they receive from the audience is real and genuine.  

Now not everyone would have done this demo this way and that’s OK.

Using the six reasons to use a volunteer isn’t meant to stamp out identical performers and demos but I think it gives us a very useful framework to examine how effective volunteers use is across widely differing performing styles.

This isn’t perfect, we can all improve. For instance the boy is isolated on stage whilst the girl dips her flower. 
Perhaps he could have been invited to “come and see”. And the presenter doesn’t ask (at least we don’t hear him use) the volunteers’ names. I will discuss this choice in a future post. 

Overall I think this is an excellent example and just as with the last post I’d love to hear what you think. 

Own the room 2

24 11 2015

Few schools have dedicated performance spaces. Most schools end up putting science presentations on the gym or cafeteria. Whilst these spaces have size and flexibility going for them, unfortunately, they don’t have much else. 

Worse they come with baggage.

If you are presenting in a space that’s normally a dinner hall the children will associate that space with eating and chatting. They will also be used to being supervised in that space by people other than their teachers. 

If you are presenting in what is normally a gym the children will associate that space with running around at break-neck speed kicking balls and climbing over gym apparatus. In this sort of space they are often controlled by someone with a whistle. 

If you do nothing to change the children’s perception of the space they are in your presentation will suffer for those perceptions. If you allow the children to think of the space as a place where they can chat with their pals or where they don’t need to listen unless someone blows a whistle they will do just that. 

This space is typical of the sorts of spaces provide for presentations. Not only is it an echoey gym hall it is also used for assemblies. The fact it’s used for assemblies should have worked in my favour but because the room is so large they only ever address the children using a booming PA system.


The children in this space had been primed to NOT sit still and to ONLY listen to a voice loud enough to rattle their fillings. 

In the first two performances I let the teachers bring their classes in and seat them. I really struggled. I’d use all my regular techniques and more to get the kids quiet but the moment I let them go- did something to make them laugh or clap- they started to chat and it took another minute to get them quiet. It was horrendous. 

I always look to myself first but I was sure the show was not the problem, and the way I was presenting it wasn’t any different to how I’d normally do it, so before the last show I made changes. I had to make the kids realise they were in a different space with different behaviour expectations. 

The first thing I did was arrange the benches you can see in the photo. Not only did this make the space look different I was able to use the middle benches to form a neat aisle. I also used the benches to group each class in their own block one class on each side of the aisle. The teachers were then given seats next to their classes instead of them sitting to one side of a row of 30 of their children. 

The second thing I did was get rid of the school’s mic, stand and PA. In the previous shows I think the kids subconsciously saw them  and assumed that was what they had to listen out for. I wanted to rid them of that assumption. 

The last thing I did was take total control of the fill. As described in the first post I told the teachers to slow the kids at the door and then I seated the children row-by-row. You can see how neat they all looked in this picture. It looked and felt totally different to the first two shows. I’d also showed them I was in charge and I expected calm from them. 

The 10 minutes “wasted” at the start was more than worthwhile. The kids were cued to behave differently, they were seated comfortably and despite the noise in the venue the last show was brilliant. 

An awful stage set up

21 11 2015

A while ago I blogged about a perfect stage set up at a TED talk. Today I thought I’d share the complete opposite. 

If you think you recognise the (your) school let me point out I’m posting this for the benefit of a wider audience. I’ve also already made these points to the person who invited me at the school in question. There was no other space in the school that day. I understand sometimes compromises need to be made. The picture below is of one of the two successful shows I did that day. 

Trying to please I allowed second years and fifth years into the last show. Unbeknownst to me twelve seventeen year olds had also been put into the show which was set up for kids 5 years younger at the last minute as a punishment (!) they’d already been chucked out of another session (!!) so they were the least cooperative of their peers AND they’d just received a good shouting at (!!!) But it’s the room I want to comment on. 

The lights were horrible, flickering fluorescents. The room was freezing cold. The space above and around us was huge with no intimacy. We were on a flat floor so anyone three rows back couldn’t see what was happening and felt they couldn’t be seen and so could mess about. And on top of all that I had two teachers at the back heads down in their own work setting a terrible example.

But it was the noise that was incredible. 

Even if it was quiet you can imagine the room would have had a terrible echo. It wasn’t quiet though. There were children painting the sets for a production behind me on the stage. There were children coming in and out of an open door behind that curtain. But to top it all off on the mezzanine they had their kitchens and canteen..!

What was already going to be a tough show in a tough venue was accompanied by banging pots and pans, shouting dinner ladies and their radio tuned to a commercial station so every 10 minutes we heard the same ad break. 

We only have so much energy to give during a performance. This energy is split between 1) performing the show, 2) dealing with the audience, and 3) dealing with the venue. If you have to devote large parts of your resources to overcoming the venue’s inadequacies you inevitably lose energy you can put towards the other two. If you need to devote large parts of your remaining resources to dealing with unengaged, angry audience members as well as the venue what energy are you expected to have left to put into the show?

Very rarely, even if you’ve planned and rehearsed, shows will not go well. Whilst we leave those shows beating ourselves up, scrabbling to think of what we could have done differently, sometimes it was never meant to be. 

Own the room

20 11 2015

Behaviour management doesn’t start at the beginning of a presentation. It starts before you arrive at the venue when you tell the organisers of your expectations. You can then manage behaviour by how you set out the performance space. This post is about managing behaviour as the children arrive and take their seats. 

Normally if a school has put out (say) 150 chairs it is because they are expecting 150 people to be in the audience. This means there will be no spare chairs and every chair will be occupied. This gives you the excuse to organise how the children fill to your advantage. 

Here are two examples of how I’ve filled rooms. In both examples I’ve used the fact “we need to use every seat” to control the fill. 

By insisting the children fill one-by-one, row-by-row I ensure each seat is filled. But I also stop children who really shouldn’t be sitting next to each other doing exactly that. 

Everyone wants to talk to their pals so If you allow pals who won’t be allowed to talk during a show to sit next to each other you are setting them up to fail and get into trouble. By bringing them in under control, by seating them one-by-one as they arrive you mix up those who are best kept apart. 

If you have children who really need help to behave during the presentation then by applying the brakes as they come into the room, by imposing a little control at the fill, you give them the chance to make that obvious to you before the show starts. 

If a child jumps the queue (or tries to sneak back in the queue) to get close to a pal they are telling you they will probably shouldn’t be sitting next to that person and a little need help to behave during the show. 

The second pause in the second video occurs because one boy squeezed between the tables to jump the queue and cross the stage area to find his pals he wanted to sit by. I stopped the fill, I told the boy to rejoin the queue at the back, and then we restarted filling the rows. 

It’s impossible to say what would have happened if I hadn’t intervened but he’d jumped an obvious queue, pushed apart tables clearly there to act as a barrier and then brazenly strode across in front of everyone. (He also wasn’t wearing a regulation jacket or shoes). I’m happy with my guess he was going to find it hard to keep quiet surrounded by his usual group. 

In extreme situations if a child “kicks off” as you apply this most gentle and reasonable control at the start of the presentation then they were never going to be able to follow your subtle behaviour management cues once the show has started and you can find them the help they need before you start. 

In both the situations above I had to rejig the way the children entered so I could easily keep on top of the fill. In the first I bolted one side of the double door to ensure they entered single file. 

In the second I used tables and chairs to block the obvious route straight across the stage to bring the children up toward where I could then funnel them along the rows to their seats. 

In both I organised the fill so I could control the speed that they entered. By doing that, by “owing the room”, by applying a little control before the shows started, I made life a lot easier for myself for the rest of the hour they were with me. 

Sometimes rooms can feel overwhelming but by reorganising some furniture it is possible to maintain control. 

Even though I was alone seating children in this space by reorganising a few chairs I was able to funnel them successfully into where was best for me rather than where they would have sat instinctively if left to their own devices and even though I can’t turn back the clock to see what would have happened I’m sure what I did at the start helped them behave during the show. 


Bumming people’s sh1t

17 09 2015

In previous posts I’ve spoken about the differences between magic and science presenting. Whilst we can always learn from watching other forms of presentation- and skilled magicians can teach us lots about prop wrangling and volunteer handling- no one presenting science should ever give away the “secrets” of a magic trick, however tempted they might be. Giving magic secrets away “bums people’s shit”.

Take 30 mins to listen to this fascinating podcast from Radiolab called “You be the judge“.

A producer on the show learned that his grandparents, Sydney and Lesley Piddington, had been enormously popular radio performers of the 1950’s. They were mentalists and their act would typically place Lesley out of contact (for instance on a plane flying over the countryside) when Sydney in the studio would be given a random piece of information to “transmit mentally” to Lesley. Lesley would then somehow relay the secret information back live on air to everyone’s astonishment.

As it says on the Radiolab site:
Sixty years later, a question remains: how did they do it? No matter how much Jesse asks his grandmother, his father, even other magicians, he can’t seem to find the answer. And soon another question presents itself: should he, should we, open that black box and look inside, if that means losing the magic?

Losing the magic is a wonderful phrase and the key difference between magic and science. In science we give away secrets, in magic the secret is never given away. In science finding out how something works leads the audience to rapture. In magic finding out how something works can ruin your whole day.

To hear the reveal you are directed to a separate webpage with the address /theuglytruthdontclickonthis/

When you get there you are presented with an image of a black box which you then have to click.

Even that doesn’t get you to the reveal though, it takes you to a skull and crossbones that you have to click as well before you are finally directed to Penn, of Penn and Teller, offering a solution.

It’s up to you if you want to listen to the reveal or not. What’s important to note is the respect these podcasters give for the magic secrets. Self-working magic tricks that are based around science demos can be performed as part of a show but as Penn says:

The only secret in magic…is that the secret must be ugly. You cannot have a beautiful secret. In magic, what you want is an idea that is not beautiful. 

You don’t get an ‘A-Ha!’
[An A-Ha] is one of the strongest feelings in life. [A-Ha’s are] rewarding feelings [they are] the feeling of ‘A-Ha, I finally understand.’

I can tell you easily how they did that trick, but you will not get an ‘A-Ha’, it is ugly.

At the end of the podcast you can hear the disappointment the presenters feel when Penn tells them how the tricks were done. They are genuinely upset that what they’ve just learnt has done nothing but ruin all the magic they felt. Penn giggles and says:

I can’t believe how much I bummed your shit.

Magic is great but it is not the same as presenting science. Presenters from both can learn lots from each other but science presenters should remember they deal in those very A-Ha’s that magic just doesn’t provide. Giving away magic secrets is not the way to effectively present science.

Presentations with and without ‘Story’

23 06 2015

Anyone who reads this blog will know I think a good science presentation needs to consider three factors.

A good science presentation is one that has a compelling story. A good science presentation will also be pitched accurately for its intended audience. A good science presentation will also contain accurately explained science.

Here are two links to videos where science is presented on a chat show in America. On the surface both seem similar. In both the presenter does a great job of engaging a non-science audience with some spectacular demos. Both videos would score highly for audience.

Where they differ though is the first video has no story and consequently very little science content whilst the second has a clear story and as a consequence the science makes much more sense. 

Watch video one (if the link is broken search YouTube for “Science Experiments with Kevin Delaney Jimmy Fallon” and it’s the one posted on 6th May 2014).

The audience was definitely impressed. This is no mean feat considering they’ve come to a show expecting to see popstars and rock musicians. But there is no story and as such the science that is explained is explained poorly at best.

The second video on the other hand works so much better. (If the link is broken search YouTube for “Science Experiments with Kevin Delaney Jimmy Fallon Makes a cloud”).

  Instead of just a random collection of three demos these demos are connected by a story (“we are going to talk about the different densities of three different gases”) and the science just flows.

Kevin does a great job of pitching at the correct style and level to the audience on both occasions. 

Have a look at both videos and see if you can tell the difference in story and science

When I’m being interviewed I sometimes tell journalists my aim this: 

I want my audience to go “wow!” because then I know I’ve got their attention but I also want them to go “aha!” because then I know I’ve connected with them at a deeper and more profound level. 

In the first video we definitely get “wows” but there are no “ahas”. This is a missed opportunity (and you could argue mis-selling given the presenter is wearing a lab coat, safety specs, and we are told “he is going to teach us about science”.) I think the second video is genuinely great because he manages to get both “wows” and “ahas”.

I’ve no doubt that the presenter could very easily have described the science behind the demos in the first video. The problem is because there is no story, because the demos aren’t linked, he trips himself up and gets confused. If the presenter is confused, what chance does the audience stand?

Compare this to the second video because there is a story, an over-arching theme, each of the demos are linked and he is able to build our understanding of the science as we go along.

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