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When to Teach Participation

by Doug Lipman

(This article appeared in Storytelling World magazine. Copyright Doug Lipman)


This time, Doug addresses the question:
"I use audience participation in one of my stories.
Should I teach the audience's part before the story begins, or when it comes up in the story?"

Teaching participation beforehand has both advantages and disadvantages. So does teaching participation during the story.

To make the best decision:

  1. First you need to be aware of the trade-offs.
  2. Then you can use strategies to maximize your effectiveness.

During vs. Before

The advantage of waiting to teach participation until it occurs in the story is that, by now, the audience has entered into the imaginative world of the story. They care about the little boy who was too afraid to go to sleep. As a result, their participation will be carry more meaning for them than just "helping out" the storyteller.

The disadvantage of waiting until the moment of participation, however, is the potential disruption. Teaching participation during the story--especially if it's complicated--may interrupt the audience's emotional involvement with the story.

Conversely, teaching at the beginning avoids disruption--but it sacrifices the meaningfulness of the participation. Why should I want to say "I'm not sleepy yet." Maybe I am sleepy!

How can you maximize meaning while minimizing disruption?

I know of two strategies:

  1. One--to be discussed in a future column--adds meaning in order to motivate the learning of the participation.
  2. The other strategy lessens the disruption through efficient teaching, allowing you to teach participation within the story.

Four ways to lessen the disruption

In many cases, these four principles allow you to make your teaching of participation almost unnoticeable:

  1. Show first, in whole units.
  2. Say as little as possible.
  3. Make each moment an event that involves everyone.
  4. Invite, but show respect.

Show first, in whole units

This is a fundamental principle of teaching. If you want someone to learn to do something, don't explain it to them; show them. Furthermore, don't show just a part. Show the whole thing. If it is too long for them to imitate, show the whole thing first, then repeat a smaller part. Imagine that someone is teaching you to assemble cars, but you have never actually seen one. If they just show you all the parts individually, you won't know how they should fit together. You might make some interesting mistakes that no one would make who had ever seen a car! Similarly, your audience will learn a sequence of four motions more quickly if you show them the whole sequence first, at the speed at which it will actually occur. If you need to break it into parts or slow it down for them, do that after they have received an overall impression of what they are trying to do.

Say as little as possible

Once you have demonstrated a song, a chant, or a movement, you may not need to say a word in order to get the audience to join you. It may be enough to repeat it with a nod that says, "Join in."

Frequently, I find myself using arm gestures that say, "Now you try it." Or I might just smile while I repeat the activity. If no one joins in for a while, I might smile at the first person who does, thus encouraging the rest to join in. Neither do I usually say anything before demonstrating what the audience will do. Instead, I let the demonstration remain part of the story: "So the little boy I was telling you about sat straight up on his cot and said, `I'm not sleepy yet!'"

If you need to say something after demonstrating, make it as brief as possible. It's usually enough to say something like,

  • "You try it."
  • "Let me hear you say what he said." Or,
  • "Join me, if you want."
Then take a deep breath, nod to the audience, and do the activity again.

Make each moment an event that involves everyone

If you need to talk an audience through a series of instructions, don't rattle them off in advance. Instead, treat each step as though it were a moment in a story. Similarly, if you are going to bring four volunteers on stage to represent four different characters, try asking for the volunteers one character at a time. That way, everyone knows what they are volunteering for. And your choice of each volunteer can become a moment of drama.

If you are teaching participation that will ultimately be performed by an individual or by only part of your group, consider teaching it first to everyone.

For example, if you are going to divide the audience into dogs, cats, and sheep, teach everyone the "dog part" before you assign it to the first third of the group. Then teach everyone the "cat part," etc. Why should anyone be kept waiting when they may as well all be participating?

Invite, but show respect

Your audience probably wants to participate. Give them a clear invitation. If you feel they are waiting to be invited a second time, invite them again. But don't resort to cajoling or comparing them to other audiences. If they really don't want to participate, respect their decision. You might even learn from them that the participation doesn't make sense at this point in this story--or for this audience, in this context.

The Caring Audience

Sometimes, a participatory activity is too complicated to teach within the story, even when using these four principles. In that case, you will need to add some meaning to it, then teach it before the story. Most of the time, however, these four principles will be enable you to teach your participation "on the fly," in each story. This ensures that you will only teach participation that your audience has a reason to care about!


Copyright © Doug Lipman

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman