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The invisible audience

An interview with Dhara Patel and Patricia Skelton.
Hello, ladies. Hi. Hiya. [CHUCKLES] Thank you for agreeing to take part in this. Do you want to very quickly just introduce yourselves, so that we can find out who you are? Just say what you do as well? That’d be great to know. Patricia, you want to go first? Yeah, sure. Well, hi, everyone, I’m Patricia Skelton, I’m an Astronomy Education Officer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, and I work under Liz, but with Dhara below. We’re all part of the Formal Learning team at the Observatory. So, hi, everyone. My name’s Dhara, I’m the other Astronomy Education Officer at the Royal Observatory, and we basically work on some of the schools programmes. And like Patricia said, we both work under Liz.
Lovely stuff, thank you. So you’re going to talk today about presenting to audiences that you can’t see, aren’t you? Yep. Yeah. I know that sounds really strange, but you actually do that quite a lot I guess, with the different things that you do. So could you tell us a little bit about the different activities and environments that you present in, where you can’t see your audience for one reason or another? Yeah, so some of the things that both me and Patricia both do is deliver planetarium shows, so that’s on-site at the Royal Observatory. We also record a monthly podcast, and perhaps Patricia can tell you about what we’ve been doing since we’ve been put into lockdown.
Yeah, so we’ve had to basically take as much as what we can do on-site, and move it to an online delivery mode. And that has obviously come about with all sorts of challenges, because we’ve had to go from being face-to-face with students, face-to-face with the public, to being face-to-face with a computer screen. So that has been quite a challenge as well, but what’s been great about the whole process is that we’ve tried as much as possible to keep everything that we’ve done on-site, but just shifting it online so that we can still do things like our planetarium shows and, quite recently actually, we’re doing school workshops.
So that’s been really, really nice, that we’ve been able to take that core part of our programme and be able to deliver it in an online mode, and I think, maybe, being able to reach further out. Because obviously, being on-site, the schools who could come visit us were obviously restricted by the distance they could travel, but with online that reach is much greater. So there have been positives that have come out from this really weird time that we find ourselves in. Yeah, yeah, definitely. Oh, brilliant. So you’ve got quite a range of different things there, with the podcast and planetarium shows and workshops and different things.
What would you say– out of those things, which would you say is the most challenging as a presenter? I really wonder what you’re going to say Patricia. But I don’t know whether it’s because we’ve had less time to get used to it, but it has been really, really hard doing the online stuff. Yeah. I think when you’re doing the planetarium shows, you know you’ve got an audience there, you just can’t see them. With our podcast, I sort of envisage the audience we have. And of course we record the podcast together, so even though we’re talking to an audience, you’re still talking to someone.
With our online stuff, it literally is a screen that we’re talking to, and it’s really hard to judge what the other side are experiencing. Yeah, so do you– you imagine an imaginary audience for that, do you? That you’re talking to. I try to, but it’s really difficult, because you can’t see anyone. You’re seeing the screen that you’re perhaps using to present, but I think it’s helpful to imagine that there is an audience there, and I think that helps in your delivery or your presenting. OK. Yeah, yeah Yeah, I would certainly agree with Dhara on that. I think that’s one of the best ways to cope with this, is to imagine the audience, because you can’t see them.
It does help that we have hosts who facilitate the workshops and the planetarium shows, so there is a little bit of banter and a dynamic there, because you can see the host. Well, for at least most of the time in the show. But for the rest of time, when you’re just talking to your computer, you’re just imagining you’re addressing this group of individuals. And I think that’s the best way, we’ve found, to adapt to being able to deliver it, is to just use a bit of your imagination. And I don’t know, maybe, Dhara you might be a bit different, but I’m always imagining a group that’s really enjoying the show, because as you said, because we can’t read anyone.
So you kind of want to– it just helps you, I think, when you’re presenting that you just work on the assumption they’re enjoying every minute of it, and you just keep that momentum going with that idea in your head. Because obviously, on-site, you can read the audience, and you can adjust your delivery as you go along, whereas this, you’ve got nothing. Yeah. Yeah. I was going to ask you about that, actually. So yeah, in terms of how you can get something, some form of interaction from an audience if you can’t see them, what sort of techniques do you use as a presenter to do that?
Because I’ve presented in a planetarium as well, so I kind of know a little bit about that one, in terms of you would ask them to respond to you vocally, so that you can kind of get a bit of a feel for the room. Or if people find things funny, they’ll laugh, or if they’re confused, they’ll just shout, I’m really confused, or, I don’t get that! And you think all right, OK, OK, and then you can kind of modify your approach. But if it’s something like a podcast, or a digital education session, or even just a meeting, a really big meeting, or a conference talk that’s digital, and you can’t see anyone.
How do you get some sort of feeling of how it’s going? Or does it not matter, and you just plough on regardless, do you think? I think Patricia alluded to this at the beginning. Especially when you can’t see your audience, interactivity is the thing that you try and hone in on, because you want to maintain that kind of, it’s not just a one side to another. The idea of this is it’s a sort of shared experience. And I think, at least with the podcasts, where you don’t have an audience there, they may be listening a month, a year after you’ve said what you’re saying, so it’s not live in that sense.
But some things that we can do are ask those rhetorical questions, as if there was an audience right there, and give them a moment to think about it. It gives that idea or the impression that someone is talking to you, it’s not just, I’m listening to this podcast that was made for a robotic audience. There are those opportunities to kind of, I don’t know, make them feel like it’s a present moment. And you guys use things like the chat functions and social media and things like that as well, don’t you, to feed in afterwards or– Actually, I think you do it before as well, don’t you, with the podcast?
You get some feedback of what people would like to hear about one thing or the other? We’ve had some different formats, and we’ve worked with different things, and one of the things that I think works really well is the stories that we pick to delve into in our podcast. We create a poll around them, so we post the podcast on Twitter, and then we get our audience’s feedback. What is it about that story that they feel is most prominent? Or if it’s a question, what do they think is the correct answer? And it’s always a nice thing with astronomy, because although we know a lot, there is a lot of unknown, and it’s really nice to get opinions. Oh nice.
Yeah, I think, just to touch on what Dhara said there as well, is that I think what we’ve always tried to do whenever we’ve recorded– well, even when we’re on-site, recording the podcast, and I think what Dhara’s continued to do as well, is we always– and you touched on this, Liz, as well– is that you always try to aim it, not to a group, but to those individual people, so that when they’re listening to a podcast, or they’re following along in a planetarium show, you want them to feel like you are talking to them directly, like this is a one-to-one session.
And so it’s just a matter of how, I think, you deliver it, and the wording that you use, that you kind of want people to feel like, this is just a planetarium show for me, or this is just a podcast for me. So I think we really try to make sure that the dialogue that we use just makes them feel like they’re not one of a thousand watching something, that they are one person just watching something. And that can be tricky to do, but I think it’s something that we’ve really worked hard on, especially, I’d say, moving to this online mode. Oh, brilliant. That’s nice. It’s really nice if you can make your audience feel special, isn’t it? That’s lovely.
How would you say that your approach as a presenter is different digitally, whether you can see your audience or not? But I guess just thinking, because so many things, at the moment, in particular, are– we’re needing to do them digitally. How would you say it’s different to when you’re in front of a group, or in a meeting, or you’re face-to-face with someone. Or is it not any different? Do you think you’re just the same? I mean, I think it’s a tricky one. I think one of the things that you really want to do as a presenter is gauge where your audience is at, in terms of the level or where you’re pitching it.
And of course, when you’ve got a live audience, you can question them, you can respond to feedback. And so if they’re understanding what it is that you’re saying, you know that you can pitch it up a little bit. With an online audience, it’s really difficult. And I think one of the things I try and do, off the back of that, is just take it back to basics, so that you’re covering all levels. Make sure that you’re explaining things, that although you think your audience might get, it’s just nice to recap it and re-cover it. I think that’s a good point.
I think that there are probably two things that I’ve changed, and the first you just touched on, Dhara, is the content that you’re pitching. Because, as you quite rightly say, when you’re with a class, you can tell when you’ve lost a group. Because when their eyes glaze over, you know you’ve gone too far or you need to step back a bit. So I think what I’ve found, especially with delivering, for example, the online planetarium show, is I probably do three stages or three levels of facts per object.
So you have the beginner fact, the intermediate fact, and then an advanced fact, so that depending on where someone is or their level of knowledge, they’re not going, oh, well this isn’t pitched right; oh, this, you know, I knew this, but I didn’t know this, or something like that. So that’s the first thing I think that I’ve had to change. And secondly, as you can tell, I’m a gesticulator, and that part of my delivery when I’m on-site is I throw my whole body into the delivery, so my arms– everything. But when you’re just– your little face is up, you can’t really do that.
So I had to probably channel all of this gesticulating energy into my voice, and try and bring that kind of excitement up, because I normally would rely on my whole body to do that, with the body language and everything. So that’s been a big change for me, because I always gesticulate wildly with my hands during an on-site presentation. Which is weird, because in the planetarium, no one can see me, I’m sitting in the back. But I still gesticulate wildly in the back, even though no one can see me, but that’s just part of my presenting style. So that I’ve had to change, so– but yeah, that’s two things I had to work on. Yeah.
I feel like we do this with the podcast as well. That sometimes, when we’ve been sitting and recording the podcast together, you know, someone is flailing their arms, or they’ve made a kind of– I don’t know, trying to describe something with their hands. And although the audience can’t see it, you can always describe what you’re doing with that, if it is of importance, and I think it’s important to do that as well. Mm-hmm. Yeah, Yeah. Yeah, I’ve found exactly the same. It’s quite hard, isn’t it?
You feel like you’re almost trapped in this little box that you’ve been given, and you have to stay in it, and you can’t move too much because, oh no, you’ve got to stay in your box. Yeah, I think it’s really tough, digital presenting from that perspective. And initially as well, I think I found it quite hard to feel like I was putting enough into it, and enough energy into it, because I felt like I had to pull everything back so much. But yeah, it’s a balance to strike isn’t it? Definitely. Yeah, it definitely has been, and– But I suppose we’re going have probably the same discussion but differently when we’re back on-site.
Because we’ll be so used to presenting in this digital format, and then you’re going be back on-site, and then we’re going to have, how do I present face-to-face? [LAUGHTER] It’s going to be this weird kind of cycle that we’re going to go though. Yeah. I don’t know. Strange old times. Well, thank you very much. That was a really interesting chat, so thanks a lot. Thanks, Liz. Thanks, Liz.

Dhara Patel – Astronomy Education Officer, Royal Observatory Greenwich.

In her 5 years working as a science communicator at the Royal Observatory Greenwich she has presented to a range of audiences in very different settings – from presenting shows in a dark planetarium to delivering science theatre shows at national festivals and all sorts in between. Coming from a formal teaching background, Dhara has taken her passion for teaching science / astronomy and picked up different techniques to effectively communicate concepts to young students and even older adults in settings where she can easily see and interact with the audience and in cases where she can’t see them at all!

Patricia Skelton – Astronomy Education Officer, Royal Observatory Greenwich.

As part of the formal learning team, Patricia’s responsibilities include the development and delivery of the formal learning programme, and delivering public programmes including planetarium shows. Prior to joining the team at the Observatory, Particia taught undergraduate astronomy at the University of South Africa, an open distance learning institution. She has a passion for astronomy and space exploration which she enjoys sharing with people of all ages.

In this interview Dhara and Patricia talk about their approach when presenting to audiences they can’t see. For example, in a planetarium show, through a podcast or in digital sessions. They share some useful tips and tricks for how they still make sessions as vibrant and interactive as possible.

What do you think are the challenges associated with presenting to and audience you can’t engage with?

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