7 The Art of Demonstration
Rebecca Collier, M.B.A.
- Break an instructional topic down into easy-to-follow steps.
- Maintain audience attention while demonstrating a skill.
- Manage audience participation.
- Incorporate visual aids.
“If you give a person a fish, you feed the person for a day. If you teach a person how to fish, you feed a person for a lifetime.”
— Attributed to Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu/Lao-Zi
The demonstration speech is usually a lot of fun for the audience, because there is a high level of participation. It can also be quite practical – we learn skills that we can actually use in our daily lives. There is also the wow-factor of props. Including objects in a presentation is one of the proven ways to get the audience’s attention and interest. This chapter will help you choose an appropriate topic, break your demonstration down into simple steps, and apply the Four P’s of Demonstration: Props, Plan B, Participation, and Patter, to help your audience stay engaged throughout the presentation and remember what you taught them.
Choosing a Topic
Make sure your topic is appropriate for your audience. Find something that most people don’t already know how to do, and that you, personally, find interesting. Consider your audience as well. What new skill would be likely to appeal to this group? You are encouraged to draw from your cultural background. Remember that enthusiasm is contagious! If you are excited about what you are about to show us, it’s likely some of that excitement will rub off on us. You can show us how to make something, or how to do something. However, this is a demonstration. You are not merely explaining something to us, but also showing us how to do it.
Structuring the Presentation
In your introduction, let the audience know what you will be teaching them how to do, why this skill matters, and how you learned how to do it. Your professor may also provide additional guidance about what goes into this section. The introduction sets up the audience to understand what they are about to learn, and it motivates them to pay attention as you teach them. Sharing with us how you gained this skill builds credibility with your audience. If the audience doesn’t trust your expertise in the speech subject, they will not be as focused during your speech. It also may be helpful to introduce your supplies before you begin the actual demonstration and let us know where and how we can obtain these items. Additionally, this is a good place to define any specialized vocabulary terms needed for this presentation.
Your speech should take us through chronological steps of the task you are instructing. Be sure to include transitional words, such as “first,” “next,” and “last.” You will be giving the audience both a verbal understanding of how to do this task, along with a visual representation. Depending on the type of topic you choose, your audience may also do the task along with you. Thus, the demonstration speech utilizes several learning styles and is an ideal way to teach people.
As you conclude your speech, remind us what we have learned and how this new skill will benefit us. “Now you know how to…” “This will help you…”. This signals to the audience that you are wrapping up, and it reinforces what you have taught us. It’s also a good idea to allow some time for questions from the audience at the end.
The Four Ps
Here are four things to keep in mind while you are developing and practicing your demonstration: Props, Plan B, Participation, and Patter.
Many speech topics will require you to use actual objects while you demonstrate. For example, you can’t show us how to create a fishtail braid unless you have something to braid. The props don’t have to be the actual object you would use in real life. You have the option of bringing in something that represents that object. If you are showing us how to change a baby’s diaper, there is no need to bring a baby into the classroom. Instead, you could change the diaper of a doll or a stuffed animal. However, sometimes a substitute simply will not do. If you are showing us how to efficiently slice and serve a pineapple, you really need to bring in the pineapple. **Make sure that you don’t become so caught up with your props that you forget to connect with your audience.** Even when you are doing intricate work with your hands, be sure to periodically pause and make eye contact with the people observing the demonstration while you speak to them.
As you prepare your props, make note of any that may be difficult for the audience to see from their seats. It is perfectly acceptable to pause your demonstration and walk over to the audience to show them something up close. If you have time and a big enough space, you can invite your audience to come up closer to see the details of your prop and how it is used. One thing you want to avoid is having your audience members pass something around to each other during your speech. This takes the focus away from your presentation. If you need to include handouts, or pass out materials, do so before or after your speech.
The trouble with a live demonstration is that things can and will go wrong. The matches won’t light. The paper tears when you try to fold it. See if you can anticipate everything that might possibly go wrong with your demonstration and have a plan in place to deal with those catastrophes. It’s also a good idea to have a completed version of what you are demonstrating hidden away so that you can show us how things were supposed to turn out. This is also helpful if your speech is going over time. You can truncate a few of the steps for the audience and show us the completed version that you’ve already prepared. Julia Child was famous for doing this on her cooking show, The French Chef. Sometimes she would accidentallly burn the food she was preparing, or it wouldn’t come out like it was supposed to. Julia was unfazed in these situations, and she would pull out a prepared dish so that the audience could all see how the recipe was meant to come together. Murphy’s Law tells us that anything that can go wrong, WILL go wrong. The more you are mentally prepared to deal with these challenging situations, the less stressed you will be as a presenter. When an accident happens, it won’t catch you off guard because you have already thought through how to handle it.
Research into andragogy, the art and science of adult learning, shows that adults will learn more when they are active participants in the learning. There are three ways that people can participate in your speech. First, socially – they may speak out and make comments. Second, mentally – they may think about what you are saying and wrestle with it in their minds. Third, physically – they can do something. If your demonstration is simple, it would be great to have your audience follow along with you. For instance, if you are showing us how to do Dominican Bachata dancing, we can get up and learn the steps (physical participation). However, if your demonstration is complex, such as demonstrating how to make kimchi, we might not be able to do it with you. Still, you can always ask the audience questions to get them to participate socially. “Who here has tried kimchi?” “What did you think of it?” If you are pressed for time, it probably isn’t a good idea to ask for audience responses. Instead, pose a thought-provoking question to have the audience participate mentally. “Imagine that you are taking a trip to outer space. What food will you request to be served on your journey? Be sure to follow up by connecting your question to the speech topic. For example, to relate the question about taking food into space to the topic of “How to Make Kimchi,” you might go on to say, “In 2008, Korean astronaut Yi So-yeon requested kimchi, a fermented dish with the potential to explode in the vacuum of space. Although scientists had to tweak the recipe, kimchi made its way into the International Space Station so that Yi So-yeon could have a comforting reminder of home. Today I’ll be showing you…”
The last thing to remember is that you need to stay engaged with your audience throughout the demonstration, even while working on your task. We call this “patter,” like the pitter patter of rain drops. Continue to provide commentary for your audience while demonstrating, perhaps giving us additional examples or fun facts about your project. You can also elaborate on your experience in doing this skill, and what helped you learn how to do it. What we want to avoid is that awkward “dead space” where you are so focused on what you are doing that you forget about the audience and we sit there in silence.
Demonstration is a skill that is used all the time in the professional world. Perhaps a colleague will ask you how to do something, or you may be asked to participate in a formal training situation. You might also support a home business or personal brand by posting a how-to video on social media. Using these demonstration speech guidelines will help you become an instructor from whom people will want to learn.
- Give an example of a topic that would work well for a short demonstration.
- What is an example of a demonstration that would be difficult to complete in a short timeframe?
- What are the Four P’s of Demonstration, and why is each one important?
- Have the students each take out a piece of paper and tear it into three sections. On the first section, they should write down something they are good at. Collect these strips of paper and keep them in a stack. On the second section they should write down something they have always wanted to learn how to do. Collect these as well and keep them in a separate stack. On the final section, have them write down something they hope no one chooses for their demonstration speech topic. After collecting the remaining strips, pass each stack of papers to a pair or small group of students to sort through and look for trends and outliers. These students will then report their findings back to the class so we can get a sense of what skills the group has, and what topics people both want and don’t want to experience.
- List the following phrases for the students: “Today I’ll be teaching you…” “You should know this because…” “I learned this…” “Now you know how to…” “This will help you…” Break the students into small groups and have them establish an order, 1, 2, 3, etc. Have student #1 in each group raise his or her hand. This student is going to teach the group members how to draw a smiley face. Student #1 may refer to the prompt on the board. Give Student #1 a couple minutes to perform this demonstration within the group. Choose a Student #1 from one of the groups to demonstrate this skill for the entire class, and prompt the student to include the structural components, if necessary. Repeat with simple topics until each group member has had a chance to try out a simple demonstration in a small group.
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