The thrill of the audience response

My name is Paul. I’m a reaction junkie.

Like many science communicators who present demonstrations, I admit to getting a thrill from being able to provoke and orchestrate extreme emotional reactions from my audiences about my subject. The problem is, however, that like any addict, I am driven to want a larger and larger fix. The buzz is intoxicating.

This drive can unconsciously fool us into only valuing the most visible and audible emotional responses from the audience.

Take chemistry shows, for example. Chemistry demos are the shock jocks of the science demonstration airwaves. They viscerally grab attention with their flashes and bangs, but most don’t lead to any meaningful insight into the underlying concepts. Chemistry demos are bewitching to a reaction junkie.

The irony is that I genuinely believe that some of the most powerful audience reactions to live science demonstrations can be the least obvious – e.g. curiosity, wonder, and an intellectual joy of understanding. I’ve spent years of my life researching just this conviction. Yet the overt reaction drug still pulls. That is its danger.

They say admitting it is the first step to overcoming the addiction.

I am a reaction junkie.

But I’m trying to do something about it.

10 thoughts on “The thrill of the audience response”

  1. This, I think, is what’s at the heart of the Fallacy of It Having Gone Down Well.

    We often hear from performers that their show ‘went down well,’ that the audience ‘loved it,’ and so on. This is not evaluation. It’s an imperfect impression from a skewed perspective about whether the audience response conformed to your expectations. It tells you nothing about the messages the audience took away from your performance, let alone whether your show was any ‘good’ or not.

    …which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t play for audience reactions. Just that there’s a trap here, as Paul points out.

  2. A show is a show. Its not a lesson. I see no reason why we can’t do spectacular stuff in science. A show’s objective is to entertain, perhaps enthuse, and maybe motivate. But if all it does is entertain, I do not see a problem. We should be pleased that science has something so good it can do a show. And pleased that there are people wanting to do them (and all show-women and men are reaction junkies, whether science or Shakespeare). Plenty of other things do ‘shows’ – music, sport, dancing, and even poetry. Why not science? Lets make use of what we have available to us; the more channels we have to reach people the better chance that curiosity, interest, and understanding can follow on behind entertainment for some. Some will simply enjoy. Do poets complain that readings don’t teach listeners about the precise details of rhyme or meter? Not usually. Enjoy a show, and observe the conversations afterwards. In my experience it is often “how did that work?”, and “why did it do that?”. Surely exactly the questions we want to be asked?

  3. Averil, I agree with you – I think it’s great that we can have science “shows” which entertain and am glad to think that science themed entertainment forms part of our culture (although, as I will elaborate on in a moment, I’m not convinced science “shows” are any where near as sophisticated as they could or should be).

    The problem, I think, is that so few who do such shows seem to admit that “entertainment” is their main objective and primarily justify the existence of their shows in terms of other education related “impacts” (Jonathan has already touched on the issue of evaluating things like “inspiring / enthusing students” which also seems to be a frequent justification). Furthermore, many shows which could potentially be entertaining are hampered by having some sort of “educational” element shoehorned in – for example, I would have enjoyed the Science Museum’s recent live science show much more if it had focussed entirely on the story of the two characters rather than pause every so often to feed me some science. The show was literally binary in nature, with “fun” bits and “science” bits. Which perhaps says a lot about how the people who wrote the show see things.

    Far too often, I’ve seen science shows which are nothing more than a bunch of demonstrations, tied together by a loose theme (often the part of the school curriculum they relate to). Whilst some care and attention may have been paid to the “explanations” being presented there’s little attention to things like narrative structure or performance skills, both of which I think are far more central to a satisfying show from an audience perspective.

    Anyway, I’m guessing a large market for such shows is schools, and I’m guessing that it would be difficult to market such shows to schools if they were not presented as being educational. However, I remain unconvinced that many such shows deliver fully (or even close to fully) on their promise to entertain or educate.

  4. What you are often aiming for in any demonstration is a “ooo” or “ahh” from the audience and sometimes from an adult audience, a ripple of applause. These do not have to be large scale reactions. Yes I even get this reaction from a very simple microscale reaction which has been taken on by the Education in Chemistry ( But it is the add-on experiment that I do which gets the reaction. I redo the experiment with iron(III) oxide in place of copper(II) oxide. Nothing obviously happens when I pass hydrogen over the hot oxide, except a little water at the tip of the pipette. But bring a magnet to the solid from above and the iron particles shoot to the roof of the pipette. All this is projected with a £50 webcam onto the white board/screen. As the particles shoot to the roof of the pipette attracted by the magnet up there is the “ooo” from the audience. I never aimed to get this response. I never thought it would happen but it does. This attention-grabber is the first demonstration when I show these techniques. The chemistry is reasonably straightforward thank goodness
    There are very good entertainers such as the eccentric Dr Hal and gentle Dr Ray Plevey. To entertain you need to be a very good exceptional practitioner in your field. Just thinking you can swan off to the local primary school with the howling jelly baby can result in all sorts of problems as I come to know when dealing with incidents at CLEAPSS.

  5. Hmm. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, it’s a fine and noble goal. But if we as performers and practitioners are satisfied to stop at the ‘Wow!’ reaction and call our job done, we risk short-changing our audiences.

    Not always. Of course there’s room for pure-entertainment science shows, and we should be delighted that science can be a source of entertainment. But it needn’t (and I’d argue shouldn’t) be the only objective of a show. I certainly don’t believe that most arts performances limit their ambition to simple entertainment.

    Let me put this another way: if I made a science TV show which cared primarily about ‘entertainment’, the STEM community would roundly criticise me for ‘dumbing down.’ Why do we hold ourselves to a lesser standard?

  6. As ever, there’s a balance to be struck.
    Presenting science shows can be a great ego trip, but the highest impact isn’t always when the audience are making the greatest noise. Sometimes the quiet intellectual ‘woah’ is much more meaningfully memorable than a rough and ready explosion.
    If our only metric is audience cheering we’d only ever blow stuff up, but blowing stuff would quickly get dull. As presenters we need to remember sometimes to rise above the temptation to become applause-drunk and carefully craft moments that our audiences will remember. These moments entertain, enthuse and motivate, often to a deeper level than ‘just another bang’.
    Explosions are great, but they are not everything.

  7. I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of too many whizz, bang chemistry demos. But recently I’ve spent some time reflecting on the content of my shows. And as as result I’ve gone cold turkey on the explosions. I spelt out my reasons on Radio 4, in case you fancy a listen.

    But in short, I think I was putting more people off than I was recruiting.

  8. I think that our love of audience reaction is what drives many of us. It needn’t be a huge gasp or a wow but entertaining, delighting and intriguing an audience is one of the most enjoyable bits of our job.

    We all get a kick from an en masse laugh or a murmurs of surprise and I think this is great. It might not provide impact quantification but we can read an audience and know when we are on to a good thing, it helps guide us into being better communicators.

    The audience reaction is like the end of the rainbow however, chase it and you will never find it. Best to admire it from a distance.

    (also I never think that any profession where applause is a measure of success is an easy one to bear mentally.)

  9. Audience reactions do, no doubt give us as performers an indication of whether the audience are ‘with us’ and enjoying the show. We want people to enjoy the show, if they don’t we probably have some work to do somewhere. We may not necessarily have the aim of particular ‘learning objectives’ in a show and I certainly don’t think that we always should. However, surely if nothing else we want our audience to leave with the idea that science is a wonderful way of exploring the world around us. Gratuitous ‘reaction-inducing’ demos sometimes do the opposite (see Alom’s comments on science museum show). The beauty and wonder of understanding which make science such a joy to participate in can (and I believe should) be the focus of an ENTERTAINING science show. Not an easy task but I’m sure there are plenty in the industry up to the job.

  10. I’m a reaction junkie too. I admit it. But i very rarely (never?) go for a big wow reaction. Pet hate is to start a show with “i can’t hear you” winding an audience up too much can be self defeating. Emotional responses can be subtle and still powerful. Entertaining has become a bit of a bad word in our field it needn’t be, but how about we use a new one to describe what we’re after? Stimulating?

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