Cricket header

Can I have a volunteer?

The perils of getting helpers on stage.

One thing I’ve learned as a speaker is the importance of picking the right volunteers from the audience to help onstage. It’s not as easy as it looks. Choosing the first person who puts their hand up in an audience of 300 or more can lead to some very awkward moments, and although I now know how to avoid the worst pitfalls, I still make mistakes.

Asking for volunteers is very different from picking on somebody.  Most people dread being picked on - and I'm one of them.  As an audience member I’ve had a couple of evenings ruined by making the mistake of choosing a seat in the front row and inadvertently catching the eye of the performer on stage. (Yes Alan Davies, I’m talking about you at the East Dulwich Tavern in 1991. And you, Mr Vindictive Actor who played Miss Trunchbull in Shrewsbury market in 2014).   

But for many people, the worst nightmare of all is being picked on in a maths talk - even (or especially) at those events that are billed as being ‘fun’. Just the faintest suspicion that they might be asked to do maths in public is enough to deter many adults from going to a maths event at all.

That’s why I never pick on audience members, and when it comes to family events, I try to let adults know in advance that they will not be required to answer any maths questions in front of others.

Instead I rely on children to volunteer. Up to the age of ten the request for a volunteer is usually met with a sea of hands. By the age of 14, the number of volunteers is usually down to a handful (and more boys than girls), and by 16 or 17 it’s often a matter of waiting to see which audience member cracks first. After a while, you get used to spotting volunteers who will be trouble. The smug grin or the goading of their neighbours can be a sign that this is a volunteer best avoided. But sometimes the difficult ones do make it onto the stage.

Here are some of the most common awkward situations with volunteers:

* The show-off who thinks he or she is a comedian

* The volunteer that you thought was a boy who turns out to be a girl. Or vice versa. 

* The enthusiast who turns out not to be up to the challenge (they can’t flip a coin without dropping it, can’t operate a calculator etc).

* The precocious whizzkid who lacks social skills and fails to realise that the audience is not giggling with them but at them.

* The mumbling child with the unique, unpronounceable name (Jalilia, Festanti and Manul are recent examples, or at least I think that’s what they said).

Whoever the volunteer is, it’s the presenter’s job to ensure that they leave the stage with dignity. There’s a joke that seasoned performers sometimes use with volunteers. “It’s my fault - I picked you”.  There's a lot of truth in that.