Public outreach: HEMA demonstrations

training with the longsword
Jack and Alex performing an exercise during a lesson at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2018.

From time to time, clubs may have the opportunity to do some community outreach and give some HEMA demonstrations for the public. This is a great opportunity to raise the profile of your club in your local area while helping to entertain and educate people.

I have several years of experience giving demonstrations of various types and I would like to share some advice that may help you run a more effective demonstration.

For whose benefit are you doing it?

The first and most important question that you need to answer is this: for whose benefit are you doing the activity?

In regular training, or in competitions, you are presumably doing the activity for your own benefit, because it interests you and because you want to get better at it. However, for a public demonstration, it is the audience who should benefit from the activity – it’s a poor demonstration that does not benefit the audience!

Therefore, you need to choose elements of the demonstration that will be good for the audience, even if they aren’t so interesting for the fencers themselves. It might by interesting for your club members to run a mini tournament, or to receive a lesson on some technical matter, but if the audience is not benefitting from the activity then the demonstration is failing to achieve its purpose.

When planning your demonstration, keep in mind first and foremost that the audience needs to benefit most from everything that you do.

What can the audience perceive?

Different audiences will be able to perceive and understand different things.

It is a safe bet that at events like Swordfish or Longpoint, the audience for the tournament finals will have a good chance of understanding what is happening and why it is really cool and exciting even if the fencers don’t appear to be making any strikes.

However, the audience for your demonstration is likely to be members of the public, who may not have any skill or understanding of martial arts at all, and who will be able neither to perceive many of these details, nor to understand why something is interesting or exciting to an experienced HEMA practitioner.

Activities like sparring and competitions tend not to result in very good demonstrations. A little sparring might not be a problem, but focusing on it as the backbone of your demonstration is probably not a good idea. Unless the fencers are exceptionally clean and precise, it will probably just look a bit messy and violent to someone who doesn’t know what to look for or how to understand the details.

You can of course prime your audience to look for specific details. You could demonstrate a technique in isolation, to show the audience something cool, and then attempt to use it in sparring while requesting that the audience “watch and see if I can perform this technique in sparring!”

Unless your audience understands fencing, it is unlikely that sparring will be a particularly useful element of a demonstration, beyond simply showing something flashy. There are probably better ways to structure the majority of your demonstration and you should choose activities and exercises that you think your audience will have a good chance of understanding.

People like fun

This should go without saying, but people do like having fun. People enjoy a little humour. Therefore, inject some friendliness and humour into your presentation. Crack some jokes, and get the audience to laugh with you. This will usually be a much more effective way to engage with your audience.

That being said, sometimes the context is different. If you are giving a demonstration at an academic conference, for example, where people are looking for relevant information rather than simple entertainment, you should tailor your humour accordingly. Using some humour is still a good idea, but it should be appropriate for the situation. Creating a very hammed-up and almost slapstick comedy routine would be an entirely wrong way to give a demonstration in such a setting, even though this approach is quite appropriate (and quite common) at public re-enactment events where entertainment is a more important factor than education.

People can smell nonsense

People are reasonably good at smelling nonsense when they hear wild claims. Although energy and enthusiasm are very helpful characteristics of a good demonstration, keep your statements and assertions in check, and try not to get too swept up in wild stories or crazy anecdotes.

You certainly can (and should) challenge people’s preconceptions and ideas of what historical swordfighting looked like, but keep your demonstration and narration within the realms of being believable. This will add to your credibility and will help the demonstration go more smoothly.

Represent what your club actually does

One final piece of advice is, I think, incredibly important: represent and demonstrate what your club actually does, especially if you are hoping to use the demonstration for recruitment. Nothing is worse for a prospective new member than seeing or hearing an organisation show and describe “what they do” or “what HEMA is”, only to visit the club and experience something totally different from what you expected based on the demonstration.

If your club does lots of technical drills and very little sparring, that’s cool, nothing wrong with that, but you shouldn’t make your club look or sound like an MMA free-for-all with a high emphasis on sparring.

Similarly, if you do a lot of hard exercise and high intensity sparring, without much interpretive work or scholarly efforts, then showcase that. Toning it down and talking more about the history and scholarship will attract the kind of person who is interested more in the book-learning and who enjoys a little physical activity to go with it; of course, that kind of person is less likely to become a long-term regular member of a high intensity sparring club.

Besides, what are you most likely to demonstrate well? The things you do regularly, or the stuff you only ever show at public demonstrations? Showcase your regular practice and your normal approach to HEMA, show it well and engage the audience in that, and you will have a very strong demonstration.

Conclusions

HEMA demonstrations are not very difficult. They can be a lot of fun for the participants, and they can be a valuable recruitment tool for clubs.

The most important people at a demonstration are the audience: if they are not understanding, not perceiving, or not enjoying the demonstration, then something in your presentation has gone wrong. Make sure that the audience are able to see and understand what is happening, and choose demonstrative exercises that can be easily seen and understood.

Tailor your presentation to the audience you expect to have. Children have different requirements compared to adults, fellow martial artists will have different requirements compared to people who have no such experience, and typical members of the public will have different requirements compared to people of a specific interest group who want to learn more about that thing.

Make it fun, and showcase what you do in your club. Be honest, and make what you do sound interesting for the audience. Avoid pretence, avoid doing things that you don’t normally do at the club, as these will undermine your presentation. Showcase what you are good at!

Some questions for club leaders and for enthusiastic club members:

If you imagine a typical exercise at your club: how can you modify the design or the practice so that it will be more effective in a demonstration?

Can you describe briefly and concisely exactly what it is that you do at the club, along with your club values and ethos?

Can you define and give a useful description of HEMA in only two brief sentences?

Is there any opportunity for doing some public outreach and HEMA demonstrations anywhere near your club? What is the next such opportunity, and how can you arrange for your club to give a demonstration there?

Keith Farrell

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.