Why most attempts at audience participation fail and what to do about it

Yesterday I had a skype conversation with Twitter follower Todd (@TJList) on how to include audience participation in a presentation. He’s presenting on getting through the economic downturn to an audience of small business owners. Here was his question:

How can I involve my audience in the presentation? I want the audience to feel like it’s a conversation, not like they are being “talked at” for 45 minutes.

Audience participation is hard to get right. That’s because it’s easy to make these mistakes:

  1. Asking for participation before you’ve warmed up the audience
  2. Asking trite questions which don’t add value to the presentation
  3. Not giving clear instructions
  4. Asking unplanned, confusing questions
  5. Asking people to answer out loud with no thinking or rehearsal time.

So here are the tips I shared with Todd so that his presentation is a success:

1. First, your audience has to trust you

Rockstars warm up the audience before they ask them to sing along and participate. You need to do the same. Specifically, gain the audience’s trust by showing that you are authentic, confident and competent. Once the audience has got to know you and trust you they will be willing to participate.

2. Only involve the audience where it will add value

Plan your presentation first and then look to see where it would be valuable to have the audience contribute. Look for situations where people can add real value. Audience participation should never be just for the sake of it – people will see right though this and turn-off. Here are three opportunities for audience participation that we identified for Todd’s presentation:

  • Sharing with others how the recession is affecting their business
  • Sharing ideas they have for their business while listening to Todd
  • Identifying one concrete action that they can take after the presentation.

Ideally, you would plan for audience participation exercises to be roughly evenly spaced through the presentation. However, having genuine, as opposed to contrived, exercises is more important.

3. How to get people to participate

Asking a question and simply asking people to respond out loud rarely works well. Many people don’t like speaking in a group situation, so you need to make it easy for them. Your audience participation exercise should include time for them to think about what they want to say and/or an opportunity to rehearse what they want to say.

Here are two ways of doing this before you ask people to share in front of the whole group:

Paired share

This is one of the simplest methods and very effective. Ask people to talk to the person next to them about a specific question or discussion point. Todd thought he might use this method for allowing people to share how the recession was affecting their business.

Continuum

Ask people to stand up and move to a space in the room (you’ll need a cleared space free of tables and chairs). Pace out a line of the floor representing a continuum between two points. For example, Todd could pace out a line with one end representing “My business is doing as well as ever” and the other end representing “My business is severely affected by the recession”. Then ask people to place themselves at any point on the line that represents their experience. Then you can ask people to share with the person nearest to them why they’ve placed themselves in that spot.

Using continuums gets people moving, gives a strong visual sense of where your audience is at on a particular issue, and has the audience mix and talk with more people.

4. Plan your questions carefully

It’s hard to ask clear questions that elicit useful answers that will add value to your presentation. So plan your questions beforehand. To ensure you get the wording right, write them down on a card. Test your questions out on other people before the presentation to make sure that the sorts of answers you get are the sorts of answers you want.

5. Give instructions step-by step

This is incredibly important. If you don’t do this, your attempts at audience participation will end up in chaos, with people asking you at various times “What did you want us to do now?” So be incredibly deliberate about giving instructions. For the paired share, this is how your instructions might go.

In a moment I want you to have chat with the person next to you. Find that person now. [Allow a few moments for everyone to check they have a partner to talk to. Depending on the seating arrangements you may have to involve yourself in pairing people off .]

Now here’s the question I want you to discuss.[pause]

How has the economic downturn affected your business? [you could also have this question on a PowerPoint slide or flipchart].

I’ll give you about 2 minutes. Please start now.

6. Monitor the energy

Once everybody is involved in the conversation, now is not the time for you to have a breather. Your role is to be present and pay attention to the energy in the room. Here’s what will happen to the energy:

audience-participation

When the hubbub starts to ebb is the best time to bring the audience back to you. The time you originally gave to your audience is not important – it was only important to give them a sense of how long they had to chat to each other.

7. How to get the audience back

Getting the audience back to you is an art. You can talk loudly over the conversations – this is possible with a group of say 20-30, but gets difficult with larger groups. Some people use a fun sound-making toy. The most elegant method is to use music. Play music in the background while people are talking. 30 seconds before you want them to stop, start turning the volume up gradually so that they can’t help but become aware of it. Then stop the music abruptly. People will realize something has changed and will start to wrap up their conversations.

Be patient, it may still take a while for the conversations to die down completely. If the conversations keep going, start talking but don’t say anything important. For example you might say:

Please wrap up your conversation and we’ll get going again. In a moment, I’ll find out from you what you thought. etc etc.

As people realize you’re talking again, they’ll gradually stop their conversations and pay attention back to you.

8. Show the value from their participation

Audience participation should in some way contribute to the presentation. So if that isn’t built into the exercise itself, it’s your job to pull the value out of the exercise by debriefing it. If you don’t do this, audience members will feel that their participation didn’t have any point and will feel less enthusiastic to contribute again.

The simplest way to debrief is to ask your audience a question. Once again, you should plan this question beforehand so that it elicits the type of response that you want. The question should be an open question as opposed to a closed question (a closed question only requires a yes or no as an answer). For instance, after a paired share on “How is the recession affecting your business?” Todd could ask:

So what sorts of impacts did you talk about?

Tie the answers you get into what you’re going to be talking about next, and refer back to audience contributions through the rest of your presentation.

9. Participation without speaking

The audience doesn’t have to speak up in order to participate. Here are two exercises which allow people who aren’t great talkers to participate fully.

Post-it exercise

Hand out a little stack of post-its and a pen to each person in your audience. Ask them to write down any ideas that are sparked for them as you’re speaking. One idea per post-it. Then get them to stand up and stick the post-it on a wall, flipchart or whiteboard. Give everybody time to peruse all the post-its representing the combined ideas of the whole group. Todd thought he might use this idea to capture the audience’s ideas for their own business while he was sharing ideas from Dan Pink and Seth Godin.

Written action point

Near the end of your presentation, ask people to write down one action that they will take as a result of your presentation. This is a valuable way of ensuring people in your audience nail down something practical from your talk. Writing it down will increase the chances that they will do it. Todd decided to use this exercise and to create a space on his handout for people to write their action point.

10. Audience participation is unpredictable

Be prepared for your presentation to depart from the tidy route and timeframes you planned. Once you start incorporating audience participation you are ceding some control of your presentation. Once you’ve got people participating, they may not stop contributing once you get back into your presentation. Congratulations¬† – you’ve got your audience engaged – it’s a conversation.

What audience participation exercises have you used? Have you had any problems with audience participation? Please share in the comments.

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