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.


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:


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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  1. Olivia

    I am mute with admiration. This is *exactly* how I handle audience interaction, succinctly and clearly expressed.

    I love the continuum tool. Never done it in quite that way… Deciding how to work it in… :)

    With PostIts, I will sometimes do a Dump & Cluster – get all the ideas up (Dump), then get people to group similar ones together (Cluster), so they can build a picture of the patterns.

    Sometimes I will give people something to do before the presentation (eg answer a question by writing on a big board/piece of paper/vote on something/put concerns or questions up) if participation is something that is going to be important in that session. As you say, if you want people to do something, you have to get them to do it through clear instructions, then reinforce them for doing it.

    I’d join a campaign against inane questions asked for the sake of ‘interaction’. Presenters Against Inane Interactive Questions (PAIIQ) anyone?!

    Nicely done, Ms Mitchell, as always.


    • Andrew

      Thank you very much for your comments – it’s a mutual admiration society – (for others do check out Andrew’s blog (http://www.realsmartnow.net) for great advice).

      Thanks for adding your idea of the Dump and Cluster. I find this useful for consultation meetings.

      Love the PAIIQ campaign!


  2. Hi Olivia,

    If I may add a little tip to your superb list of tips on audience participation – it would be don’t judge your effectiveness based on the faces in the audience, and don’t try to “get everyone” to be on board – here’s what I mean:

    One time I had a guy in the front row rubbing his temples and rolling his eyes the whole presentation – I thought he hated every word I uttered. Afterward he came up and raved about my presentation and added “I just wish I didn’t have this awful hangover!”

    “Getting everyone” – some people will just not be on board. For years I made the mistake of catering to them, trying to win them, lavishing attention upon them, meanwhile the people who were on-board and most interested I “assumed” would be okay and stay on board… I say give the not-on-board people a chance to get on board, but do not cater to them; lavish attention on the interested, not the uninterested.

    David Portney

    • Hi David

      So true. I used to be really phased by people looking “blank” until I realised that it didn’t mean they were bored – it was just their way of listening.


  3. Olivia,

    Great post. I have to confess that I’ve made each of the five mistakes you list, although I like to think they’re in the past.

    Part of warming up the audience is, as you say, earning their trust. No one wants to fail or to be made to look stupid in front of others so it’s our responsibility to make it safe for them to participate.

    Keep it up.


    • Hi Chris

      Why can I write this post? Because I’ve made all these mistakes too… and learnt.


  4. Great article Olivia. I like the first point that you have to warm up the audience and get them to trust you. I like Guy Kawasaki’s suggestion in Reality Check about circulating with the audience before your speech if you can. That way you get to meet a few people, talk to them a little and get to know them. If you can connect with a few people that way they will be even more apt to join in on the discussions when you ask the audience to participate!

  5. What about interactive ARS tools?

    • Hi Christian

      I’ve never used them an ARS (Audience Response System?). As far as I’m aware there are two types 1. using cell phones 2, using special handheld remotes. The cellphones types are not available in NZ (where I am) and the remotes are expensive to hire. Be delighted to hear of experiences from people who have used an ARS tool.


  6. Hi Olivia,

    Many thanks for a great article – especially loved the graph showing when to pull the audience back to you – I’ve often found it hard to know when to intervene, but that will be a great help – cheers! Also enjoyed reading others feedback – a great way of adding a second tier of learning.

  7. I’ve used ARS remotes a few times. It can be a great deal of fun and extremely dynamic, but crafting the questions well is very important. Best was when we asked, “would you do A, B, C, or should we just go back to the way we did things in 1927,” and showed a slide of someone’s grandfather on a horse. Everyone laughed, and a few jokers voted for the horse. Was important to be prepared for responses other than what we’d thought about though. Other pitfall, was one time when we had way more people than remotes, and we had to share. We don’t want people to go home remembering the ARS as the coolest part of the weekend — its just a tool after all.
    Jonathan Gullery

    • Thank you Jonathan for adding your experience of using an Audience Response System. Very useful. Olivia

  8. Olivia – I concur with Andrew – this is a fantastic post – thanks for taking the time to share your fount of wisdom. My only question is: are you working on getting a publisher for an Olivia Mitchell book on presentations? You have a fantastic book waiting to be written here…

  9. Hi Olivia

    A brilliant post on audience engagement.
    Following this, presenters will surely get the maximum out of their audiences’ engagement. Just getting the audience to talk is not enough, there has to be a value add to them and to the presentation from the engagement.

  10. One of the things I’ve learned is to record responses for all to see. In some settings you have a white board or overhead along with the PowerPoint screen. I’ve also learned how to put an interactive text box on a PowerPoint slide and record responses as they are given. This can give ownership by the audience to see their comments as part of the presentation.

    • Hi Steve

      This is a great point. The way that you respond to each contribution from the audience will influence the quality and quantity of future contributions. So its really useful to ensure that each person who contributes feels that what they have said is valuable. Writing up responses is a good way of doing that.


  11. just found you guys. i mostly moderate vs present. am very much anti-PPT and think it is the most potentially dangerous and clearly abused program in existence. to engage an audience from the get-go i use something i call ‘slow talley’. people are more and more exposed to the ‘quick-talley’ (audience response stuff) but i ask a few demographic questions (how many such and such are in the audience, etc) and ask them to raise their hands. anyway, looking forward to learning from you guys.

  12. I’ve been following your rss feed for about 6 months, and I’ve been using your tips in my teaching. I teach research skills to undergraduates at a large research university in California. Your tips have made a significant difference in how I teach, and in my students’ participation in my classes. I particularly value your advice on using questioning, which is something all teachers do, but with usually poor results.

    Thanks so much for sharing what you know. I would love to actually attend a presentation of yours.

    • Thank you Lynn for your comment, I really appreciate it. I’m in San Francisco over the Easter weekend and Carolyn Gale is organising a meet-up for people interested in talking about presentation stuff. If you’d like to join us, use the contact form on this blog to send me an email. It would be lovely to meet you. Olivia

  13. I saw a nice tool from a friend of mine who is a 20 year veteran of running executive education – he asked everybody to take out a business card and write 1 of 4 problem areas on the card – the challenge that each currently sees as top priority for their business… he got audience participation, he also collected all of the details from his audience for his own database ;-)

    • Hi Conor
      I like the participation part of the exercise you describe.

      However, I think these days you would have to careful about the way you used the contact details. Unless you’re explicit at the time it wouldn’t necessarily constitute permission to add them to an email newsletter list or similar.


  14. Hi Olivia,

    I really appreciate your post. This is very informative and very useful to any one who will have presentations in front of the audience.

  15. I am currently doing research on ways to increase audience participation at a London’s cultural venue. No, my idea is not to provide a presentation to its visitors, it’s more like creating a stunt, some sort of big brother art thing. But, and that is the reason for this comment, this article is incredibly useful to me once i will start creating the explanation for people to use my installation. Some “rules” will certainly apply. Thanks

    • Hi Bart
      I had never thought that my tips could be useful in that situation! Go well with your installation.

  16. Great post Olivia. While as a presenter I’ve made sure I stay true to most of these principles, I’ve never stopped to really think about why they work. Very insightful. This is my first time on your blog. Will be sure to plug this into RSS so I can stay in touch. All the best from Toronto !

    • Hi Peter
      Delighted you found the post useful and that you’ll become a regular reader.
      All the best

  17. Hi and thanks for the hints! Personally, I really, really dislike when the presenter tells people to form small groups (2s, 3s) and talk to each other – I came to hear a presentation by an expert, not to interact with complete strangers who may or may not know anything helpful…

    • Thank you Kjell-Ake. I do appreciate your point of view. And it’s a reminder that we all have different perspectives and what suits one person may not suit another. As presenters, it reminds me of the adage “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

      However, it may also be that in the past you’ve experienced that sort of exercise in an inappropriate context, that is, when the small group exercise didn’t add any value to what the presenter-expert had to say. So your comment is a reminder to ensure that you’re not planning an audience participation exercise because it’s something you think you ought to do. Only invite audience participation when it will add real value.

  18. Hello. It’s rly good tips and told me something that I even didn’t consider.
    I’m a sophomore in Korea.
    I have to do presentation for my midterm and there’s audience participates in.
    I have no clue how to do it. My professor said don’t make the audience participate by just questioning.
    I read this post inside out but it’s not for me.
    My presentation time is only 10 minutes.
    How can I present my opinion and audience participation at once?

    Can you give me some advise please?

    • Hi Sol
      Normally, I would say that audience participation is not necessary in a 10 minute presentation. However, it sounds as if your professor has said that you must include some – but doesn’t want it to be “questioning”. It’s not clear whether this means the audience asking questions of you (standard Q&A) or you asking questions of the audience. On the assumption that it refers to the standard Q&A, here are two options for incorporating a short audience participation exercise in your 10 min presentation:
      1. Ask questions of the audience which get them to think
      2. Get your audience to talk in pairs/small groups on the application of your points.
      I hope this helps and go well with your presentation.

  19. One of the best ways of attracting the audience is using informative and laughable anecdotes. I have used them extensively and I am about to use one such for a brief interaction at one of the Indian Institute of Management ( I I M ) tomorrow.

    Thanks and Regards,

    G Ramesh

  20. Hi Olivia,

    I’m preparing for a presentation and was looking around the web and came across your site. Thanks for all this great info!

  21. Thank you for the contribution. I also loved the nice black graph showing when to pull the audience back to you. It is hard to figure when to intervene, so I will try to use your recommendation. Good comments here, too. Nice article.


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