Six Secrets from a Professional Speaker on Audience Participation

Last week I wrote about the challenge of the third era of presenting: the era of the audience.

Kristin Arnold has written a provocative and intensely practical book Boring to Bravo on how to meet that challenge by encouraging audience participation . The philosophy of the book is summed up by this quote from Amanda Gore in the book:

When I say, “Use audience interaction,” I don’t mean that you should ask a question and have them call out. You must go further. I have my audiences look at each other and do stuff! The more they connect, the better they can learn and actually have an experience (other than just listening to you or being entertained).

Here are my favorite audience participation tips from the book:

1. Set the tone for audience participation

You walk into the meeting room at least a half hour before your presentation…You take a good look around the room. Yep. There are tables, chairs, a projector, and a screen. Sigh. Don’t all these meeting rooms look just about the same? Boring.

Don’t be afraid to change it up to send the signal that this talk is not going to be your typical, ho-hum presentation.

Kristin has great tips on how to do this:

  • Set up the room so that it will be easy for people to connect with each other and with you.
  • Have just enough seats so that people can’t fill up the back rows and leave the front rows empty (have spare chairs stacked at the back of the room so that you have them available if required).
  • Leave access lanes so that people can move around easily.
  • Tape a welcome sign on the door and have posters with relevant images, icons, phrases and quotes on the wall.
  • As people walk in, play music and a slideshow on automatic.

2. Use a flipchart or write on a tablet

The mighty easel chart can spontaneously engage your audience in real time.

PowerPoint tends to make presentations boring because nothing the audience says can make a change to a future slide. The presentation is set and most of the time will continue on its inexorable path regardless of the wishes of the audience. Using an easel chart (I call it a flipchart) changes all that. It immediately signals that there’s room for flexibility and that the audience can play a part in creating your presentation with you. With a larger audience, you can achieve the same thing by writing on a tablet as Dan Roam did at SXSW 2010.

3. Don’t wait till the end to take questions

By the time you get to the end, your audience will have forgotten the burning question they had twenty minutes earlier, they will be ready to take a break and grab another cup of coffee.

Kristin also points out that if you’ve made the audience listen passively for seven-eights of your presentation, it’s difficult to rouse them into asking questions. And when you do ask for questions how about saying:

I welcome you asking me anything about this topic

rather than the traditional “Are there any questions?”

4. When you ask for participation, accept the curmudgeons

Keep in mind there will always be a small percentage of the population that does not want to play with you. I call these folks “curmudgeons” because they typically sit in the back and convey through their body language, “I don’t want no stinking team activities!”

Kristin’s advice is to address their objections ahead of time by saying something like:

I know some of you think these kinds of things are silly, but I promise there is a point, and it will only take a moment.

and then let go of needing them to participate. If they want to just observe that’s fine. Oh, and don’t use the word “role-play” – it’s a turn-off for lots of people. Use the word “activity” instead.

5. Split people up into small groups

The quintessential group interaction is to break the large group into smaller discussion groups. It forces the participants not only to think about your message but also to connect and collaborate with others, and to apply the new information. It also inherently increases the energy level in the room!

Kristin goes through the six-step process for running a small group activity. What I particularly liked were all the ideas for splitting people up. For example:

  • A variation on musical chairs. Ask people to walk around while the music plays. When the music stops the person nearest to them is their partner.
  • Pre-assign a number, letter or color to each person on their nametag. Ask the As to join together, the Bs etc.

6. Close with an audience commitment

You can have a great speech, but if you haven’t shifted the audience’s perspective, increased their knowledge, or inspired them to do something differently, your words are for naught.

Kristin suggests asking people to commit to an action step, and then to make a public proclamation to increase accountability. You can ask them to share out loud, write it down on a card or worksheet, or share their commitment with an accountability buddy.

Wow! These six tips probably comprise 1% of the tips in this book. I read a lot of presentation and public speaking books (and have done for many years) and this is one that often had me go “that’s good idea” or I hadn’t thought of doing that way before.” So if you want to increase the level of audience participation in your presentations, buy this book.

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  1. Olivia,

    Great summary of some audience participation tips — such a critical element in any presentation. Yet I think we trainers and speakers frequently get stuck in the same rut of engaging an audience in the same way over and over. This is a good reminder to mix it up and try new things.

    Olivia, I’ve been aware of this book for a few weeks, but you’ve convinced me to go and get it now!!


    • Hi Kathy

      Enjoy the book! Olivia

  2. As Kathy said, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, even for those of us who incorporate a lot of audience participation and group work. I’ve been meaning to ask my audiences for action steps at the end of workshops and have not gotten around to it. I’m now reminded to add that at the end, as well as shake up my usual routine a little.

    • Hi Lisa

      Yes, the book is an inspiration to try out some different techniques.

  3. Great summary. I have been struggling with how presentation are so limiting and set in stone during the actual presentation. I have found some great tips here. I will be trying them out.
    Thanks again.

    • Go well with experimenting with new techniques Shilpa.

  4. Olivia,
    Great tips. Since I present about PowerPoint a lot, I spend a lot of time in Normal view. There, if I’m collecting ideas let’s say, I can type as people suggest ideas, essentially using it as a flip chart. I some cases, I can promise people the list afterward (after making it a little neater).

    • That’s another great tip – thanks Ellen.

  5. Hi Olivia,

    First off, I love the focus and clarity of your blog, great stuff!

    “Don’t be afraid to change it up to send the signal that this talk is not going to be your typical, ho-hum presentation.”

    The best way to demonstrate to your audience that a presentation isn’t going to be “ho hum” is to open with either a relevant, counter-intuitive observation or – for those who can pull it off – humor…or both.

    The value of welcome signs, posters, slideshows and music is context dependent and, if overused, can appear a little desperate. One approach is to think in terms of playing a little bigger than the venue, but not too much bigger. One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced presenters make is mismatching the room. For example, a presenter steps out in front of 25 people as if he or she is speaking to an audience of 1000s.

    A counter-intuitive point of view will also trigger audience interaction; and is guaranteed to draw in the curmudgeons who will want to argue the point.

    Your posts are very thought provoking and I look forward to reading more of them,


    • Hi Steve
      Thanks for adding those nuggets from your experience. Adjusting to the size of the audience is an excellent point.
      And I clicked on over to your blog and enjoyed some of your posts. Look forward to connecting more.

  6. Olivia-
    Thanks for the glowing review of my new book, Boring to Bravo! You hit on some key tips and I love the discussion! There are soooo many facets to creating an engaging and interactive presentation, and you provide a great platform to share best practices. Thanks again!

    • Hi Kristin
      I found it an enjoyable and stimulating read so it was a pleasure to review it. And I’m honored that many other presentation bloggers and experienced presenters share some of their knowledge on my blog and help to make it a useful resource.

  7. Olivia,

    I have been preaching #3 all along: Don’t wait till the end to take questions.

    That to me is the essence of audience participation. It works for ALL kinds of presentation whereas role playing or “activities” may not work for a highly technical presentation. It is hard to tell the audience to act like electrons and run around the room at the speed of light. You can however break them into small groups and solve a problem.


  8. Great Post, Olivia.

    Thanks for putting Kristin’s suggestion on your blog.