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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