Lisa Braithwaite from Speak Schmeak has commented on my post about the attention-getting myth. I started responding to her comment, but my response got so long I decided it was worth a blogpost in its own right.

The issue is how to best help nervous speakers at the start of a presentation . Lisa suggested that:

Using an opening that immediately involves the audience, for example, through asking questions, engages them while also immediately taking pressure off the speaker to perform.

When the audience is allowed to participate and share their own knowledge and life experience, they are more engaged. The presentation becomes about them, not the nervous speaker.

My take on it is different. Nervous speakers are generally at their most nervous at the start of a presentation. As they get into their stride and realise that the presentation might just go OK their nervousness often reduces. So my approach is to help the nervous speaker get into their stride with as little risk as possible.

And I think asking questions is risky. It can easily go wrong. For example, you might get no responses – or you might have a garrulous member of the audience who takes over. This leaves the nervous speaker in an even more difficult situation. Asking an effective question that elicits the type of response you want and then handling the responses you get is a skill that requires practice, confidence and experience.

In fact, I don’t recommend asking questions right at the beginning for any presenter. During a presentation, the presenter is the leader. And leaders should start by leading. A leader can become more democratic once they’ve established their authority and credibility as a leader. So at the beginning of a presentation, the presenter should “Claim their Space”. Once you’ve claimed your space, which could be as little as two minutes, then it can be an effective strategy to involve the audience by asking questions.

Finally – does asking questions and getting the audience to respond mean that people are more engaged? Not necessarily. Audience participation has to be well-managed for it to be engaging for everybody. I might be more engaged in the moment that I’m offering my own opinion – but listening to other people make unprepared and often waffly comments isn’t what I’m there for. In that situation, I would rather hear from the speaker who has (hopefully) thought about and prepared what they want to say.

Audience participation is a great tool – when managed with skill and at the right moment in the presentation.

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