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Fostering Audience Participation

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Fostering Audience Participation
There are several types of audience participation that, done well, can benefit both you and your audience.

Audience participation, although a great way to engage your audience, is delicate. One wrong move and you’re no longer in charge of the presentation or worse, even after asking for input, no one raises their hands and the room remains silent. But you can solve this problem by implementing certain techniques that avoid the root problems altogether.

Question and Answer Sessions
Instead of allowing questions to be sprinkled throughout the presentation, ask listeners to save their questions until the end. This way, an unexpected question can’t put you on the defensive or otherwise throw off the flow of your presentation.

Encourage “Call and Response”
Letting the audience talk back to you gives your speech a conversational feel and will help them pay attention. But use this method carefully, audience members can easily steal the spotlight and other listeners can be turned off by this style of speaking. Examples of “Call and Response” speeches are many old-fashioned sermons where the congregation shouts while the minister pauses for air. Listen to this speech given by Martin Luther King and note the role of the audience. If you don’t want your audience shouting during your presentation you can encourage them to clap and cheer or even boo at topics that come up during your presentation.

Paired Share
Prepare a question that you want audience members to discuss with the person sitting next to them. Then allow people to share their answers. New Zealand based presentation trainer, Olivia Wells says, “This is one of the simplest methods and very effective.”

Exercises and Games
There are many different exercises you can adapt for your audience to get them involved, learn something, or make a point. Here’s a list of suggestions. In her post, “Why most attempts at audience participation fail and what to do about it,” Olive Wells, says speakers make several common mistakes:

Neglecting the Warm-up
Don’t come out and expect audience participation right away. Introduce yourself and give your audience a few minutes to get to know you and establish trust. Wells says, “Rockstars warm up the audience before they ask them to sing along and participate. You need to do the same.”

Including Audience Participation Just to Keep Everyone Awake
Audiences need to feel like their contribution is valuable, incorporate their responses throughout the rest of the presentation. Wells suggests, “Plan your presentation first and then look to see where it would be valuable to have the audience contribute. … Audience participation should never be just for the sake of it – people will see right though this and turn-off.”

Improvising Questions to the Audience
To make sure you get usable input, prepare your question ahead of time and test it. Make sure your question is clear and carefully worded, if possible test it out on non-audience members before the presentation to see what kind of answers they give.

Giving Unclear Instructions
Besides making sure your question is clear make sure your audience knows exactly what you want them to do and for how long. You could say something like, “I’m going to ask a question then I want you to discuss it with the person next to you for five minutes. After your discussion, you can share your responses with everyone.”

Expecting Audiences to Answer On the Spot
Wells says, “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.” So ask your audience the question and give them two minutes to write their thoughts or discuss them with a partner.

Stay in the room throughout the audience discussion and don’t worry about rigidly sticking to your original time allotment. “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. … 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.”

Plan ahead of time how you will regain audience attention, “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.”

Don’t get flustered if there’s not an immediate response, just continue to be patient and let the audience know you’d like them to finish their discussions.

After an activity or audience participation exercise, listeners will likely be more engaged throughout the presentation. “Be prepared for your presentation to depart from the tidy route and timeframes you planned.”

Max Atkinson, author of Lend Me Your Ears: all you need to know about making speeches and presentations says, “Audience participation can fail if you overdo it, as this can sometimes prompt them to start wondering whether you have anything original to offer at all.”

See also:


Max Atkinson, Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know About Making Speeches and Presentations. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Ashley Barrett is a professional writer, editor, and researcher for ProProducts™

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