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How to encourage & manage audience participation

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I've written elsewhere (see Vocal delivery: sounding conversational) about how you need to make your presentation as conversational as possible, because dialogue is natural whereas listening to a monologue isn't. One of the ways to do this is by encouraging audience participation. However, that's easier said than done and there are a number of traps that await the inexperienced presenter who tries this. Here are 9 tips to help you:

1. Warm them up first

Rock bands don't encourage a sing-a-long to one of their anthems as soon as they open up a set. They know the auience needs to feel comfortable before they let themselves go.The same is true with your audiences, especially if they don't know you. And the bigger the audience, the more warming up they'll need.

This is why opening a presentation with a question is risky, e.g. "Hands up how many people who have ever . . . " The question might be a good one and perfectly related to your content, but you won't get a good response if they're not warmed up. If you do plan to open like this, make sure you've had an opportunity to meet and talk to the audience first, perhaps over coffee.

2. Get them to participate 'internally'

You can't just hit someone with a question and expect them to immediately answer out loud , e.g. "OK Alan, what do you think the competition will do when we launch the new product?" People often need time to think first.

One way of giving them this is to ask a question but don't look as though you're expecting an answer. "Can you relate to that? Has that ever happened to you? . . (PAUSE) . .. I'm sure it has. It's happened to almost everyone." If someone does shout out an example during the pause, all well and good. If they don't, you just carry on after a few seconds as if it was a rhetorical question and you didn't expect an answer.

Doing this creates the illusion of participation, because as soon as you ask the question, they'll answer it inside their heads. Even if they don't reply aloud, they'll feel as if they've participated.

3. Use a 'plant'

If you have an ally in the audience, 'plant' a question with her beforehand. Once somebody else has asked the first question, others will feel more comfortable chipping in. Again, the bigger the audience, the more this applies.

4. Get them to pair/group up

This is useful if the audience all know each other and feel comfortable with each other. You either ask them to pair up with the person next to them, or split them into groups. Then say, "I want you to pair up with the person next to you and come up with the three biggest obstacles we'll encounter if we try to implement this." If you've got 16 people in an audience, you could split them into (say) 4 groups of 4 or 8 pairs. This allows them both to think and warm up in dialogue with the other person(s).

Give them the allotted time then use a flipchart to note down their wisdom and suggestions. Don't just ask people to shout out. Some groups/individuals will always be louder/more outgoing than others, and the session won't be very participatory if it's dominated by 2-3 people. Go around the room and ask each group for a suggestion. If you do this, you have to ask each group. If there's only 4 groups it's not a problem. If they've been split into 8 pairs, you'll have to ask each pair, otherwise the exercise will seem a waste of time to those who weren't asked. So bear that in mind when you're deciding the size of the groups. The more there are, the longer it will take.

NB: If the audience don't know each other, split them into groups not pairs. Splitting them into pairs 'forces' people to talk to others and some just don't want to do that. Their view is that they've come to hear you speak, not some stranger who may not know any more about the topic than they do.

5. Make sure the sessions add value

Participation sessions hould only be used where they add value, either to them or to you, i.e. if where they have a viewpoint you genuinely want to hear or where discussing something will enhance their ability to take a point in. If it's done just 'for the sake of it' (as in 'I always throw some participation into my presentations whether it needs it or not') the audience will pick it up and either not participate at all or only do so half-heartedly.

6. Be explicit

Tell people exactly what you want them to do, or they'll spend the first minute asking each other (or you) "What is it she wants us to do again?" I always put it on a slide, so I can leave it up on screen during the session if they're unsure. For example, "In your groups, I'd like you to come up with the three main obstacles you think we'll encounter when we try to implement this, plus what you think we can do to overcome them. I'd like one person in each group to write them down, because after a couple of minutes I'm going to go round the room and ask each group to shout one out."

7. Be flexible with the time

You should always have a maximum time in mind for each session so you retain control, but if you've planned to allocate them 5 minutes to discuss something, don't be handcuffed by this. While they're talking, your job is to monitor the energy in the room. This will build slowly and then peak in the shape of a bell curve and eventually start to drop away. Don't wait for it to die off completely. Instead, wait until it's past its peak and has started to fall and then regain control.

You can judge this by walking around the room and listening to the conversations. If the participation sounds really enthusiastic you may decide to give longer than planned to it, but be careful this doesn't lead to you running over time at the end.

8. Be firm when regaining control

Rather than say "I'm going to give you 5 minutes . . ." I'll say "I'll give you a few minutes . . ." That way it doesn't matter when I cut them off. When it's time, just speak in a loud voice. Simply say, "OK . . . let's see what you've come up with."

Some people/groups will take longer to stop than others, especially if they're in the middle of discussing something interesting. If that's the case, be patient. But don't wait for them to stop; your silence may just encourage them. Instead, start to speak but don't say anything too important. You could just repeat what's going to happen, e.g. "OK . . . as I said before, I'm going to go round the room and ask each group to shout out one of the things you've come up with . . . "

9.Use Q&As

Question & Answer sessions don't have to be left until the end. If your presentation is a lengthy one, you can ask for questions at several points. Simply say, "OK, has anyone got any questions on that last topic / anything I've covered so far?" See 10 tips on how to handle Q&A sessions.


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