10 tips for purposeful, positive audience interaction

Get your crowd involved and engaged in your speech by asking questions, using a polling tool or asking people to break into smaller groups.

When it comes to public speaking, audience participation isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Of course, participation can make your speech memorable and exciting, but the goal is to create interactions that get the audience closer to embracing your ideas. Participation for the sake of participation is a waste of time. Keep the crowd engaged and on their toes, and show them that you value their time and want to connect with them.

To that end, here are 10 positive ways to interact with audience members to foster positive engagement and participation:

1. Ask a series of “raise your hand if…” questions.

The questions you pose throughout your presentation should gradually increase in degree of difficulty.

Within the first 60 seconds of a presentation, I like to ask the audience a simple question about themselves—then get them to respond by raising their hands. Why do this so early? A recent study on attention span during lectures showed that the first lapses in listener attention tend to happen within the first minute of the talk. So, by asking a question like this right away, you spark an interaction and establish a small, immediate connection.

If audience members are willing to raise their hands at the beginning of a talk, they might be more willing to follow your call to action by the end of your presentation.

2. Tell a joke.

A joke is a natural back and forth. It either asks the audience to answer a question, or it elicits laughter (hopefully).

A 2017 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology proved that using humor improves people’s perception of you in a professional setting. So, try making your listeners laugh. They’ll think even more highly of you from the get-go.

If you’re not a natural comedian, get lots of feedback on your gags before trying them in front of an audience. Telling a bad joke—or even a good joke badly—is a great way to lose your audience.

3. Use a polling tool.

Polls cause people to think critically about what they hear and urge them to share their own opinions and expertise. Aside from the typical hand-raising poll, technology can help here. Put a question on the screen, then ask people to respond via their smartphone or laptop. There are many tools to collect responses, including Polleverywhere.com, a popular app that can collect and broadcast poll results in real time.

4. Turn to Twitter.

Social media can be a distracting enemy of presenters, but you can also use platforms like Twitter to your advantage.

Try creating a unique hashtag for your talk, and ask the audience to send tweets with your hashtag. You can use a tool like EverWall to project what people are tweeting about onto a screen in front of them.

Be strategic, though, about when and how often you display tweets. You don’t want to distract people. Choose a moment in the talk when you can step aside and let the opinions of the audience speak for themselves. Or, in a day packed with presentations, use Twitter in between talks to help boost audience interaction.

Displaying live content from Twitter encourages listeners to grapple with what they’re hearing during a talk, and it’s a great way increase the reach of your event.

5. Get the slides in people’s hands.

Presentation slides help you communicate your ideas clearly, but they can also get people to participate while you speak. You can use a tool like Beamium to let people access your slides via smartphone.

Another way to help people engage more with your slides is to invite them to snap a photo. Pause a moment, then say, “OK, everyone, take out your phones. This is the slide you want to take home with you.”

Not only do they get a nice visual takeaway, but you also get another moment to do a call-and-response with your audience.

6. Prop it up.

Using props is one of the easiest ways to interact with audience members. Using tangible items increases the number of senses engaged, which boosts your audience’s attention.

One example of a great speech that uses a prop is Jill Bolte Taylor’s “My Stroke of Insight,” in which Taylor used a human brain model as a prop to explain what happens during a stroke. People forget words, but props can drive home your message in a compelling, memorable way.

7. Get active.

The fact that you’re giving the talk doesn’t mean it has to be one-sided. For instance, you can instruct audience members to pair off, then give them five minutes to complete an exercise. This could be an icebreaker, or, depending on the setting, you might use the opportunity to help the audience develop useful skills you’re trying to impart, such as sales techniques or communication strategies. Whatever you ask of them, just remember that each back-and-forth helps you work toward your big request at the end.

8. Get people to repeat information out loud.

In a study on memory, researchers at the University of Montreal found that repeating information boosts a person’s ability to recall it later. So, by asking your audience to repeat key facts and concepts from your talk, you increase the chances they’ll remember what you said.

9. Take questions along the way.

Don’t wait until after your talk to answer questions. Designate times within your presentation when you collect and answer questions from attendees. You can use a tool like Sli.do, which enables audience members to submit questions in real time. Sort through those questions, and answer the ones you deem most appropriate.

This allows you to create more of a curated Q&A experience, instead of just winging it and hoping for good questions. Collecting questions through an app gives you a measure of quality control.

10. Create an interactive experience.

Your goal here is to make the audience feel that they are participating in something. Have them move around the room, but don’t ask them to do too much. You don’t want people to feel like something is happening to them.

One great interactive talk I attended was about how war and conflict affected the availability of different spices in certain regions of the world. Stapled to the program for the show were two small plastic envelopes. In each envelope was a flavored marshmallow, labeled A and B. At the right moment in the presentation, the presenter asked everyone to eat marshmallow A, then compare it against the taste of marshmallow B. In that moment, everyone in the room shared the same flavor experiences—and an enlightening realization about one of the many indirect costs of war.

Ultimately, your audience is going to participate in your talk one way or another. Try to control the nature of that participation by being smart about the ways you interact with audience members while you present. Don’t be afraid to directly engage them and dictate what they should be doing during your talk. Just remember, whatever you do, make sure you’re purposefully moving the audience toward embracing—and remembering—your big ideas.

Doug Neff is an executive speaker coach and content director for Duarte. A version of this post first appeared on the Duarte blog.


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