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5 Tips For Powerful Audience Participation

When a crowd is staring blankly at you, how will you engage them? Here are a few ideas for better audience engagement.

5 Tips For Powerful Audience Participation
[Image: Flickr user Mike Fisher]

Gina approaches the front of the room with her ukulele in hand. Having recently taken up the instrument, she plans to give a short speech to a friendly audience about the joys of playing. Smiling beatifically, she pops the question: “Who’s ever thought about playing the ukulele?”

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A single hand goes up–tentatively, halfway.

Without skipping a beat, Gina launches into her talk, unaware that her lighthearted attempt at audience participation was a flop. Why? Her question demonstrated at the outset–and for everyone to see–that there was little interest in her topic. Worse, the question didn’t really elicit participation. Only one person raised a hand.

While Gina’s situation is low-stakes, it demonstrates the importance of giving careful thought to audience involvement. The biggest challenge for any public speaker is connecting with the people in the room. Audience-centered framing and confident delivery go a long way. The best speakers are also able to make their presentations feel like a conversation with the audience.

Involving the Audience

Nervous speakers will do anything to avoid interacting directly with an audience. Some look over people’s heads or read from notes or slides. Others treat presentations like a performance, with the audience as mere spectators.

In theater, this rigid separation between performer and audience is known as the fourth wall–an imaginary barrier at the front of the stage that prevents viewers from becoming part of the action. But unless you possess thespian charisma, people won’t sit still for this. Audiences increasingly expect interactivity.

To build a meaningful rapport, we need to tear down that fourth wall. Here are five tips for successful audience involvement:

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1. Choose your technique.

Audience participation encompasses a broad range of activities–from a simple show of hands, to requests for brief personal input, to role playing and games, to small group exercises. Each has its merits:

  • The show of hands is good for polling the audience and gaining real-time feedback. It lets audience members know where they stand with respect to the group.
  • Brief personal input reveals the diversity of experience in the room.
  • Role playing and games are excellent for practicing sales situations and interpersonal responses.
  • Group exercises allow participants to learn from each other.

Choose a technique that fits your objective and the allotted time.

2. Plan ahead.

Before asking for audience participation, think about the types of responses you might get. You want audience input to be meaningful and to help you make your point.

Be clear about your purpose and consider how audience participation will help build your case. Most importantly, think about what you’ll say if you don’t get the responses you expect. Audience participation should add value.

3. Use inclusive framing.

That is, ask your questions in such a way that most audience members would be able to respond. “Tell me about your most recent shopping experience” is something that all can respond to.

Don’t put people on the spot. Instead, make them feel competent to contribute. Along those lines, try to avoid superlative phrasings. A prompt like “Tell us about the best meal you ever had” may be harder to answer than “Tell us about a good meal.”

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Inclusive questions are great for building a shared identity among the crowd.

4. Allow time for response.

Be clear about whether your question is rhetorical or real. Audiences are often unsure, so it helps to use phrases like “Who here” or “Who in this room” to elicit real responses.

Even if the question is rhetorical–meaning you don’t expect a verbal response–still leave time for participants to consider the question and how they would answer. It can be just a brief pause, but it’s important to let them digest your point. You can signal a rhetorical question with a simple phrase like “Think for a moment . . .”

5. Acknowledge contributions.

Always recognize an audience member’s contribution before moving on to the next point or participant, even if just to say “Good” or “Thank you.”

As you become more comfortable with audience participation, you can frame the responses to fit your point and refer back to participants’ contributions later in your presentation. Ask follow-up questions or invite others to react. Again, make the audience feel competent.

What could Gina have done differently?

Instead of asking who had considered the ukulele in particular, she might have chosen a broader question: “Who here has thought about taking up a musical instrument?” That framing allows more audience members to participate, while preparing them to hear her ukelele pitch. Alternatively, she might have salvaged the question by asking the lone hand-raiser why he considered the ukulele. Something in his response might resonate with others.

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Whenever we listen to our audience, we learn. We become more sympathetic and therefore more persuasive. That’s why audience participation is such a powerful tool for audience engagement. So tear down that fourth wall!

–For this article, Jesse Scinto acknowledges thoughtful input from training experts Elle Moser at Viacom, Rick Andrews at the Magnet Theater, and Heath Suddleson at Bechtel. Scinto is a lecturer in Columbia University’s MS Programs in Strategic Communications. He teaches media, public speaking, and persuasion. He’s also a communications consultant to FP2020, an initiative of the United Nations Foundation.