Audience on the stage

Duarte Circle D logo

Written by

Chris Iufer

In preparation for Nancy Duarte’s talk at the Web2.0 Expo (which was a huge success!) she asked me if there would be a way to reproduce an exercise called “Speaker and audience mapping” that is taught in our Slide:ology workshop. The exercise goes like this: The audience picks one of a dozen different audience types (eg. Oakland Raider Fans, Trekkies, Girl Scouts, PETA). Then the facilitator asks the entire group to shout out responses to several questions. I’ve picked three of them demonstrate the concept:

  1. What are they like?
  2. What do you want them to do?
  3. How might they resist?

Audience resources colored button

Now, we expected a large crowd (we had over 200 attend this workshop) and we knew that asking a large audience to shout out ideas in a giant Moscone hall just wouldn’t work. So what Nancy needed was a way to collect these ideas from the masses, but also have instantaneous feedback so ideas could spread and evolve. Naturally, we began to use the very same exercise to find a solution for how to teach it. We made some generalizations about our audience, and it went something like this:

Web 2.0 expo attendees

  • What are they like?
    Technical, educated and hungry to learn. They are connected people. Obsessed with Web 2.0 technology.
  • What do you want them to do?
    To share their ideas with Nancy in a live interactive way.
  • How might they resist?
    Barriers to entry: login, signup, etc.. Biases against different mobile platforms. Privacy issues.

Finding solutions: Twitter

I realized quickly that there were some things I could assume about the audience. If they are at a Web 2.0 Conference they are probably attached to a laptop or mobile device of some sort. I also assumed that most of the attendees were probably active tweeters. I looked into the trend surrounding hashtags and my first impression was that it would be the perfect solution for us. The behavior would work like this:

  1. Nancy asks the users to tweet their ideas and add the #slideology hashtag
  2. The audience complies and begins posting their ideas as tweets
  3. or collects the tweets into a list

I tested this method, but to my dismay it took around 15 minutes for either search site to register my test tweet. This was a huge problem. We needed this solution to be instantaneous and live. After thinking about it longer, more issues came to the surface. A tweet is a tweet–no matter how it’s tagged. A tagged tweet still shows up in your twitter feed for all to see. We wanted our audience to go wild with ideas… barking out whatever came to their mind–stuff that might not be appropriate for their highly esteemed twitter feed. A tweet such as “trekkies are nerds #slideology” might offend a few of their followers–definitely an issue for people who value the integrity of their tweets. One of my objectives was to reduce resistance from the audience and this method had too many potential road blocks.

SMS polls

I looked into the popular new method of SMS polling ,and I found some really promising stuff. I discovered that there are companies like Poll Everywhere that have systems tailored specifically for the use of polling during a presentation. To get an idea of how successful this is think–American Idol. It works like this:

  1. You ask the audience to send a text message to 41411
  2. Audience member sends a text message: “CAST 1008”
  3. Poll Everywhere collects the answers in real time
  4. You show a PowerPoint slide that dynamically charts responses

The pricing at Poll Everywhere is determined by the number of responses you are expecting. The “Presenter” plan accepts 250 text messages per poll and costs $65/month. All Poll Everywhere plans give you unlimited polls. This is an elegant solution, but for Nancy’s exercise she needed an open ended stream of ideas–not a multiple choice poll.

Chat room

Everybody is familiar with chat rooms because they have been around for what seems like forever. The established comfort level meant there would be less resistance from the audience. In a way, Twitter really emulates a lot of the behaviors of the classic chat room, except in a more asynchronous way. What the chat room afforded us was a live, synchronous discussion that could also be displayed on Nancy’s screen in front of the entire audience.

I discovered that Meebo offers a service where you can create and customize your own chat room. These rooms were completely free (with the occasional advertisement) and they don’t require any signup or registration from the guests. Since (nearly) everyone at this conference would have a laptop–or a smart phone–they could load this chat room and join the discussion right where they were sitting. Additionally, attendees could join as “guest” so that privacy would not be an point of resistance.

I decided to use the chat room because it was easy to setup and post to our website. Meebo is free and there were no limits on the number of responses from the audience. I posted the Meebo room to our website and Nancy integrated it into her exercise. It worked just as expected–lots of people opened up their laptops to jump into the discussion. Not one person felt compelled to yell their idea across the lecture hall–evidence that they felt like their voices were heard through this alternative medium.


While Twitter has all the buzz and charisma, it fell short of our needs for something fast and engaging. Using SMS polling is an exceptional choice for polling an audience of any size. A chat room works great if your audience is sitting in front of a laptop or some other connected device.

I challenge you to re-think the way that you interact with your audience. Is it really so crazy to ask them to participate in your presentation? Can you use their feedback to modify and fine-tune the course of your message? Will a group exercise bring them back from the brink of boredom? There are audiences out there that will LOVE this kind of two way discussion, and there are some audiences with whom polling would be a complete flop. That is why it’s absolutely important that you really know your audience before you get up on that stage.

What does your experience say?

Have you ever participated in a live poll during a presentation? What was your experience like? Is this something you would do in one of your presentations?