10 ways to interact with audience members while you present

Doug Neff

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Doug Neff

Presentation expert Clif Atkinson tells a great story about a 2009 education conference where two speakers got very different reactions from their audiences. The first speaker started off with interactive exercises, he was entertaining, and overall, he was a hit. The second speaker launched in with a more traditional powerpoint, and he… didn’t go over quite so well. In fact, while he presented, bored attendees started a “backchannel” on Twitter. They critiqued his slides, his content, and his delivery until finally, someone suggested a t-shirt. By the end of the keynote, you know exactly what happened: the t-shirt you see above was for sale on café press.

All this to say that audience participation isn’t necessarily a good thing. What you’re aiming for isn’t just participation for the sake of participation, but an interaction that gets the audience closer to embracing your ideas. You want to keep them engaged, on their toes, and show them that you value and want to connect with them. To that end, we offer you these 10 positive ways to interact with audience members to foster engagement and participation.

How to interact with audience members during a presentation

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

The first simple thing to try is to ask your audience a series of questions. Each question should demand a gradually-more-difficult response throughout your presentation.

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. (“Raise your hand if you’ve ever…”) 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 they’re willing to raise their hand at the beginning of a talk (and answer a poll, agree to a premise, etc.), they might be more willing to follow your call-to-action by the end of your presentation.

2. Tell a joke

Another simple way that you can forge a connection at the beginning of your presentation is by telling a joke. A joke is, in itself, a smart way to interact with audience members since it’s a natural back and forth. It either asks the audience to answer a question (Why did the chicken cross the road?), or it elicits laughter (hopefully).

A 2017 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology proved that using humor improves peoples’ perception of you in a professional setting. So try making your listeners laugh, and they’ll think even more highly of you from the get-go. (Note: joke-telling requires subtlety; get lots of feedback on your joke-telling abilities before trying it in front of an audience. Seriously! Telling a bad joke, or even a good joke badly, is a great way to lose your audience, too.)


Presenting principles


3. Use a polling tool

Polls are one of the best ways to interact with audience members. They 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 polling tools out there that you can use to collect responses, including Polleverywhere.com, which is a popular app that can collect and broadcast poll results in real-time.

4. Turn to #Twitter

I’ve always been a fan of the power of Twitter to boost audience engagement during a presentation. Sure, it can be used to design a t-shirt about your boring talk. But better yet, you can use it to interact with audience members who are responding to your ideas in real time.

One of the simplest techniques is to create a unique hashtag for your talk. Ask them to send tweets with that hashtag. And make it easy for them by keeping your hashtag visible during your talk. You can even use a tool like EverWall to easily project what people are tweeting about your talk 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 strategic moment in the talk when you can step aside an 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 participation.

Displaying live content from Twitter works twice as hard other interaction techniques. It encourages listeners to grapple with what they’re hearing during a talk (and to wait and see their own tweet up on the stage) and tweeted content is available to the entire internet. This means that you can increase the reach of your event beyond just the people who are in the room.

5. Get the slides in peoples’ hands

Presentation slides help you communicate your ideas clearly, but they can also get people to participate while you speak. Give people a closer look at slides by using a tool that can bring those slides directly into their hands. You can use a tool like Beamium, which lets people access your slides via their smartphones.

Another way to help people engage more with your slides is to simply invite them to snap a photo. Pause a moment, then say, “Okay, everyone, take out your smartphones. 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.


Presenting virtually


6. Prop it up

Physical, tangible props are another one of the easiest ways to interact with audience members while you present. You can use a prop onstage to demonstrate ideas, or you can pass it around the audience so that they can engage with it. Anything tangible increases the number of senses engaged and 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. Many props end up becoming a S.T.A.R. Moment, as well, which adds even more impact.

7. Get active

The fact that you’re giving the talk doesn’t mean it has to be one-sided. You can get people to interact with activities. For instance, you can instruct audience members to pair off, then give them 5 minutes complete an exercise. This exercise could simply be an icebreaker to get to know someone else in the room. On the other hand, it could be an exercise that helps them develop useful skills you’re trying to impart (i.e. sales techniques, communication strategies, and more). Whatever you ask of them, just remember that each back-and-forth helps you work toward your big ask at the end.

8. Get people to repeat information out loud

It may seem like an elementary exercise, but if you want to be memorable and engaging, ask people to repeat key concepts out loud. In a study on memory, researchers at the University of Montreal found that repeating information boosts a person’s ability to recall that information. So, by asking your audience to repeat key facts and concepts from your talk, you increase the chances they remember it.

9. Take questions along the way

Questions make it easy to interact with audience members, yes, but they can also help educate them about your information or idea. Don’t wait until after your talk or for when you can meet one-on-one with audience members to answer their questions. Designate times within your talk when you collect and answer questions from attendees. You can use a tool like Sli.do, which allows audience members to submit questions in real time. Then you can sort through those questions and answer the ones you deem best or most helpful.

This allows you to create more of a curated Q&A experience, instead of relying on strong, high-quality questions from your audience that also happen to reinforce your main message. Collecting them through an app this way allows you to have some quality control.

10. Create an interactive experience

You can take action a step further—with interaction. Your goal here is to make the audience feel like they are participating in something. Have them move around the room. When you create a space that doesn’t feel like an auditorium or physically interact with the audience, it feels like something is happening to them.

One great interactive talk I attended was about the effects of war on 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 to the taste of marshmallow B. And in that moment, everyone in that room shared the same flavor experiences (and a moment of realization about one of the many indirect costs of war).

At the end of the day, your presentation audience is going to participate in your talk one way or another. You want to be sure to control the nature of that participation by being smart about the ways you interact with audience members while you present. You can directly engage them and dictate the things that they should be actively doing while you speak. If you try out some of the ways to interact with audience members discussed above, you can be pretty sure that no one will be bored enough to create a t-shirt about how boring you are. You may even end up with an audience who feels moved to make a t-shirt about how engaging you are – but who can’t do it because they are just so busy participating in your fascinating talk.


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