In this lesson, you learn to:
- Use techniques to get the audience involved
- Make an audience member a funny hero
- Create an atmosphere of fun, anticipation, and engagement
One of the big challenges that presenters have is how to connect with the audience, keeping them engaged and energized with fun, relevant, value-added interaction techniques. As a professional speaker I sometimes get asked by CEO’s and VIPs who are hiring speakers, “What audience interaction techniques will you use?” You need to be able to answer this question too!
Have you ever been at a training session where the instructor asks a question, but the energy level is low, and the responses are hesitant? Any instructor, presenter or trainer feels uneasy if there’s limited feedback from the audience. A highly interactive session gives the feeling that people are interested in the content and find value in it.
The difference between success and failure is knowledge, creativity, and technique. Engaging the audience and building a sense of excitement and lightheartedness in the room can be extremely powerful.
One of the key considerations when using audience interaction techniques is what will work effectively for your specific audience and your specific speech content. What may work for one audience may seem trivial to another. The level of entertainment versus the learning value is important. Your instructions to the audience for any engagement activity must be crystal clear.
In this lesson I share several techniques for audience engagement. Some are relatively simple and common. You’ve probably seen or used them before. Others are quite the opposite, where I combined creativity and a trace of madness to form beautiful moments with the audience.
- Analyze your audience and event ahead of time to help identify what interaction techniques are suitable.
- Number of members in the audience
- Estimated level of receptiveness to interaction
- Appropriateness of interaction
- Evaluate the interactive techniques to ensure they provide learning value.
- Make sure the interactive questions or rhetorical questions are relevant to the topic and are not being asked just to get interaction. (E.g. do not ask menial questions like, “Who here would like to be rich?” just to get everyone to raise their hand. Ensure it applies to the topic and interaction and requires some relevant thought process.)
- Plan and practice the “set up” and “debrief” ahead of time.
- Set Up: (A.K.A. Instructions for the interaction) If there is more than one step to the interaction, provide step-by-step directions that are visible to You might use a handout, projector screen or a whiteboard. This provides clarity and prevents you possibly frustrating the audience by having to re-explain the instructions.
- Debrief: (A.K.A. Explain the learnings) Determine how will you review the results of the interaction with your audience and connect it to the content. This is the part where you must drive home your point.
- Be cautious when putting people on the spot, as there’s potential for embarrassment. Your goal is to make the volunteer a hero by showcasing their bravery and knowledge. Being a “volunteer” is always preferred to being “volun-told.” Have a “Plan B” you can default to if you don’t get audience participation.
- Consider audience interaction constraints such as the room layout.
- Is there enough space?
- How much time will it take if you need the audience to move away from their seats? How will the noise level be affected?
- How will you regain control of the room?
- Consider other needs such as a microphone for audience interaction.
- Who will “run” around with the mic?
- Will the “mic runner” be trained on how to use the mic effectively?
- How much time will it take to get the mic to the audience member?
- Brainstorm what could go wrong and have a back-up plan.
- To ensure instructions are clear, ask, “Who would like to ask the first question before we begin?” before beginning the interaction. (Asking in this way makes it an “open-ended question” and is more likely to get a response. If there is no response, you can get a chuckle by asking…” Okay, who would like to ask the second question?” This normally lightens up the atmosphere and gets a response!
TECHNIQUE 1 – HERDING WILD ANIMALS:
This audience interaction technique is an example of creativity, craziness, and risk-taking coming together. In the video excerpt I want you to observe that the audience volunteers became the heroes of the interaction. That was my goal!
The video below is not the best quality and was taped over 15 years ago, however I want you to hear and feel the audience excitement, the sense of anticipation, and the hysterical outburst of laughter. While you watch the video, ponder these important points:
- This audience interaction involved taking a calculated risk. I did not know how it would play out since I was using live creatures.
- I put a lot of thought into how I would reveal the frogs while building nervous tension (study the volunteer faces). Remember that powerful humor can evolve from the buildup of tension followed by a funny reveal. In a previous lesson we talked about “Props.” Note the quantity of props I used in this video, and how I displayed them.
- I ad-libbed some sections of the presentation as they played out. This comes from self-confidence and a wit that has evolved as I have grown as a humorist. In my early years as a speaker, I memorized my content and did not have the confidence to deviate. The ad-lib lines included:
- “Do not poke the frog and simultaneously blow with the straw…it makes a rude noise.”
- “Ladies, watch your cleavage…it is a natural hiding place for frogs.” (This is one of those lines where the appropriateness depends on the audience. As you will hear, I had rapport with the audience and the line went over well.)
TECHNIQUE 2 – GETTING INTERNET TECHNOLOGY (IT) DIRECTORS TO PLAY BALL:
Picture me preparing for a keynote speech for a group of 40 IT Directors. My preparation three months ahead of time included phoning three audience members and gathering information from the meeting planner. I asked her what the energy level has been in the room for previous events. Her answer was, “They are a tough crowd.” She mentioned they:
- Spend most of the time distracted on smartphones or laptops
- Are not responsive to questions
- Do not react to funny stories
After our phone conversation, you can imagine my concern. I decided to try something I had not tried before.
- I customized my presentation based on the phone interviews and my personal discussions with friends who are in the IT business.
- I incorporated some relevant humor into my introduction which was read by the meeting planner.
- Shortly after my introduction and while on stage, I stated the following, “One thing that was not covered in my introduction is that I am an Irish citizen, a naturalized Canadian citizen, and a naturalized American citizen. I am an IrishAmeriCanadian.” (This got me a giggle.) I then stated, “Us IrishAmeriCanadian keynote speakers are different, we like to illustrate our points with funny stories and examples. So, if you hear me say something funny, or one of your peers says something funny, please give yourselves permission to laugh out loud. That way we can create an energetic learning environment and have some fun.” Note: The success strategy above is a great way to prompt technically smart audiences to give themselves permission to laugh. I use this technique for audiences who are comprised of engineers, accountants, legal, IT folks etc. It works!
- I purchased a wireless microphone ball (see picture) which includes a hollow foam ball with a mic inside. The package also included a lavaliere mic and a receiver that can be plugged into a room A/V system or my own audio speakers. Within five minutes of the start of my keynote, I got each table to brainstorm on a relevant problem that they face, and ased for the table leader to share the “wisdom from the table” with the group. When it came time for the feedback from the leaders, I carefully threw or handed over the mic ball creating the atmosphere for lighthearted learning.
- Some technical success strategies for using the mic ball:
- I practiced with the ball to make sure I new how to charge it, so it would be effective for the full length of my keynote. (The battery actually stays charged for about three hours.)
- I had a back up plan. If it did not work, I could still deliver my presentation. (No risk.)
- I knew the room size was relatively small and would have around 40 audience members. I brought my own portable audio speakers as a back-up. (It was a back-up in case the room audio was prone to audio feedback or was not working). I tested my own speakers the day before and was confident they would work for the room size.
- I brought my own electrical extension cord as I needed to plug in the mic receiver , and possibly my own speakers. (This was in case an extension cord was needed and was not available from the A/V technician.)
- I contacted the conference center ahead of time to make sure an A/V technician would be available at least one hour before the event to help me set up and connect to the room audio system.
- Some humor success strategies for using the mic ball – I encouraged a sense of playfulness when using the mic ball. I prepared a few lighthearted statements to get chuckles:
- “We are going to hand the mic ball to each other since I see laptops and coffee cups. I do not know how coordinated IT directors are early in the morning while caffeine deficient.”
- “When throwing the ball, please be careful and respectful. Remember you are IT intellectuals–not jocks!”
- “If you knock over a coffee that’s bad…if you hit a glass of water that that is also bad. If you hit a sprinkler, I don’t get paid. You will need to phone my wife!”
Audience Instructions (I put these steps into my own words):
- Break the large group into smaller groups. (E.g. If you need four groups, count out the audience 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 etc. to quickly identify the groups). You might choose to break into table groups if that is how the room is set-up.
- Identify your group brainstorming area and ask each group to move to a different area of the room once everyone is counted off. (E.g. Whiteboards or flipcharts that are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4.)
- Identify a leader of each group if needed. (E.g. The person who’s tallest/shortest/whose birthday is closest to today, etc.)
- Identify the scribe for the group.
- Provide the specific time they have to complete the exercise (E.g. 10 minutes.)
- Clearly state the issue on which you want the groups to focus.
- Let them know how the exercise will end. (E.g. “At the end of the exercise I will clap my hands, and everyone will sit down except the leaders. The leaders will remain at the whiteboard/flip-chart etc. and relay the wisdom of the group using the foam microphone.”
- Remind the leaders to pass the microphone gently and respectfully.
TECHNIQUE 3 – HIT OR MISS – CREATE EXCITEMENT, TENSION, AND ATTENTIVENESS
This playful audience interaction technique is a clever way of “getting” a volunteer while encouraging everyone to pay attention and focus on the content.
Buy a lightweight sponge or foam ball. So light that it will not hurt anyone or knock over a cup of coffee.
Audience Instructions Example (Here’s the verbiage I used):
- At the end, or during some lessons I will throw this ball into the audience.
- If the ball hits you, you become the “hot seat volunteer.”
- You will be quizzed on the subject. You could win a valuable prize. The prizes I have are Starbucks cards with a value of $5 to $20.
- However, if you catch the ball, you get a choice:
- You can choose the person who will be the “hot seat volunteer.”
- You can try and answer the question yourself to win the valuable prize.
Note: This interaction technique produces nervous tension and humor…a great combination! It has the added benefit of keeping the audience focused on content retention.
TECHNIQUE 4 – GET AUDIENCE GROUPS TO FIND RELEVANT FUNNY EXAMPLES
I was doing a keynote at an accounting firm and the attendees varied from secretaries, to front-line workers, to executives. My topic involved business communication skills and dealing with mistakes. I wanted to start them off on level ground. I broke them into groups by table, and requested that they discuss the following amongst themselves:
- The first job they ever had
- The challenges of that job
- The mistakes that they made
The exercise created a “beautiful moment.” There were many identified mistakes and funny stories that got everyone chuckling. The funniest moment came when an executive shared the story of his first job at a golf course where he was a golf cart driver. On his first day at the job he was travelling at high speed and crashed it through a wall. Nobody was in sight, so he drove away. At lunchtime he was called into the golf club managers office who asked him, “Did you crash the new golf cart?” The reply was, “No, absolutely not.” The manager repeated, “Did you crash the golf cart through the wall?” Again, the reply was, “No, absolutely not.” The manager scowled and said, “I want you to watch this security video!”
The audience ended up belly-laughing and here is what we can learn from this:
- The story helped me make my point. (You should admit your mistakes as soon as possible and you eventually get to look back and laugh at your mistakes.)
- The audience (the executive) became the hero, and there was no doubt in my mind that he gained respect and became more relatable to the group.
- This lighthearted moment created energy in the room that maximized ongoing engagement.
Audience Instructions Example (Here’s the verbiage I used):
- We will break-out into groups based on your table number.
- Stay at your table to brainstorm.
- You have three minutes to complete the exercise.
- You will relay the best example/story from your table back to the larger audience, so be sure to choose a “spokesperson.”
TECHNIQUE 6 – Audience Members Become Brain Surgeons
In this interactive exercise I was helping the audience understand some reasons that they procrastinate and are hesitant to perform certain tasks. I decided to describe the “fight-or-flight” syndrome that is produced by a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is the section of the brain associated with our automatic emotional reaction to a situation. In moments of being overwhelmed, such as having many tasks to do or a difficult one to do, there is a fight (resistance) or flight (ignore) reaction. The interactive exercise involved the following:
- The time of the year was Halloween, so I decided to incorporate this into my interaction by using a pumpkin.
- Before the session, I hid an almond inside a pumpkin. (It’s a similar shape to an Amygdala brain component.)
- I asked for volunteers to become “brain surgeons” and offered to reward them with $20.
- I dressed the volunteers as surgeons and got them to drill a hole in the pumpkin with a hole saw to expose and remove the Amygdala.
- I then spoke about the Amygdala and discussed its involvement in procrastination.
This one didn’t go so well! What did not go as well as expected?
- The audience was hesitant to volunteer, even with a $20 reward.
- I did not need two volunteers. One would have been more manageable—and less expensive!
- The interaction exercise took too long:
- They had to dress up in the “surgeon” outfits with a mask and apron.
- The drilling took too long. (I could have pre-drilled the hole and got them to simply pull out the plug-like pumpkin part.)
- Retrieving the Amygdala “almond” was slow. (It should have been bigger, easier to retrieve, and easier for the audience to see.)
- The senior executive became concerned with employees using a power tool. (That’s him pacing in the background in the video.)
TECHNIQUE 7 – Pre-Mingle to Build Rapport
Turn up early to mingle with the audience. Why would you want to do this and what does it have to do with audience interaction?
- Builds rapport with audience members, making them more likely to participate later.
- Uncovers additional funny examples and stories that you might want to incorporate into your speech, if you get their permission.
- Gives you the chance to ask questions to help you tailor your content and resonate at an emotional level. (E.g. “What’s on your mind coming to this meeting? What are your concerns? What hurdles do you face? What changes would you like to see?“
If you are incorporating an audience member’s funny example or story, it’s nice to give them credit by calling out the person’s name and letting the audience know that you were discussing the topic at hand. (E.g. “I was discussing this very topic with Sara earlier. She said…”)
Note: Mingling with the audience before my presentation and encountering chuckle moments has additional benefits:
- It helps reduce my pre-speech anxiety.
- I now have “new friends” I recognize in the audience, which helps with engagement.
Now it’s time to incorporate interaction into your content!
- Read through a speech you have written to find some content where audience interaction could potentially be used. Look for areas where you’d like to further demonstrate a point.
- Highlight the areas where you feel audience interaction could possibly be incorporated.
- Brainstorm what options you might use to develop chuckle moments, and/or make an audience member the hero.
- Apply the success strategies in this lesson to determine how you might coordinate the use of the selected interaction method to make sure it is going to be appropriate, relevant, value-added, and successful.