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Audience Participation Adds Power to Your Presentations
by Chris King

To be remembered and revered as powerful presenters, we must develop rapport with our audience. One of the most effective ways to do this is by involving each and every person through participation. And participation is much more than just asking for a show of hands in answer to some inane question like, “How many of you wish you had more time?” In this article I am going to share some methods and tips on how to create meaningful audience participation.

Make use of Pike’s Law #2. Robert Pike, the training guru, states Law #2 in his incredibly useful book, Creative Training Techniques Handbook, as “People Don ‘t Argue with Their Own Data.” Audience members will take it for granted that we, as the speaker or trainer, believe what we are saying — after all we have to. But if we can get them to state their beliefs early on by giving answers to meaningful questions or breaking into small groups to discuss a question and then report back with the answers they discussed, we will find that they will respond more readily to what we have to say.

For example, when I give a workshop on the “Power of Storytelling” I ask the audience for reasons we should use and tell stories. They always come up with at least half of the important points that I have planned to address in depth, and, therefore, take ownership of the ideas and are “with me” the whole way. Pike often uses the following two questions at the beginning of a workshop (which he will post, or have a member of the group post, on a flip chart). Imagine that the workshop is on effective communication. Question #1: “What happens when people don’t communicate effectively?” and Question #2: “What happens when we communicate effectively?” By taking time to have audience participation, he has already established the benefits of paying attention to what is going to follow during his presentation. I’ve used this method ever since I learned it, and it works!

Use the power of your eyes. Someone once described our eyes as the mirrors to our soul. Our eyes speak our true feelings, so when we are excited about what we are saying, our eyes should shine with that enthusiasm. If we don’t believe fully in our message, our eyes will show it. Audience members focus on our eyes and what they see there. They can read whether or not we are focused on them and care about them. They won’t bond or join in participation with the speaker who is so wrapped up in his/her own world or has been told to scan the room from left to right somewhere above the heads of the audience. Another wonderful piece of advice that made a huge difference to me as a speaker, was to make individual eye contact with different members of the audience and keep it for at least three seconds. It is like holding a one-on-one conversation with them and they will stay with you and participate by hanging on your words.

Don’t share too many details. Let your audience members participate by filling in with their own descriptions and visuals . This tip which works so well for writers also works for speakers. Yes, you lead your audience to make their own conclusions and create their own versions of the information you are giving them. If you share a universal story of something that happened to you or someone in your family and then give them the time and space to think about it, they will participate by thinking about a similar story that they have experienced, make it their own story and, in turn, internalize the point you are trying to make. However, if you go on and on and overload them with description and details told in rapid-fire speed, they will either tune you out or not have the time to even consider how this story relates to them and/or their lives. One of my all-time favorite speakers, Lou Heckler, uses this method to perfection. He will pause at just the right moments, so we fill in what we imagine is coming next. And so often, he will have his audience laughing so hard they are crying with anticipation of what he is about to say.

Active participation is terrific as long as it isn’t overdone or trite. What do I mean by this? There are many great ideas for engaging the audience in actively participating by moving around, interacting with another person or a group, or interacting with the speaker — often up on the stage. One overdone interaction is when the speaker has everyone stand up and give the person next to him or her a neck and back massage. Personally, I feel that you are asking for trouble and even though a lot of people pretend to enjoy this, most actually don’t. Splitting up into small groups to discuss a question or play a training game works quite well. And, I have personality forms and fun bingo sheets that people can use for networking with others in the room. John W. Newstrom and Edward E. Scannell have several books filled with excellent Games Trainers Play. These are well tested, make sense, and are fun to play. If you decide to bring someone or several people up on the stage, be sufficiently prepared. It is a good idea to know who you are going to pick before hand and why, along with exactly what you plan to do. Ask yourself, what do I want to accomplish by this?

Just remember that you and your messages will be remembered in direct proportion to the amount of participation you have elicited from the audience. Have fun!

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