Many speakers are apprehensive about using audience interaction. But it's actually quite easy, and even fun! Just follow these rules.
Last weekend, I gave a 20-minute speech at the Sunday Assembly in Edinburgh — a community which regularly invites science-based presentations for a family audience.
I talked about the science of play, particularly the importance of adult play on our mental wellbeing… but with a lot of audience interaction.
I had been invited to the event about a month earlier. I offered to talk about play, partly because I already had 10 minutes prepared on the topic and partly because the community sounded quite playful. I thought they would be receptive to the message and to the small amount of audience interaction I had already included in the speech.
The organisers asked me to focus on the science aspects. So, I was all set to fill my extra 10 minutes with more precise details about the fascinating research I'd read about play.
But that would have been a mistake.
A couple of weeks before the event, something happened that made me change my plan. The organiser posted the marketing materials on their Facebook page. The description said "child-friendly" and had a picture of two children in a big-pool of balls.
I suddenly had a realisation.
"I can't add a whole load of hard science into my talk!" I thought "These people are (understandably) coming along to have fun!"
I was sure that the audience would be interested in the science, but I risked alienating a lot of them if I went into too much detail, especially the children.
I decided not to fill the extra 10 minutes with information. Instead, I would use audience interaction and games to explain one or two scientific findings in a way that everyone would understand, even the children.
I think it went very well.
Why We're Afraid of Audience Interaction
Audience interaction is a very powerful tool for presenters and speakers. It keeps the audience's interest, makes them feel more involved and helps them to understand complex concepts.
However, many of us are apprehensive about interacting directly with the audience.
What if it goes wrong? we worry.
What if the audience doesn't get involved? What if they don't understand me? What if…
Audience interaction doesn't have to be scary. When you know how to use it properly, it's actually very fun.
In a moment, I'll explain how you can effectively use audience interaction in your own presentations and speeches. But first, let's explore why we'd want to use it at all.
Why Use Audience Interaction?
The rise of "TED-style", 15-minute speeches might lead you to think that audience interaction has no place in modern presentations. Most TED speakers do not directly call for the audience to participate. In the world of business presentations, audience interaction is even less common.
Despite this, there are very compelling reasons that you should interact with your audience.
Public speaking expert Nick Morgan gives three reasons that audience participation is a good idea:
- Passive listening is unnatural — Sitting still, listening to speakers talking for hours is hard for an audience, especially if they are active people, as most of us are. Even listening to the best speeches in the world is tiring. With audience interaction, you can wake people up and re-engage their brains.
- It gets people involved — A speech or presentation is not just for entertainment value. Your goal is to achieve a change in the mind of the audience; you want them to understand something better, to make a change in their life, or to question their beliefs. Audience interaction can switch the audience from thinking "Entertain me!" to thinking "What do I have to do?"
- It makes your message more memorable — Interaction makes it easier for the audience to understand what you tell them, and thus remember it. It's like the difference between just being told about Pythagoras's Theorem and actually working through a practical example yourself.
On top of all this, audience interaction is actually quite easy once you know how to use it. It's also very flexible: you can use as much of it, or as little of it, as you want.
I use audience interaction techniques in the vast majority of my presentations.
The key to successes is to follow some basic good practices (or "rules").
The 6 Rules of Effective Audience Interaction
Here are my five best practices for effectively interacting with an audience in your speech or presentation.
1. Let the Audience Get Used to You
It can be risky to just launch into your presentation by asking the audience to interact with you.
Sometimes it works, especially when the audience is already in a receptive mood and has been interacting the speakers before you. However, sometimes it does not work because the audience is (basically) shy. In this case, they need to be "warmed up".
First, give the audience time to get comfortable with you before you start interacting with them. Let them become familiar with you, your voice, your personality and your ideas.
This doesn't have to take long. It can take only a minute or so, but it eases the audience into the interaction.
2. Start Easy and Build Up
If you plan to get the audience to play a silly game, as I did in my speech last weekend, it's a good idea to start with an easy, "low risk" interaction first then work up to the game throughout the speech.
Here are the four levels of interaction:
- Ask the audience to interact with themselves — I started my speech by getting the audience to stop and think about something in their own life. This requires them to get actively involved, but it's low risk because they only have to think.
- Ask the whole audience to interact together — "Raise your hand if…" This common interaction technique is usually effective because the audience is interacting as a whole, therefore it's less scary for each individual. I did this by asking the audience a yes/no question, which they all answered verbally.
- Ask the audience to interact with their neighbour — The next level is to ask the audience to talk or otherwise interact with the people sitting next to them. This requires more interaction from them, but it's still quite "safe" because people usually choose to sit next to at least one person they already know.
- Ask the audience to interact individually or in groups — Finally, you have the type of interaction which requires one or more people in the audience to stand up and do or say something while everyone else is looking at them. This can be scary, so you need to work up to this type of interaction.
I finished my speech with a game which required the audience to stand up, in small groups, and act-out a response to an improv prompt (e.g. "you just stepped in dog poo" or "you can't remember your credit card pin code"). This was outside of the comfort zone of some audience members.
To ease them into it, I took them through all four levels of audience interaction before I started this game. That way, it was less scary for the audience and allowed them to ease themselves beyond their comfort zones.
3. Choose an Audience Representative
One way to interact with the audience more directly is to choose an "audience representative". Usually, this is someone in the front row who is happy to interact just a little bit more. This allows you to ask more detailed questions without the challenge of getting a whole room full of people to respond.
Part of my speech was directed at the children in the room. Although I hadn't planned to do this, I realised that I needed to ask a question to a child about halfway through the speech. I did this by talking to a pair of boys, 11 and 13 years old, on the front row. They then became the "spokespeople" for the children in the audience.
There is also research that suggests that when you speak directly to one member of the audience, the rest of the audience also feels like they are involved in this interaction. Unfortunately, I can't for the life of me remember where I found this research — I think it had something to do with mirror neurons — but I'll update this post if I ever find it again (or let me know in the comments if you can point me towards the research).
4. Adapt to the Audience (Not the Other Way Round)
Each audience is different. Some are just more responsive than others. As the presenter, you have to adapt to the needs of the audience. Don't try to push them further than they are willing to go, or they will just end up feeling uncomfortable and won't listen to what you are trying to tell them.
For example, sometimes I ask the audience a yes/no question and I see a sea of hands shoot up in the air. The audience is eager and willing to answer my questions; I might even be able to get them to speak to me later… using their voices!
Other times, I ask the same question and I get a few smiles or nods. In these cases, I am not discouraged. I don't think "Oh no, this audience is not interacting with me". They are interacting with me — a nod is an interaction.
Instead, I just match my expectations to their actions. I say to them "Okay. I'm seeing quite a few nods there." and I continue with my speech.
5. Smile, Be Patient and Have Fun
Finally, have fun when you are interacting with an audience. I try to smile a lot when I'm on stage. It makes me feel better — more confident, more comfortable — and it also makes the audience feel better.
Audience interaction just takes a bit of practice and sometimes patience. Don't be too serious about it. Take it easy.
If the audience doesn't react in the way you expect them to, fine. If the interaction is important for your speech, try to approach it another way. If it's not important, just let the audience know it's okay and move on (e.g. smile warmly and say "Well, I know we're all tired it's the end of the day. It's difficult to lift your arm up after 3 pm, isn't it?").
When you get used to it, audience interaction is fun!