Do you want to use audience interaction in your presentations but don't know where to start? Here's a step by step guide to using audience interaction effectively.
Imagine you are in a bookshop, browsing for a book on productivity techniques.
A stranger walks up to you and says "Put your hand on your head if you have ever missed a deadline because you had to attend a meeting. Come on! Come on! Put your hand on your head!"
What is your reaction?
You would think "Who is this weirdo?", wouldn't you?
You'd think "Why are they telling me to put my hand on my head? Why are they talking to me in this bookshop? I just came here to learn about some productivity techniques!"
Unfortunately, this is the approach to audience interaction that speakers often try to use. They come on stage and the first thing they say is:
"Who's ever missed a deadline because they had to attend a meeting?"
Then, when the audience doesn't respond, the speaker gets scared. They lose confidence. This isn't going as they had expected!
"Come on!" says the speaker. "Some of you must have lost valuable work time because you had to go to a useless meeting!?"
A few shy hands go up, but the audience is confused, the speaker is uncertain, and the speech is off to a bad start.
Just like the stranger in the bookshop, these speakers haven't let the audience become comfortable with them before they demand interaction.
First, Build the Audience's Trust
The key to successes is to ease the audience into the interaction, little-by-little.
I have found that audiences are much happier to interact with you when you make them feel safe first. When they trust you, they will be more willing to interact with you.
Start with some small, low-risk interactions and build up from there, step-by-step.
The 5 Levels of Audience Interaction
You can think of there being at least five levels of interaction. I used all five of these in a speech I gave a few weeks ago about The Science of Play, which I describe in the article 5 Rules for Effective Audience Interaction in Speeches.
You might use all of the levels during your presentation or speech, or you might only use some of them. In general, the more levels you use, the easier you make it for the audience to join in with your interactions.
Level 0: Let The Audience Meet You
Before you get started with interaction, you have to give the audience time to get used to you.
When you stand up in front of any new audience, for the first minute or so they will just look at you. You need to give them time to become familiar with you before they are comfortable enough to interact.
During my speech the other day, I did this by walking onto the stage slowly and doing very little for a whole 15 seconds. I stood still and relaxed "into the space". I smiled. I made a joke about something the announcer had said about me. I breathed out. By doing this, I was letting the audience become familiar with the sight of me.
Then, I started my speech with this quote: "There's an old saying that says 'You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than you could in a year of conversation.' "
I took time over saying the quote — it took a whole 15 seconds for me to say, two or three times longer than it would take me to simply read the sentence. This space let the audience become familiar with the sound of my voice. As I spoke, I looked around the whole audience, so I also became familiar with the sight of them.
For the first 30 seconds of my speech, I had said very little.
But, the audience needed the space to "meet me".
Level 1: Ask the Audience to Interact With Themselves
The first level of interaction I used was to ask the audience to think. It was a very simple request — very "low risk" for them.
I said "I would like you to stop…<pause - breathe out>… and think …<pause - breathe out>… When was the last time you gave yourself the gift …<pause>… of an hour of play?"
I then clarified this question by rephrasing it, then gave them some examples.
Again, I took time over saying all this. I did this so that the audience would be more likely to do what I was telling them to do: stop and think of an answer. If I had simply asked it as a rhetorical question but left no time, they probably wouldn't have taken the time to think of their own answers.
The audience didn't have to physically do anything for this interaction. They just had to think.
It's often helpful to ask the audience for a simple, very low-risk interaction like this before you move on to more involved ones.
Level 2: Ask the Audience to Interact As One
The second level of interaction I used was to ask the audience to respond all together. This is the same level of interaction as saying "raise your hand if …"
I used this level after I had spoken for 5 minutes, so the audience was familiar with my voice and comfortable listening to me (I hope).
Soon, I would ask them to get very involved by playing a game. However, I couldn't jump straight in and tell them about the game. I needed to ask them to do something easier first.
I said: "I think the best way for us to explore this concept is to play a game."
This introduced the idea of playing the game and also, by using the words "for us to explore" it was indicating that we were all in it together. I wasn't saying "I'm going explain this to you by getting you to play a game." I was saying "We're going to explore this together by playing a game together." I hope this made the whole idea seem less intimidating.
Then came the interaction.
I asked, "Would you like to play a game with me?"
To which they all replied "Yes."
By asking them a direct question, they had to interact with me by using their voice.
This requires a similar level of interaction as asking the audience to raise their hand. It's still quite low-risk, but it requires more action than just thinking about an answer, as they did in the previous level.
I chose to get the audience to speak out loud, rather than raising their hands, because I wanted them to use their voice. They would need to speak more in the next game.
Level 3: Ask the Audience to Interact With Their Partner
The third level of interaction was to get the audience to interact with the people sitting next to them.
This is still quite a low-risk interaction because we tend to sit next to at least one person we already know.
The game I chose was a variation on Chinese Whispers (or Telephone as I believe it's called in the USA). The person at one end of the row started with a word which I gave them — in this case, "fun". Instead of saying the same word to their neighbour, as you usually do in Chinese Whispers, each person had to come up with a related word and pass it on to the person sitting next to them.
I also added in the instruction that they would get "bonus points" if they pulled a funny face or spoke in a silly voice, or both. This instruction was to help warm them up for the game in Level 5.
Even though this game didn't require too much interaction, there were still a few people in the audience who felt a bit uncomfortable playing it. I know this because I asked the audience, after the game was over, if anyone felt a bit embarrassed or silly when they were playing — this question was part of the message I was explaining in the speech. However, even though they were a bit embarrassed, they still got involved.
Level 4: Interact with an Audience Representative
The fourth level of interaction is not really part of the progression of interaction levels. It is more a strategy for making the whole audience feel involved in an interaction which doesn't actually involve them.
Part of my speech was directed at the children and young people in the room. Instead of saying something like "everyone under 13 years old, please put up your hand" and then speaking to them as a group, I chose to do speak directly to two members of the audience. These boys then became the "spokespeople" for the young people in the audience.
It is nice to mix up your interaction styles like this. Instead of always interacting with the whole audience, you can interact individually with one person or a small group of people. This keeps the "interaction vibe" going in the speech but lets the other audience members relax a little bit.
Level 5: Ask the Audience to Interact Alone or in Groups
Finally, we get to the fifth level of interaction. It involves getting individual people to stand up, then speak or act in front of everyone else in the audience.
This is a "high-risk" interaction for many people because they don't want to look silly in front of so many people. Some people don't mind looking silly, which makes them good candidates for this type of interaction.
I used this level at the very end of my speech and it involved an improv game. The basic game goes like this: I have some cards with situations written on them (e.g. "someone just stole your wallet" or "all your clothes have just turned invisible"). I choose a person in the audience, who has to stand up. I read out the situation and the person has to act out a short reaction to this situation in a few seconds.
The purpose of this game, as I used it in this speech, was to prompt the audience to do something which was just a little bit fun and a little bit silly. I wanted them to let their creativity run free, even if just for a few seconds.
It went very well and everybody got involved. However, I'm not sure the audience would have got quite so involved with this game if I hadn't first introduced them to the idea of audience interaction, step-by-step.
Adapt to Your Audience
As a final note, make sure you consider your audience when you are planning your interaction.
Who are they? Why have they come to hear you? What do they expect from your presentation?
I have performed this speech twice already.
The second time was at the event I have been talking about in this article. There were about 40 people in the audience, of varying ages, many of whom hadn't been to the event before. The audience hadn't come along to be made to feel uncomfortable, they had come along to have fun.
To make the final "Level 5" game less scary, I got the audience to stand up in small groups, instead of individually. They then acted out their responses to the improv situations together, which made it less embarrassing.
In contrast, the first time I performed this speech was to a room of 20 people who mostly knew each other well. Everyone in the room was there because they wanted to become better public speakers, so they had come along to be made to feel uncomfortable (sort of).
In this case, I got people to stand up individually to act out the improv situations. They all obliged because, as I say, they had each come along expecting to speak in front of a group.
This is the real secret to effective audience interaction: Always consider your audience when you are planning your interactions. That way, you can have a much higher chance that they will agree to interact with you.