The most successful speaking events involve far more than action from the speaker, however stimulating his or her content and delivery might be. Speeches that grab and keep attention, stimulate agreement, and generate the speaker’s desired results happen only when the presenter mixes action with interaction. Although audiences in prior generations might have been content with sitting passively and listening stoically for extended periods, contemporary listeners are more likely to prefer participating openly and energetically.
At the outset, let’s observe three of the trite interactive attempts your audience will consider obsolete and distasteful, because they have heard them all before, and because they sound more suitable for an elementary classroom than a group of professional leaders.
ONE: Immediately following the introduction, the speaker says, “Good morning.” Automatically, audience members repeat her words. The speaker chides the group, “Oh come on, I’m sure you can do better than that. What’s the matter, not wide awake yet? Now let me hear a big-time ‘Good Morning’ from you. Say it loud and clear!”
Instantly, the speaker has demonstrated lack of creativity, relying on an opening people grew weary of years ago.
TWO: During the speech, the speaker says: “I’ll bet some of you in here have worked with people you have had difficulty communicating with. Am I right? Hold up your hand if that has happened in your work place.”
Here again, there’s no novelty or news. Even those who lift their hands are prone to think, “Been there, done that.”
THREE: To get people talking to one another and revved up, a motivational speaker instructs: “Turn to somebody you haven’t met yet, introduce yourself, and then say to each other, ‘You’re a terrific person with great talent, and I like you already.’”
Main problem here: Even though you have gotten every audience member to speak to a stranger, chances are strong they don’t believe what they just said. Why should they? Silently, the word “hokey” probably comes to mind.
Now let’s look at positive steps to get your audience involved meaningfully.
First, publicize your presentation as a participatory event. Have your host announce in newsletters and e-mails, “Our keynote speaker will bring us a highly interactive presentation about how we can strengthen our customer service.” Encourage your host to repeat that description in every reminder.
Second, weeks before your speech, solicit opinions about your topic and its relevance to the organization. Here’s how: From your host, get the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of at least four of the group’s most respected members. Ask your host to alert them that you will contact them. During your conversations, say: “What you just said would help me get an important point across during my presentation. During my speech, could I please call on you to repeat what you just said to me?” Fortunately, almost everyone will consent. This guarantees that several key people will stand and speak, which will prompt others to voice their reactions.
Third, tell your host which seating arrangement will foster discussion. Avoid traditional theatre seating, where people see the back of the heads in front of them, rather than faces. Ideally, aim for round tables seating 5-7 people. While many attendees would be too reticent to speak in front of 300 audience members, sharing thoughts at a small table won’t seem intimidating.
Fourth, have your host furnish necessary materials, such as pens, pencils, and note pads. This way you won’t cause disorder when you say, “The group at each table has ten minutes to make a list of seven improvements the company can make in our monthly staff meetings.”
Fifth, keep PowerPoint reliance to a minimum percentage of the presentation time. Yes, PowerPoint has advantages, such as reinforcing your main points and showing colorful illustrations. Still, the audience cannot focus on the screen and relate to each other at the same time.
Sixth, remind your audience in your opening comments that you expect them to join in. “Every announcement you read about my presentation emphasized that this session will be interactive. That means you will do more than just sit and listen. There’s no way I came here with all the best ideas about our topic, so I’m eager—along with your organization’s leaders—to have your help in facing tough issues, solving problems, and charting fresh directions.”
Seventh, every time you hear a report from a table group or a recommendation from an individual, answer with appreciation and support. Remember, even a well meaning, lighthearted sarcastic remark could sound demeaning. Even though you smile and chuckle when you quip, “Now where did you get a crazy idea like that?” the audience could assume you are belittling the responder. Always react with upbeat appraisals like these: “Great idea, tell us what would be the first step we should take to make that happen.” “That’s a novel strategy, one I haven’t heard from any other group. How could we implement your suggestion within the next month or two?”
For a review of how to make audience participation attractive and meaningful: publicize your event as interactive, get acquainted with identified leaders and solicit their input, ask your host to place the attendees in small groups and give them essential writing materials, use PowerPoint sparingly, remind the group at the outset that you want their involvement, and use genuine compliments when participants get involved.