Now that we’ve addressed planning presentations and the importance of using your voice, let’s turn our attention to engaging your audience through participation.Let’s start with a pop culture reference. How many times do you see a movie? Except for the occasional obsessive phenomena (e.g., “Star Wars”), most people typically see a movie once in a theatre. Maybe you rent it on DVD, put it on your NetFlix queue, or see it on cable too. Even for a film you really like, or one that reveals more with multiple viewings (e.g., “The Naked Gun” or “The Matrix”), there’s a limit to how many times you’ll watch a movie.
So how do you explain the long-running obsession with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show?” It’s a stretch to call it a quality film, yet thousands of people go to hundreds of theatres to see it again and again and again. The simple answer is the audience participation. The audience is involved and that pushes the scene chewing of Barry Bostwick, Meatloaf, Tim Curry, and Susan Sarandon from two hours of camp to an event that has people literally falling down in the aisles.
Not that you want your clients, investors, or prospects yelling out “Dammit!” every time you utter a particular name, but you don’t want them sitting there and wondering how many of those little holes are in the ceiling tiles either. So get them up, get them involved, and give them a role in your presentation.
* Ask questions — This is simplest way to involve your audience. They can be rhetorical, but the point is that you’re breaking the fourth wall, reaching out to your audience and asking them to speak. If they know you might call on them — collectively or individually — they’re much less likely to glaze over. One very effective way to match your presentation to your audience, is to ask questions about them (company size, industry sector, etc.) and ask them their expectations for the session.
* Solicit Stories — Asking your audience to tell stories can take participation to another level. Ask them to tell you about a business challenge they confronted or provide an example of a problem that your product or service can help them with. The danger of soliciting stories is that you cede control to some extent and the response is unpredictable. Always be ready to politely move along if the stories ramble or aren’t on-point.
* Ice Breakers — With large audiences, it’s easy to lose people. If you have a large group, odds are that they’ve been sitting most of the day, so get them up and get them moving. Prompt them to stand up and introduce themselves to one another. It’s important to explain why you’re asking them to do this, so forge a connection with your subject matter whenever possible. However, you can always just explain that you want stretch your legs and make a new business contact.
* Make Assignments — By asking your audience to do something — either individually or in small groups — you give them a sense of purpose. Even something as simple as asking them to keep a tally of how many times you use a particular phrase will work. However, there are lots of ways to ask for bigger contributions that range from writing something down to small groups making their own presentations in the midst of yours.
Though valuable, audience participation fails abysmally if you’re unprepared. Engaging the audience requires more preparation, not less, because you need to be ready to go in new and unexpected directions. However, those new directions often lead to new business relationships and leave a lasting impression with your audience.