Whether it’s a dry, sedating lecture from our college days, a training seminar that seems to make time move backwards, or a local politician detailing every bit of a new mundane city ordinance, we’re all painfully familiar with just how stunningly boring some presentations can be. The fatal flaw many of these unexciting presentations make is that they forget to work their audience into the equation when planning and giving their presentation.
Breaking “the wall” between you and your audience is a great way to keep them engaged, entertained, and even on their toes throughout your presentation, ensuring that they absorb every bit of what you’re saying. Audience incorporation, when done right, can generate a lot of constructive energy in your presentation, and it can even help you relax and feel more at ease with the group you’re presenting to. Here’s a few tips to make sure you’re doing it correctly.
Don’t Start Off with Audience Participation
The beginning of a presentation, especially in front of a cold audience, is often the most difficult part. Here it is alluring to transfer some of the attention away from yourself to your audience by asking them to participate, but avoid this temptation. At the beginning of your presentation, the audience is also the most unfamiliar with you, so you need to “warm them up” first. Allow them to grow comfortable in their chairs and develop some sense of trust–or at least familiarity–with you. However, don’t let them grow too comfortable. Many communications experts will argue that audience members switch to “TV mode” after about five minutes, where they will switch to a passive mindset and just become an observer.
Craft Constructive Questions
While audience participation can add a lot to a presentation, when done wrong, it can be awkward and alienating for the audience. For instance, singling out an audience member at random with a surprise question will usually catch them off guard, causing them to illicit a short, unhelpful response and disrupt the flow of your presentation.
There are a few ways this can be avoided, and to incorporate your audience in a natural, low-pressure way. First, if you’re going to be asking audience members questions directly, plan carefully and tread lightly. I’ve found that the best way is to give your audience ample time to formulate a response and let them be the ones to volunteer if they want to answer.
In an attempt to avoid putting people on the spot, some presenters will ask the audience a broad question and hope someone volunteers a response, but most people are usually reticent to offer up a response in a cold audience.
A middle ground is to divide the audience up into groups or pairs, have them discuss your question or topic, and then ask for volunteers to offer their response. This will allow them to formulate a response and grow more comfortable with the audience before being asked to speak.
When asking the audience questions, it’s important for the questions benefit your presentation without derailing it. Know the exact response you want, and direct your presentation accordingly. Don’t make it too complex where your audience is stumped, but don’t make it so dumbed down to be mundane.
It’s often difficult to predict how an audience will react until you try the questions out, so test the questions out on friends and colleagues to gauge their effectiveness.
Lastly, be creative. There’s no scientific formula for engaging your audience. Don’t force anything, pay close attention to the energy of the audience, and think outside the box; you’ll do just fine.