Audience involvement enhances listenability and your appeal as a speaker, but it is a double-edged sword.
If you encourage involvement, you often wind up with a more engaged and entertained audience. However – and this is a big, mighty scary “however” – you run the risk of encouraging the subspecies of audience members who are attention junkies and want to take over the presentation.
Having served up that disclaimer, let me note that experience, research, and common sense demonstrate that audiences retain more and pay attention when they are involved in some fashion.
The most basic tool for encouraging participation is simply asking questions. There are several ways to ask a question, and all carry specific benefits and risks. You can ask a question of the entire group and hope someone responds. The upside is that if you get an answer it is likely to be responsive rather than reflexive. The downside is that if no one responds you look a little silly, and if a boorish attention junkie responds (sometimes repeatedly) you have to deal with potential disruption.
One way around this is to ask for a show of hands (“how many think this approach might work, please raise your hand”) and then call on one of the hand-raisers who appears as though he or she might have a lively and intelligent addition to the conversation.
Alternately, you can single out an individual. This can backfire if the target is unresponsive or takes the question as an affront. However, if you are in a position of authority over the group – say, delivering a mandatory training – this technique can be a powerful motivation for audience members to pay attention because they know they could be next on the hot seat.
I can’t prove this, but I feel that subconsciously many people like being put on the spot in a competitive environment and take some satisfaction in being held to task. So if you want to channel your Inner Professor Kingsfield from The Paper Chase, give it a try if you believe your personality and the situation lend themselves to the approach.
My favored no-risk mechanism is to frame the inquiry as a rhetorical question and then call on people who respond or look as though they are going to respond. You can fake this if you want:
Me: “But the question is, how do we make this approach work?
(Pause…if no response, just leave it as a rhetorical question and continue with your presentation: “One method that consistently…)
-or, this approach-
Me: “But the question is, how do we make this approach work?” (Scan the room for any signs of someone who remotely appears to be coercible into offering a contribution, and follow with): “Wow, I see a lot of people who look like they have ideas to offer.”
(The technical name we use in the business for this technique is a “lie” but remember that you can’t get caught because most members of the audience, if they are seated facing you, can’t see the other members.)
Continue with, “and I think I saw Bob in the last row ready to contribute… (pick the person you think looked as though he or she had something to add).
This technique allows you to read the room and move on if the audience is dead or to select a responder in a non-threatening way.
There is one situation where you don’t want to get people talking, at least right away: when you are trying to persuade them and possibly change their opinions.
Note that people become much more intransigent once they have publicly stated an opinion. In other words, if you allow or force them to oppose you publicly in the beginning, you will never be able to change their views by the end.
If you do want to gauge the attitude of an audience, I have one participation tactic that usually works very well: Conduct an anonymous poll at the beginning of the presentation. Pre-printed paper with one or two questions works well; 3 by 5 index cards work better.
If you have an audience of fifty it will only take a helper five minutes or so to tabulate the questions and maybe another five minutes to write some down some of the more provocative responses.
That translates to ten minutes of your presentation during which the audience is in some suspense waiting for the results while your helper tallies the numbers.
If you don’t have a stake in the outcome of who favors what view, or even if you do and feel confident you will change some hearts and minds, conduct a poll of attitudes at the beginning and end of the presentation. You now have two suspense points – and I guarantee the audience will be curious about whether attitudes changed during the presentation.