Big Audience Interaction

by Phil Waknell

As we emerge from a long period of working from home and online meetings, more and more organizations are bringing people back together. Some big firms are having difficulty forcing people back into the office, but one thing everyone seems to agree on is that Zoom is no substitute for face-to-face conferences or conventions.

Presenters are now having to face a problem they haven’t faced for some time: how to make presentations interactive in front of big audiences, without the benefit of online features like polls, chat or breakout rooms. And this is all the more important since if anything, our attention spans (read: our tolerance for boredom and mediocrity) dropped since 2020.

So how can you bring your audience into an on-stage keynote when there are several hundred of them, and just you on stage? Luckily, we’ve been doing this for twelve years with TED(x) talks and business conferences, so here are some ideas we’ve tried and tested.

Here are six ideas.

1/ Poll them

This is a very simple technique, easy to accomplish, but it does require some thought. You can ask the audience a simple binary question (e.g. yes or no), and invite them to answer physically, for example by standing up or putting their hand in the air. The key is to ensure you are ready with a suitable reaction for any situation, because you may end up with many hands, or few, or none at all.

You can also ask several questions in a row to help to drive home a point. For example:

“I’d like everyone who can to please stand up. Now, if you have never suffered Death By PowerPoint, you can sit down.” (Usually, very few will sit down at this point.)

“Stay standing. Now, you can sit down if you have never inflicted Death By PowerPoint on an audience.” (Again, probably fairly few will sit down. You can make a remark like: “I admire your honesty, and frankly, I know I’ve done it before too.”)

“Now, you can sit down if you’d like to hear about the antidote to Death By PowerPoint.”

At this point, almost everyone will sit down, and they will be listening carefully because you have made them express physically that they are open to what you’re going to say to them. If anyone remains standing, you can then make a funny comment, like: “For those still standing, you might be in the wrong amphitheater: the class on Managing Like It’s 1995 is down the hall. But by all means take your seats and stay!”

2/ Make them move

Getting people to stand up just to vote is one thing, but you can also ask them to move simply to get their juices flowing and wake up their minds. I remember a particularly memorable occasion when my colleague Rose Bloomfield realised that a prior speaker had bored the audience intensely, so right at the start of her talk, she asked everybody to stand up, stretch their hands upwards, and breathe deeply a few times. As a member of that audience, I felt not only energised, but grateful for the opportunity to stretch and wake up a little. It isn’t natural for humans to sit still for a long time, especially when bored.

3/ Make them exchange

Another possibility is to ask the audience to pair up and chat with the person next to them. The key here is to delimit the subject clearly so their conversation does not take too long, otherwise you will end up stopping them while they are in full flow, and they may resent that.

For example, it could be a simple “get to know you” question, such as where you last went on holiday, or who is your favorite presenter, or your current favorite TV show. Or you could ask them to share something related to your subject. If you’re speaking about microfinance, you might ask them to guess the percentage of female entrepreneurs in Indonesia. Then you can tell them the answer, and ask the one in each pair who was closest to stand up. This is a fun, interactive way to reset their attention, and make them remember this important statistic or fact.

4/ Make them think

Interacting with an audience does not always involve them doing something. You can bring them into your talk by speaking about them, asking rhetorical questions like: “Have you ever…?” knowing that many of them will have had such an experience, but without expecting them to answer. These rhetorical questions will make them think, and draw them into what you are saying, deepening your connection with them and theirs with you. You can achieve a similar effect with the powerful word: “Imagine…” 

5/ Surprise them

In a board meeting, surprise is rarely a good thing. With a big audience, it can be your greatest friend. Recently, for example, we produced a business conference with a ‘secret agent’ theme, where right at the start the VP took to the stage in dark glasses, addressed them as if they were in a secret agent bootcamp, and then gave them a first task: to find their own pair of sunglasses, hidden somewhere in the room. Eventually someone thought to look under their chair, where (prior to their arrival) the organizers had carefully taped a pair of sunglasses, and then they all realized, found their own pair, and put them on. This was a fun way to start the conference, to bring everyone together, and to establish a theme for the whole event.

6/ Take (or ask) questions

In general terms, the larger the audience, the fewer people want to ask questions! Also, you may find that among those who dare, there’s always one who takes the opportunity to deliver a monologue as soon as they receive the hand-mike, instead of asking a question. To avoid situations like these, we find that apps like Beekast are very powerful, allowing everyone to post questions anonymously if you enable that option, and allowing you as the speaker (or the Master of Ceremonies if you have one) to choose the best and most appropriate questions to answer.

We have also hacked the typical post-presentation Q&A in some conferences. In one, we used a kind of ball with a microphone inside, and the speaker would throw it into the audience, and whoever caught it had to ask a question. In another, we turned it around and had the speaker (the company President) ask the audience a question, and throw the ball-mike to them to get someone to answer it. Sometimes, as MC, I get down from the stage and point a mike at unsuspecting audience members, asking them a quick question, such as: “What was your favorite part of yesterday’s workshops?”

Whichever way (or ways) you choose to build interaction with your audience and bring them into your presentation, it will be better than a simple monologue, and will make a much more lasting effect on the participants. Remember our first revolution: it’s not your presentation, it’s theirs, so find ways to make it an interesting, personalized experience for them.

Of course, sometimes this takes a spark of creativity, and some experience of what works and what doesn’t work, and it’s hard to do this when you are neck-deep in your subject. Perhaps we can help? Making presentations memorable is our speciality at Ideas on Stage. Contact us using the form below and we’ll be happy to exchange with you how we can help you to make your next conference memorable for all the right reasons.