We all know what it’s like to sit through boring presentations and meetings being force-fed facts and figures. We start daydreaming, checking our e-mail, send a text message, or even fall asleep. From the speaker’s point of view, it’s not that fun either. Seeing a sea of blank faces looking like they’d rather be somewhere else doesn’t exactly boost your self-confidence.
In the ideal world, all audiences or meeting participants would be an engaged, dynamic crowd who interacted with you and each other. But this interaction doesn’t come by itself, you have to encourage it and be willing to take some risk. What we are aiming for isn’t just participation for the fun of it, but an involvement that gets your audience closer to embracing your ideas. An engaged and involved audience will simply be more willing to be influenced by you.
Why it pays off to involve your audience
Not convinced? Let’s look at some of the benefits of designing more interactive meetings and presentations:
They feel heard and valued
When you ask a question or start a conversation with your audience, you show that you care about their concerns, experiences, and opinions. You create a connection that makes them more open to receive the information or ideas that you want to share with them. This is very different from the traditional “broadcasting” where you speak at your audience, not with them. When you connect with your audience members and listen to their views, you let the spotlight shine on them.
You can make your message relevant to them
Interaction helps you “take the temperature” of the audience and gives you valuable information. When you understand more about their context and challenges, you can frame your topic to be more applicable to their reality. Gauging their level of knowledge and exposure to your topic – as well as their attitude – will help you adapt your presentation and your arguments.
You can learn from them
As much as you would love to be the smartest person… involving your audience is a way of harvesting the collective intelligence in the room. Through their participation, you may broaden or deepen your own understanding of the topic and be able to see new perspectives. While it may be painful to have the audience point out gaps in your reasoning, it will help you to update and improve your case.
They can ease your burden
As a presenter or the leader of a meeting, you may feel lonely and exposed. Involving your audience can reduce some of the pressure to perform. It also makes the audience more likely to assume ownership of your message and to take action after the meeting.
They will be on their toes
Last but not least, your audience will not fall asleep! Knowing that they will be asked to participate, they will pay attention and be ready to share their thoughts.
No benefit without risk
So, if there are so many advantages of involving others, why doesn’t everyone do it all the time? Because it’s scary, unpredictable, and requires practice to be done well. Here are the top four fears my clients have shared with me:
You don’t know and can’t control what will come up
The only thing you can be sure of, is that things will never work out 100% according to your plan. You need to be prepared for the unexpected and undesired, and keep your composure when it happens. This can be destabilizing also for the most experienced speaker. If letting go of control is what holds you back, consider this question: What is more important – my ego and my plan, or getting the connection and buy-in from my audience?
You need to acknowledge differing views without being defensive
Yes, not everyone shares your way of looking at things and they may not be very diplomatic about it either. Putting your hurt pride and feelings aside, centering yourself and acknowledging other perspectives – without losing your backbone – is a useful and important skill to learn. Luckily, life offers you endless opportunities for practice, starting at the dinner table at home.
You need to use their input in a meaningful way
Sometimes we hear speakers asking a question to the audience and then proceed to do nothing with the answers received. That’s interaction for the sake of interaction. When the audience shares something with you, they expect you to validate it and link it back to your topic. Ideally, by making the connection to where you were planning to go next. As a minimum, by giving them a “Wow, that’s quite opposite to what I had expected. We won’t have time to cover that today, so I suggest we discuss it offline.”
They may not stop talking
There may be audience members who are more articulate and/or who are higher than you in the organizational hierarchy. Or simple ramblers, going on forever. As a speaker or meeting leader, you are responsible for managing the time and the energy level in the room. You have to find the delicate balance between listening to others, integrating their comments, and steering the discussion back on track. Not easy at first, but once you learn to dance with your audience, you will enjoy it!
Start practicing when the stakes are low
In summary, involving your audience comes with many benefits and a few challenges. Before you throw yourself in the deep water, it’s useful to get some practice. Start with a meeting where the stakes are low and where you feel comfortable with the participants!