Seven Simple Strategies to Engage Any Audience

Engage an audience for your presentation

Sheila Robinson shares some great ways to engage an audience.

Why do presenters present? To teach perhaps, or to share information, stories, results, or ideas with an audience. Whether you’re pitching an idea to the board, giving a TED Talk, or professing your knowledge at a university, a successful presenter engages an audience and ensures that what is shared is not only heard, but acted upon in some way – even if that “action” is simply to stir an audience into processing new information.

In fact, the late physicist David Bohm claimed, “the ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained.” An unsuccessful presenter invites an audience to explore the enticing array of new features on their smartphones.

Assuming you have relevant and stimulating content to share, and your visual supports (i.e. slides) aren’t fatal (search “Death by PowerPoint” for ways to avoid this dreaded malady) how will you persuade your audience to partake of what you have to offer?

Here are seven simple strategies to engage your presentation audience.

1. Know them
Get to know as much about your audience as you can. Ask those who invited you to present about them. If possible, administer a survey or pre-assessment to audience members prior to your presentation.

What are their interests, knowledge, skills, experiences, or learning needs? Knowing this can inform the thoughtful design – both the content and the audience engagement strategies – of a successful presentation.

2. Appreciate them
Tell them how much you appreciate their time and attention. Be sincere, of course. Daniel Pink, author of To Sell is Human, argues, “Whether we’re employees pitching colleagues on a new idea, entrepreneurs enticing funders to invest, or parents and teachers cajoling children to study, we spend our days trying to move others. Like it or not, we’re all in sales now.”

Even as a keynote speaker or TED-talker, when you present, you are asking audience members to part with precious resources in much the same ways that salespeople do. In your case, however, you’re not only asking them to part with fiscal resources (if they paid to see you), but also with their time, attention, and participation. Telling an audience how much you appreciate these resources will serve you well in securing them.

3. Ask questions
Ask them to raise their hands in response to questions. Even rhetorical questions can engage an audience when you have little opportunity for interaction. Use easy-to-implement active learning strategies, even for large audiences. Most of these give your audience the opportunity to process content you have shared, integrate it with their prior knowledge, and learn from (and network with) fellow audience members.

Here are just a few:

  • Turn and talk: Give the audience something to talk about with a “next-door” seat mate. This works well even in a large auditorium-style setting, provided you have the facilitation skills (and a good microphone!) to get their attention back.
  • Think-pair-share: Ask audience members to think about a topic for a moment or two, exchange ideas with a partner, then have one partner share out the pair’s ideas to the large group. This works best for somewhat smaller groups (under 50 or so). If time is a concern, pairs can share out simultaneously at tables (rather than out to the large group), or select just a few pairs to share.
  • Use technology: If your audience is likely to have internet-connected devices (i.e. smartphones, tablets), take advantage of that and have them use their devices to answer questions. Poll Everywhere is one example of a text messaging (SMS) polling or audience voting service. If you’re using a computer and projector, you can project results on the screen in real time.
  • Get them writing: Have your audience write ideas on sticky notes and stick them on chart paper. Participants seated at tables (of 4-12 people) can write their ideas on sticky notes (one idea per sticky note), and the group can work to organise and make sense of the ideas. This can generate rich discussion and comparison of ideas among participants. Charts can be posted on the walls for further review and discussion if time and space permit. While this strategy requires additional materials and preparation, it can be used for large audiences seated at tables.
  • Search online for activity protocols: For more ideas on interactive strategies that may require some materials and additional preparation, see the National School Reform Faculty’s array of protocols appropriate for adult audiences.

4. Be human, approachable, and vulnerable
If you make a mistake, admit it. Laugh at yourself. Be honest in telling your audience that you don’t know all there is to know about your topic and that you are still a learner as well. Tell stories of how you thought, behaved, or worked prior to learning the information you are now sharing with them. Don’t believe in being openly vulnerable? Check out Brene Brown’s TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability.

5. Offer resources
Nowadays, given environmental conservation efforts, you may want to steer clear of printed handouts, or at least limit them. However, you can point your audience in the direction of (especially free and inexpensive) opportunities for further reading, continued learning, tools and other resources that may assist in their work.

If you have a website or blog, develop a portion of it with links to relevant resources. If appropriate, invite them to connect with you after the presentation (i.e. through social media, email, etc.) to ask additional questions. This demonstrates passion for your topic, a willingness to share more, and genuine concern.

6. Get them learning from each other
Learning is socially constructed. Simply put, this means that people learn from interacting with each other. Reveal to your audience that you are not the repository of all knowledge on the subject (see #4) and recognise that people who attend your presentation may also have relevant content to offer fellow participants.

Encourage them to collaborate with you and educate their co-learners. This will help you connect with audience members who may already know most of your content.

7. Challenge them
Challenge their thinking and current understanding of your topic. Induce cognitive dissonance. It’s not just about presenting new information, but about challenging their beliefs or understanding and supporting them in making connections from their existing understanding to your new information.

Challenge your learners to reach a goal during your presentation – to add perhaps two more of something to their lists, toolboxes, repertoires, etc.

It’s important to recognise that you can indeed engage a large audience with an interactive presentation. You don’t need to rely solely on a traditional lecture. I recently attended a professional conference where a keynote speaker (the president of the organisation hosting the event) engaged an audience of more than 400.

Sheila Robinson

Sheila Robinson

She used “turn and talk,” and also had people at the door hand out a 2-ply sheet of paper with a series of questions. At appropriate intervals during her presentation, she had audience members answer the questions, and then hand in the bottom copy on their way out. In this way, she was able to elicit information from all who wanted to contribute.

Sheila B. Robinson, Ed.D. is a public school educator, professional developer, adjunct university professor, and program evaluator in Rochester, NY.



Published On: 15th Jul 2013

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1 Comment
  1. Thank you very much for sharing!
    This will be very helpful for our team meeting.

    lAloRaSkin 17 Nov at 7:58 pm