Strategies to Encourage Audience Participation

Is your audience asleep, checking email or just checking out 10-20 minutes into your presentation? They might be more alert if you let them participate.

As a speaker, I’ve found that it’s more fun for my audience – and for me – when my presentations have audience participation. Brain science tells us that audiences can only pay attention for 10-20 minutes before they need a mental break. Offering them ways to participate gives them that break.

People also learn more when they participate. Rather than just absorbing information like a bar rag, when audiences participate they are more active, thinking about what you’re saying and applying it to themselves. The content becomes more meaningful, and so more sticky, when audiences participate.

Following are some methods I’ve found the most useful. This applies whether I’m leading a one-hour lecture or a full-day workshop:

1.    You don’t have to be the expert

Some speakers fear their audience. They want to keep talking so their audience cannot interrupt them to disagree or ask questions or offer different opinions. But don’t fear your audience. Be open to learning from them. If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, turn it back to the audience and ask “what do the rest of you think?”  People in the audience will be delighted if you ask them to speak. You don’t have to be the expert. It’s okay to acknowledge that many people in the audience know more about certain topics than you do. And you just might learn how to answer that question more expertly next time.

2.    Start by getting them to talk to each other

When your presentation starts and you ask people questions, they will be hesitant to answer. So get them warmed up by asking them to work in groups of 2-3 to answer a question, then pull them back and ask them to share what they talked about. Now people’s voices are warmed up, their ideas are more fully formed, and they will provide you a torrent of ideas to work off.

3.    Ask them to guess

Rather than telling the audience things, create situations where they have to guess.

For instance, if you’re presenting the results of some research showing that PowerPoint makes a presenter more persuasive, don’t just blurt out the numbers.

Show them the number when the speaker doesn’t use PowerPoint, then ask them “how many think PowerPoint makes you more effective? How many think it makes you less effective?” Then, after they’ve guessed, reveal the answer.

You will hear gasps from the audience when you bust people’s myths in front of them. Don’t overdo this technique. Once or twice is okay. More than that and it starts to become tedious and people will start to refuse to participate.

4.    Games

In addition to asking people to guess, you can also give them true/false and multiple-choice options. For true/false, you can ask them to raise their hands or – even better – ask them to stand up if they believe it’s true. It’s good for the audience to stand, stretch their legs. It gives them energy.

5.    Ask for one word

Sometimes you want the audience to give you feedback to something displayed on a PowerPoint slide, like a picture. Their answers are meant to stimulate discussion. But instead of asking for well-thought out commentary, ask them to give you ONE WORD that describes their reaction. It’s easy and less risky for the audience to shout out a single word, and less work for the presenter to write these on a flip chart and look for similarities. Then you can build off those words to continue the presentation.

6.    Add some risk

A ripple of excitement moves through an audience when they know a safe activity has just become risky.

For instance, instead of asking “can I have a volunteer for my next activity?” ask this: “can I have a volunteer for this next activity…it’s a bit embarrassing…ooops!” Then clamp your hand over your mouth like you just revealed a secret. No one will volunteer! Then you pull a £20 note out of your pocket and ask “how about now?” Someone will volunteer, and now the audience are on the edge of their seats waiting to see how this turns out.

Of course, now that you’re paying the person, you can ask them really embarrassing questions! They volunteered for it so they won’t mind!

7.    Get them on stage with you

When you tell stories in your presentations, you could ask audience members to come onstage and act the story out. Believe me, there are people in your audience who are dying to be on stage!

Ask for volunteers; don’t just pull people out of the audience. If you don’t get enough volunteers, look for the people who are making eye contact with you. In their hearts, they are screaming “ask me! ask me!” Meet their eyes. If they don’t look away, smile and ask if they’d volunteer. 90% of the time they’ll eagerly agree.

Trust me, I do this all the time. The audience love it when volunteers start migrating onto the stage with you.

8.    For easy content, let them tell you

There will be times when you need to share a list of ideas with the audience which is mostly common sense. But you have to cover it as part of your presentation.

Rather than reciting a tedious list to the audience, put the list header on the slide and ask the audience to fill it in. Write their ideas on a whiteboard or flip chart. They will cover 90% of what you were going to tell them and might even offer some ideas you hadn’t thought of. Then show them the slide, revealing they got most of it. People like to see their ideas now reflected on your slide.

Bruce Gabrielle

When your audience starts to yawn, or arms start to cross, or laptops start to appear, consider it a sign from your audience that they’re floating away. Bring them back by giving them a chance to participate. They will love it. You will love it. And you’ll never approach a presentation the same way again.

Bruce Gabrielle is author of “Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business”, which teaches a 12-step method for creating PowerPoint presentations to influence and persuade in the boardroom. Visit his website at or get the book at

Do you have any other tips to encourage audience participation?  Please leave them in the comments box below.


Published On: 16th May 2011

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