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Michael Maynard

Maynard Leigh Associates


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How to activate your audience


It's not just PowerPoint that can cause your presentation to snuff it prematurely. Michael Maynard gives us some tips to keep your audience on the edge of their seat.

We all know how easy it is to bore an audience and send them to sleep. Having watched thousands of presentations over the years I can tell pretty quickly when I’m about to experience all signs of life draining from my body. However, most of us also know how to rapidly improve a dire presentation. It doesn’t take much. Whether you focus on content or delivery it’s not that difficult to make a few interventions and rescue a disaster. The bigger challenge, however, arises when even good presentations end up making the audience docile and passive. 

I saw a brilliant tour de force the other day that started off thrilling the audience and engaging them completely. People watching were, indeed, on the edge of their seats. However, the longer it went on the more the audience started sitting back. Then they started feeling bombarded until finally they surrendered in submission, admiring the presenter but not actively engaging with his ideas and sentiments. Of course, the length of a presentation is key in creating dangers of this kind, but there are other factors that need considering as well.

So what are the alternatives? How do you actually make your audience active so that they feel part of the experience rather than simply a witness to it? Here are a few tips:

Ask questions of your audience

Obviously, if it’s a large crowd then you might need to have a show of hands in response. If it’s a smaller group you can actually have a conversation and listen to some of their replies. Taking instant surveys, canvassing opinions or asking for experiences have an immediate impact. 

Get them talking

You might raise an issue and ask them simply to turn to a neighbour and discuss. If the seating is flexible you can put people into groups of threes or fours and they can have a more in-depth exploration of the topic.

Turn the lights up

Audiences who sit in the darkness immediately feel passive and will behave as if nobody is watching or relating to them. If you’re not presenting immediately, go to the back of the hall and observe people’s behaviour whilst others are presenting. If you notice them busily engaged with their smart phones or laptops then, when you’re on, put up the house lights. Make sure they’re seen.

Set them a challenge

Set little exercises or tasks within the presentation, occasional things to do or take part in, for example, responding to something you have shown on a screen or set as a process. Simply because it’s a large audience it doesn’t mean you can’t create a working environment. Get them engaged in problem solving. 

Use interactive technology

There’s a lot of technology around that allows you to do audience involvement either by voting or by inputting information that is then computerised and shown on a screen, etc. This is a good technique for collating audiences’ opinions or creating instant survey results.

Film them

Have a camera on the audience and transmit it on the screen in front of the audience, so that people can see themselves. If they know that at any time a camera can observe them, they will tend to be more alert. 

Get physical

If it’s a long session get them on their feet and have a stretch, perhaps even physicalise an idea that you’re demonstrating. Ask people to take three deep breaths, to reach their arms up towards the ceiling and shake them out, jump up and down and revitalise their energy. 

Colour-coordinate groups

You might be able to give people a coloured dot or ribbon on their name tag. Then, at a certain time in the presentation, you could ask people to move around and form different groups according to their colour or other categorisation. 

Move amongst the audience

Get out there! Deliver the presentation whilst walking around the auditorium. This is particularly useful when there is a cabaret-style layout. If you’ve got a radio mic then you can move from table-to-table or speak from different areas.

Plant information

In advance of the presentation you might stick certain information under the chairs of some of the audience. Then, at a certain moment, you could ask them to look and see. Whoever has an envelope can share the information inside it.

Have roving microphones. 

Again, if it’s a cabaret-style setup with groups sitting at round tables, then they can all be involved in feeding back ideas to the rest of the audience. This makes the presentation more of a workshop rather than just something that they just sit and listen to.

The key issue to remember is that a presentation is actually a conversation - a relationship between the presenter and those in the audience. It needs to be alive and thus you need to think about various techniques that you can use to keep everybody engaged throughout.

Michael Maynard is co-founder of Maynard Leigh Associates

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Michael Maynard


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