Involve Your Audience and Ease Your Work Load

During a conversation with a couple of clients Gwen asked me, “How can I get my team to participate more in my meetings? It seems that they don’t have anything to say while we’re all together but after the meeting I can hear them talking about how we could be doing things better. It’s frustrating!”

“Yes.” said Scott, “A couple of my key people will eventually add an idea or two, but they don’t seem to do it willingly and none of the rest of the group joins in. Is there any advice that you can give us?”

Advice? Well of course I have some advice! I’m a consultant. Giving advice is what I do! As a matter of fact, not giving advice is more the challenge. That thought aside, here are four ideas that Scott, Gwen and you can use to get more participation from your audience.


Start Right Away.

Imagine that you have just entered an elevator with one other occupant. You hit the button for your floor and say, “Hi,” to the other person or make some other pithy comment. They turn to you, respond and perhaps a conversation ensues. This might be a little uncomfortable but it is generally acceptable behavior. Now contrast that with a similar scenario, but one in which you wait until the elevator has gone ten or fifteen floors then try to get a conversation started. Not only does this feel more awkward, it’s downright creepy! Why do we feel that way? Because within the first few moments everyone has decided what kind of elevator ride this is going to be. It is either going to be a “talking” elevator ride or a “silent, looking at the numbers” elevator ride. It is much the same for an audience. If participation is desired, then the presenter must get it started right away. Should the speaker begin with a 15 or 45 minute monologue, the audience settles in to their listening mode. And once they are in that mode the presenter will have considerable trouble getting them to speak up. In a very short span of time your audience will decide if this is an “I get to say something” presentation or one in which they should “shut up and listen.”


Make It Easy.

Recently I was at a continuing education seminar for adult educators. The instructor was a professor from a big time university and after a lengthy introduction he finally asked us a question. Now I don’t remember it exactly, but it went something like this. “Who can explain the difference between traditional and integration theories of education?” The reaction from this group of knowledgeable trainers was stone dead silence! It’s not that on one knew the answer, it’s just that no one was ready to deal with such a complex question. It could be that this instructor was more concerned with impressing us with his vast knowledge than he was in getting us to participate. But if he really did want us to respond, he should have started with an easier question. Perhaps he could have asked us what kind of subjects we teach or what unique training situations we had experienced. A more basic question would have gotten the participation started and helped us to relax.


Don’t Use All of the Best Material.

When I was first learning to encourage participation during my presentations I found myself bringing up a subject for discussion. Then I would proceed to pontificate at length about the topic, telling them everything I knew about it.  Eventually I would run out of gas and ask the group what they knew or thought. Invariably there was little or no feedback. Finally one of my class members raised her hand and said, “After you get done talking there’s nothing left for us to say!” While my initial reaction was defensive, I eventually recognized the truth of what she said. Over time I was able to change my style and allow the audience to have first crack at the most obvious answers. Don’t tell the audience information that they could tell you.


Positive Reactions Only.

Now we come to the final piece of advice. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that because of its placement it is the least important. How a presenter reacts to the early input from his or her audience is a major factor in the amount and quality of participation they receive. When a member of the audience responds to your question they are taking a personal risk. In almost every audience you will have a couple of brave souls that take the risk and raise their hands.

The rest of the group is watching to see how you deal with this input, right or wrong. And it won’t take much negative on your part to shut the whole process down. For example:

-Saying, “That’s not right!”

-Shaking your head.

-Heavy sighs.

-Rolling your eyes.

Your audience learns quickly and any indication that you are unhappy with their response will cause them to sit on their hands and put you on your own for the rest of the presentation.

Well, there’s the advice Gwen and Scott paid for, and you got it practically for free. But like any advice it’s worth nothing if you don’t make use of it. I spoke to Gwen the other day and I asked her if she had experienced any better results in recent meetings. “Well,” she said, “I mostly tried the idea of holding back on telling them everything I know before asking their opinion. I started by introducing an idea then getting their input right away. The group was hesitant at first but I was patient and eventually they started to offer some great ideas. But the best part was that there was a lot less griping after the meeting was over.”

So think about the next meeting or presentation you have and commit to using one of these four ideas to get more participation.

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