After years of attendees being merely the passive receivers of information, planners have been told to rethink their educational opportunities from all different angles and the result has been to seek fresh new ways of actively involving our audiences. The old standard networking reception still serves a purpose but has been updated in all sorts of ways to meet the needs of the new electronically plugged in and more sophisticated audiences.
So how do planners start the process? Here are some simple steps to integrating audience engagement, or ROA, in programs of all sizes:
- Have discussions with all your speakers to assure that at least some of them are including various forms of attendee engagement, such as including time for audience Q and A sessions, breaking the total group into smaller problem solving/discussion clusters, and using audience response systems - either the individual rented ones or simply tapping into everyone’s mobile devices - to give audience challenges and to receive automatic feedback.
- Have presenters start by asking for some audience shout- outs regarding expected learning outcomes and why they’re attending; then the speaker can work backward from addressing and integrating these into the presentation. NOTE: this takes a quick thinking, flexible and cooperative speaker!
- Never underestimate the old standard of having some kind of ‘warm up’ act to get the audience awake and excited about interacting with the main presentation. Ideas for this range from a stand-up comedian to a choral director leading the audience in rounds of raucous singing. Some speakers are even tweeting to their audiences to start the engagement process before the presentation even begins. The key here is to know your audience and what would best get them committed to capturing their full attention before the main event.
Another challenge involves getting better participation in breakout or round table discussions, especially when your group has been quiet and unresponsive during the general sessions. Seasoned planners know to be very observant of the total meeting environment, and if the opening speaker was a talking head that was not embracing engagement then you must quickly be proactive in making sure that all the follow-up sessions are trying even harder. Kristin Arnold, a popular speaker and author of From Boring to Bravo - Proven Presentation Techniques To Engage, Involve and Inspire Your Audience to Action, offered this advice for obtaining maximum audience participation. “Whatever your objectives, craft a great opening that will set the pattern for ‘everyone must speak’ and make sure to define that purpose, be it problem solving, benchmarking or voicing complaints.” And what about introverts, or quiet audiences? Kristin added this helpful tip, “There’s definitely a fine line with not wanting to make people uncomfortable, but table leaders can be guided toward getting gentle engagement from everyone by making them feel welcome and using a round robin technique at each table discussion. Start off with something lighthearted such as having everyone tell about an embarrassing experience before tackling your assigned topic.”
But without a doubt, one of the best new approaches to audience engagement has come in the trending of unique furniture clusters that allow for more comfort and better networking among peers. And this can be accomplished even if there is no budget for furniture rental simply by getting creative with your room set-ups. Go back to planner basics and consider using chevron formations, hollow squares and zigzag theatre styles. Enlist the creative help of both your hotel convention team and set-up leads to come up with fresh approaches to boring room sets, but make sure to get specific in your diagrams and obtain buy-ins from all parties involved including the speaker, audio visual teams and potential catering sets as well. Check with your venue to see if there is any unused furniture in storage that could be incorporated into your meeting room. You might be surprised at what can be found hiding in hotel corners. Whatever the room set, planners expecting to get maximum audience participation should not overset the room by too many seats. Seeing lots of empty chairs can inhibit the participation of those who are in attendance.
Most importantly, planners should learn to embrace the fact that many attendees will have their electronics on while speakers are presenting and use it to their advantage via interaction with their program’s social media outlets. Audiences are appreciative when reality is addressed and encouraged; the key is to funnel that enthusiasm into positive channels that benefit the overall event goals.