Seven Ways to Connect with a Large Audience

Have a mike ready when inviting comments. Jay Miller is sharing a comment in Seoul, Korea.

Have a mike ready when inviting comments. Jay Miller is sharing a comment in Seoul, Korea.

My wife says that I can sleep anywhere. I’m pretty sure that is true. I slept in church as a kid, snoozed my way through large lecture halls in college, and I’ve never survived a planetarium program without a nap.

It’s easy to look out at a very large audience and lapse back into lecturing even if you routinely use questioning in your work to get people engaged. It seems daunting to be interactive if 500 or 1,000 or 3,000 people are looking at you, perhaps watching you on dual projection screens and listening to your amplified voice.

There are still some great options to helping your audience feel more involved. Here are seven ways you might keep most of your audience and even people like me paying attention.

  1. Take a poll – Ask questions that lead into your thematic presentation that have yes or no answers and ask for people to put up their hands or stand up. “How many of you have seen a bald eagle in the wild? Just hold up your hand if you have.” This is a great way to do some on the spot market research. You can find out if they have visited before, what they enjoy, and what they would like to know or do. Just the act of standing up gets them involved, engages their minds and shows that you’re interested in what they think.
  2. Honor members of the audience – Ask someone to stand up and tell a story about her or his achievements. Let them know before the presentation you will ask so they are ready. You can honor more than one at once. I was often host to an audience of 1,000 on Veteran’s Day and would ask all veterans to stand and then invite the audience to thank them. It was a good way to recognize the holiday, the veterans and set a tone for the morning program. You might ask all who have won an award or whohave made a major donation to stand up and be recognized.
  3. Sing a familiar song with the group – I was astonished when I attended a Prairie Home Companion performance in San
    Scott Mair is the master of getting audience involvement through songs and audience participation

    Scott Mair is the master of getting audience involvement through songs and audience participation

    Antonio at a beautiful old theater. Garrison Keillor’s program was quite good, but the intermission was even better. He stayed on stage and sang songs with the audience. I did not get up to take a break and was glad I did not. I raced out for a restroom break immediately after the intermission, but I came back for the second segment as quickly as I could with renewed interest. He brought the audience closer together with the universals of songs common to our culture. It was wonderful to look at people on either side smiling back, humming when they couldn’t remember all the words.  Home on the Range brought down the house, as they say.

  4. Invite questions from the audience – If you do this, be sure to have people with cordless mikes standing by to allow everyone to hear the question or comment of audience members. This keeps you on your toes as a presenter as you attempt to respond thoughtfully to the questions that are asked, and keeps the audience listening to your candid answers with real interest. Be sure to thank those who participate.
  5. Ask a challenging question – if you do this, consider having a gift for the respondent. It could be the book you wrote, a fun t-shirt, or a wrapped chocolate truffle or something symbolic, like a squeezable toy in the shape of something related to the theme of your talk. If it’s something you can toss without risk of hurting anyone, audiences seem to enjoy trying to catch or watching others catch the item.
  6. Try working without a net – Use your speaking ability and physical presence to command attention instead of relying on Powerpoint presentations. Unless the images you can project are truly necessary to illustrate your program, you might find that your audience can pay attention more easily to your face, voice, and body language. Go down into the audience wearing a portable microphone and talk directly to individuals, always moving your attention (Hint: Watch Ellen DeGeneres on TV for ideas).
  7. Bring some up front to take part in an activity – Involve some from the audience and their friends will pay even more attention. Those who take part will enjoy the attention. Others will wonder if they might be next.
Maria Elena Muriel had many in her audience build the warp of a loom from cords to demonstrate weaving.

Maria Elena Muriel had many in her audience build the warp of a loom from cords to demonstrate weaving.

There are, no doubt, other ways to keep a large audience presentation from being a boring lecture. Think about what you might do that challenges the audience to stay involved, to think about and process what you are saying.

And if you need me there in the front row as a test of how interesting your program is, just let me know. I never intend to take a nap, but if you can keep me awake, you know just how good you really are.

–Tim Merriman

P.S. All of these photos were taken in Korea in 2006, when the Korean government invited interpreters from many agencies and nations to demonstrate “hands-on learning” to communities and universities.

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