Working the room – the importance of interaction in a presentation
22 March 2016
Author: Barry Brophy is a mechanical engineer who provides training in how to make technical presentations and teaches two masters’ courses on this topic in UCD
The single biggest strength of a presentation is that it is live. It is given by a real person responding in real time to a real audience. Other forms of communication desperately try to emulate this. Television and radio programmes feature viewers’ tweets and texts. Blogs urge you to comment and forward stories to friends. And social media begs you to leave comments and indicate ‘likes’. Yet most oral presenters shun this critical advantage.
The presentation cliché ‘less is more’ applies in no greater way than it does to the subject of audience interaction. The less you say and the more the audience does, the better. There are extreme situations the interaction may need to be tamed – opinionated bosses or attention-seeking audience members – but your problem is invariably one of too little interaction, not too much.
So how do you get a passive audience to take an active role in your communication? The important thing to realise is that interaction is not an activity but a frame of mind.
Interaction is not an activity but a frame of mind
What on earth do I mean by this? Well, we had a thermodynamics lecturer in college who skulked around the room hitting cowering students with brusque questions. The hapless answers were met with remarks like, ‘Rubbish!’, ‘Next!’ and even, ‘I’ll see you in the autumn.’ It was actually quite amusing in its own way but you will engender no lasting rapport with your audience if you seek to scare them to death.
Interaction is not something you can demand, it has to be willing. The audience has to want to interact or it doesn’t count. In the same way, you could walk up to a stranger on the street and start talking to them, but until they relax and engage willingly you can’t really call this a conversation. So your aim is to create an atmosphere in which people want to interact. How do you do this?
First, at a very basic level, you should tell the audience that you welcome interaction. Encourage questions throughout. If you say you will take questions at the end, you are basically saying, ‘Shut up and listen. Don’t’ interrupt.’ This is not a good way to start your relationship with that audience. Sure you’ll get through your material in the allotted time but the impact will be less if the audience are sitting there like dummies.
If you find that the questions are coming too frequently – a good sign, by the way – you can say something like, ‘OK, we’re getting a lot of comments here and I will deal with some of these points later, so maybe I’ll finish the formal part of the talk and we can move into a discussion afterwards.’
If the audience does not ask you any questions, even at the end, you can ask yourself one. This sounds a bit daft but it can take a minute for the audience to warm up having been in listener-mode for so long. You could say something like, ‘Actually, one thing I’m often asked and I probably should have mentioned is…’ and run for a minute with that. This gives the audience a bit more time to take the plunge. Like the first dancer on the dance floor, one question usually prompts another and things pick up quickly after that.
You can also ask yourself questions during the presentation. ‘So, now that we have optimised the product, how do we market it?’ This kind of rhetorical question tells the listener that you are moving on to a new section and encourages them to think about this question before you answer it. It is a very mild form of interaction – ‘action’ might be a better word – but it creates a feeling of inclusivity in the discussion that may prompt further interactions later.
Another way to get the audience to be active without saying anything is the humble show of hands. This is a good way to gauge opinion as the audience now has some form of shared viewpoint with which you can engage. ‘It’s interesting that most people think that because…’ etc. Also, the act of simply raising an arm is energising. To respond, the audience has to both think and act.
A conversation is easier to listen to than a speech
You can also invite someone into the discussion with a comment like, ‘John, you had an experience like this, didn’t you?’ Make sure, however, that you know the person is comfortable with this or they may feel ambushed. What will help in this regard is if you get to the presentation early and initiate conversations with people as they arrive. This breaks down the barriers between you, the speaker, and the audience. It will make interaction more likely as well as diminishing the nerves you feel.
The crucial thing to note about interaction is that it doesn’t just benefit the interactors. Even the reflective types in the audience who never ask a question will find the session more interesting if others are doing so. A conversation is easier to listen to than a speech. The pitch and rhythms of the voices are more natural and the collaborative, informal nature it creates is more appealing. So the interventions from the audience don’t have to be continual and don’t have to be from everybody to boost the interest of all present.
I heard it said, once, that a good salesman listens. He finds out what the customer wants and gives it to them. In the same way, if you want to know what the audience needs to hear, just ask.
- He is author of The Natural Presenter, 2007, which was published in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
- He has provided training for many large engineering clients: BP, Jacobs, ESBI, Faber Maunsell, Engineers Ireland, DePuy, Microsoft, etc.
- Although based in the Mechanical Engineering school in UCD, the courses he teaches are open to students from all disciplines – see short videos.
- He has spoken on this topic recently on Ireland’s leading business radio show, ‘Down to Business’ – listen to podcast.