The charismatic executive was cool, clear, and articulate as she launched the organization's new business strategy to 500 employees. She had planned to engage the audience, so immediately after her powerpoint presentation, she asked if anyone had any questions. There was dead silence. She waited for a long two uncomfortable seconds... still no questions. "Surely, you have some questions," she stated in a slightly perturbed voice tone. One person sheepishly raised his hand and asked a question that she then answered. "Anymore questions? OK. Thanks for your attention." They all applauded, but people left with a lot of concerns and unanswered questions that were later discussed in the bathrooms and hallways.

I have seen many great speakers experience the audience "dead zone." Facilitating large group interaction calls for a very different skill set than giving a speech or meeting with a small group. It requires reading the group, scanning the non-verbals of the participants, and creating a safe environment for interaction. It's scary enough for most people just to speak in a group of 500 colleagues, but it's even more frightening to interact with a high-ranking officer in front of a large audience.

Here are some tips for getting the most effective interaction from a large group during a presentation.

  • Walk out into the audience. Don't stay behind a podium on stage. Be more like a talk show host (the Oprah kind) than a lecturer. President Obama does a great job at this in his town hall meetings.
  • Don't ask, "Are there any questions?" The answer is "yes" or "no." Ask, "What questions do you have?" After you ask this question, wait up to 10 seconds. That will seem like an eternity, but it gives people time to think of a question and the tension that the silence creates usually causes someone to break the silence.
  • If you are presenting to a more introverted audience, ask them to turn to one or two people near them and think of questions they might have, or give them some other instruction, like, coming up with a suggestion for improving a process, etc. Give them time to talk, and then ask them to report out.
  • Instruct participants to write questions anonymously on cards and have someone collect them and pass them to you.
  • Make sure everyone can hear the input from the audience. Prepare your microphone runners. Choose people who can actually run to people to keep from having dead air time. In groups over 200, you will need at least 3 mic runners. Have audience members raise their hands for a mic and have 3 people lined up at a time. The mic runner should hold their hand up so you can see where the voice is coming from, as the sound will be coming from the PA system speakers.
  • Reward participation and risk-taking, even if you disagree with the input.
  • Be aware of your facial expressions and voice tone as you respond to the interactions. You can stifle all participation with one subtle look of disgust.
  • Take a hand-raising poll. Ask a question like, "How many of you have had customers complain about our new approach?"
  • Once people get warmed up to interacting in a large group, you can begin calling on individuals for input.
  • End the presentation by thanking everyone for their contributions and tell them how you will use the information that they provided.

What have you done or seen in large group presentations that worked well in creating effective audience participation?

About the Author

David F. Swink

David Swink is Chief Creative Officer of Strategic Interactions, Inc., based in Fairfax, Virginia.

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