A recent question from reader and creator of the great blog and book about inquiry, A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger, had to do with involving the audience. What is the right time, and what are the right ways, to involve audiences? Warren had heard a keynoter ask lots of questions of the audience, rhetorical and otherwise, and was wondering what the pros and cons of that approach were.

Let’s go back to first principles. A successful speech is not a monologue; it’s a conversation. And a conversation is always two-way. There’s always a feedback loop, at minimum. To put it another way, if audience members don’t have the sense that the speaker is listening to them, then they won’t feel part of the communication, and it won’t succeed.

So speakers need to involve audiences in some way. But many speakers just want to fly by, deliver their payload of ideas, and get out. All too often I’ve seen speakers do exactly that. The speech they give is minimally customized and anyone could be sitting in front of them for all the difference the audience makes. The jokes land, or not, the points make a difference, or not, but it’s all a little impersonal.

That approach might have worked a decade ago – OK, maybe two decades ago – but it doesn’t work today. Audience have changed, they expect more, and they demand some level of authenticity. That authenticity can take many forms, but the openness that is at the root of authenticity means taking real account of the audience in front of you – this audience, not any audience – and that means interaction.

Many speakers begin their interaction by asking questions of the audience. At their worst, and most primitive, they are rhetorical questions: isn’t it wrong to judge people, like books, by their covers? These are questions to which everyone already knows the answer. The audience starts to feel manipulated if you ask more than one or two of these, because you’re forcing the audience to join in a choric response, and there’s little for them to do except respond in the ordered way.

So if you find yourself asking too many rhetorical questions, stop and re-tool your rhetoric.

Instead, ask real questions, and open-ended ones for preference. “Anyone here from Des Moines?” is a real question, but it’s not open-ended, and it’s a bit obvious. Never, ever, hector the audience by saying something like, “I can’t hear you!” in response to a weak answer of any kind from the audience. In a real conversation, you don’t hector the other person – or if you do, the conversation won’t last long.

Open-ended questions are far more interesting, and potentially life-changing if you ask them correctly. The key is in what you do after you ask. So when you say, “What would it look like if you chose to change three things about your life right now?” it’s imperative that you do something small, but incredibly significant, immediately afterwards:  you wait.

You wait. 

You need to let the (real) question sink in, and you need to wait for the audience to answer it – internally if they’re not going to do so out loud. Surprisingly, that pause can be just as effective as actually getting an out-loud response. If you act like you care and are listening to the audience, they will feel heard – even if nothing is said verbally.

The difference between making a connection with the audience and just talking at them lies in that little pause. You need to see the question land and then you need to acknowledge the response.

Beyond that interaction, the basic one of question and response, there are many possible higher levels of audience involvement. You can get them to tell their stories. You can ask them to brainstorm. You can start them playing games. You can charge them to report something to the group as a whole. You can have them teach one another. You can involve them in designing responses to a challenge you set. You can ask them to begin an action, a path, a new initiative. You can even get them to write a letter to themselves in the future – or to someone else in the present. The list goes on and on.

You’re asking the audience in front of you to be passive for twenty minutes, or an hour, and most people are more comfortable being active. It’s our natural human state. So audience will thank you if you involve them and they will respond with enthusiasm and passion if you are genuinely open to what they tell you in response.

Authenticity demands it. It’s the price of public speaking today.

I’m taking the rest of the week off for American Thanksgiving.  It’s a holiday that’s supposed to be about gratitude, but is mostly about eating.  I’ve already eaten plenty, so I’m focusing on gratitude:  I’m grateful to my readers and the wonderful conversations we’ve had in this space.  As a small way of saying thanks, I’ve reduced the price on my online course, Public Words’ Presentation Prep: Ten Steps to Persuasive Storytelling, so that you can join in and having something to do this week besides eat turkey.  Enjoy!

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