What does a speaker owe her audience? And what does an audience owe its speaker? There’s a clear trend at conferences and events at the keynote level for more entertainment and less substance, for shorter presentations (a baleful effect of TED), and for less audience interaction.

That’s not a good idea – less audience interaction. You may immediately think to yourself, Why not? That keynote speaker is getting paid a ton of money, why shouldn’t he entertain me? If you are doing precisely that, then read on.

It’s not a good idea for several reasons. First of all, most grownups are paid to be active in their professional lives. So too much passive sitting is unnatural. Now, if you see the opportunity to sit in the dark and listen to a few speeches as an opportunity to catch a few winks, then I would argue you’re sleep-deprived and should handle your rest more carefully at the proper time. Once again, those keynoters are getting paid lots of money, and many people have put a lot of effort into pulling the event together. It’s not nap time.

Second, it’s not a good idea because while I like entertainment as much as the next person, the more entertaining a speaker is, the more I’m induced just to sit back and watch. But the highest, best and real purpose of a speech is to change the world. Entertainment may make me feel better, or distract me briefly, or give me a chuckle or two, but it doesn’t often change the world. In fact, by providing me a break from my daily grind, it enables me to handle that grind a bit better. Entertainment serves the status quo.

Third, and most important, it’s not a good idea because it’s only through action that I commit things most powerfully to memory. The way the brain works is that my unconscious mind registers a wish, a desire, an intent, a reaction first. Then, my body moves in response to that unconscious event. And third, and finally, my conscious mind registers the body motion, figures out what the unconscious thought is, and decides it has a new idea. Unconscious reaction leads to bodily action leads to conscious thought. That’s counter-intuitive, but it’s what the brain research shows. Our conscious mind edits out the brief delay between unconscious and conscious awareness, in fact, so we’re not aware of the lag. Presumably the whole evolutionary idea is to streamline our reactions to events – the conscious mind would take too long on its own.

For presentations, the point is that unless I get active about a new idea, I won’t remember it very well. That’s the real purpose of audience interaction. It’s not to provide a break, or amuse the speaker – it’s to help the audience internalize the point the speaker is making. I say again: the only reason to give a speech is to change the world. That change begins with the audience in front of the speaker. If the audience just sits there passively, how is it going to change?

So, if you’re a conference attendee, demand that that your speakers interact with you, giving you real things to do, not just asking you to raise your hand if you’re from Poughkeepsie. If you’re an event designer, seek out speakers that truly interact with their audiences. And if you’re a speaker, have the courage to trust your audience, give them something to do, and for heaven’s sake change the world.

4 Comments

  1. Love the post, Nick. Quick story: in a couple weeks I’m delivering a keynote in Orlando at a technology conference. I’m going to push the interaction envelope further than I ever have in the past. During my one hour slot, I suspect I’ll be talking only 35 minutes max. Audience members will be interacting with each other and with me. The organizer was cool with having a bunch of their volunteers running the aisles with handheld mics. I can’t wait to see how it turns out!

    Your post today provided some assurance it’s not too crazy of an idea!

    1. Andy, I’d love to know two things — 1)how did it go, really (did the audience respond well and get a lot out of it?) and 2)what did the organizers think? My POV is that organizers more and more fear audience interaction because of its “untidiness” and other issues (like timing, production values, etc)

      1. Nick! Fabulous post! Every workshop & keynote I do is full of active audience engagement. I was a speaker at a conference this past weekend in China and the keynote speaker was telling me he doesn’t do audience interaction because “they came to hear from me, not each other”. I thought that was a cop out. I consistently have audiences participate and I get the best feedback. I fact my “side” presentation got far higher reviews than the keynote’s. So, again, how would you responds to, “they came to hear from me, not each other”?

        1. Thanks, Chris — they do come to hear from you, AND they’ll get more out of you if they also hear from each other.

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