I often get asked, as a proponent of audience interaction in speeches, how to do exactly that in ways that are more interesting than simply asking for a hand raise.  I’ve posted on the subject before but was inspired by watching a recent speech (that was not very audience interactive) to think of nine more ways to interact with audiences.  Use these general ideas as starting points for your specific speaking topics and events.

1.Get the audience to magnify or shrink what you’re talking about. Humans find giant pandas and tiny houses inherently charming.  How can you get your audience to re-think the topic applying the lens of same-idea-only-much-smaller OR same-idea-only-much-larger?

2.Get the audience to juxtapose apparently dissimilar items. You can set up the juxtaposition or bring your audience in on the fun early.  The idea is to try to put two items that seem poles apart together.  Pizza and weight loss, anyone?

3.Involve the audience in creative destruction. If your boat is sunk underneath you, you come up with a Plan B – fast.  Get your audience to imagine what happens when the usual ways of doing business no longer work.

4.Ask the audience, ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ Often, people hang on to their status quo because it’s too hard to imagine anything else ever happening.  But wildly disparate businesses these days are finding themselves unprepared for a digital competitor, for example.  So asking your audience how to prepare for Industry Armageddon can be liberating and instructive.

5.Throw out the usual beginning and start in the middle. This advice comes directly from Aristotle, who thought that stories should start as close to the climax as possible.  Your audience has a set way of doing things – whatever you’re talking about – so what if you threw out the way they usually begin working on their process, product or idea, and began instead much further into the process?

6.Get your audience to test their assumptions by designing experiments to attack the standard model in their field. Let’s say you’re talking to a group of executives in the toy industry.  They will undoubtedly have preconceived ideas, based on their collective experience, on what makes for a successful toy.  So how could you test those ideas with new concepts of toys, and success?

7.Ask your audience to apply a classic thinker’s approach to their world. How would Freud, or Kant, or Wittgenstein talk about the energy industry, or marketing, or the particular widgets of the group in front of you?  For this exercise, don’t think you have to spend a year researching the great thinker in question.  Use Wikipedia, because in fact it works better if you have a cliched, oversimplified idea of the thinker in question.  That’s part of the fun.

8.Poll your audience for the worst ideas they can come up with. Audiences, like everyone else, sometimes feel intimidated by participating in an exercise if they perceive they have to be expert to join in.  So instead get them thinking about the worst ideas they’ve seen or had themselves.  There’s often wisdom in the dregs.

9.Get the audience to imagine how a famous celebrity/politician/movie actor would handle a particular problem. How would John Wayne, or James Bond, or Katniss Everdeen have handled the issues facing the industry?  Again, play this up for fun and creative thinking, not precision.

You can use these ideas as starters for various forms of brainstorming, or for more specific kinds of interaction.  Generally, the more structured the audience participation, the more comfortable people will feel in speaking up and joining in.  When we’re on the spot, we like to have lines to color between.  But don’t be constrained by lines yourself – the whole idea is to use these approaches to inspire you to be more creative in the ways in which you ask your audiences to participate with you.




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