One of the marks of an engaging, “naked” presenter is the ability to engage his or her audience in such a way that the audience retains, carries forward, and applies the speaker’s message. When an audience can move beyond passive absorption of information or even active visualization of an idea, that audience is more likely to not only remember the idea, but pass it along to others (whether it is through action, word of mouth, or influence). A message come alive in the audience’s hearts and minds creates that ripple effect speakers need to gain traction for their ideas.
There are many ways a speaker can achieve engagement and retention. Author Olivia Mitchell of Speaking About Presenting states that a speaker’s role is to nurture attention and transform it to engagement (Source). For Mitchell, attention is the passive reception of information; engagement is the active desire for more information. It’s active nature makes engagement “more valuable than attention” (Source). In the article, “4 ways to move people from attention to engagement,” Mitchell isolates four techniques that move an audience towards engagement:
1. Sell Your Presentation (show the audience what’s in it for them and appeal to audience needs)
2. Evoke curiosity (use the copywriter technique of “fascinations”, short ideas that tease an audience ala a magazine cover)
3. Be Bold (don’t be afraid of a little controversy)
4. Build Rapport (empathize with the audience and tune to their frequencies)
According to Dr. Nick Morgan, author of Public Words, audiences want an experience. They want to feel that they’ve been a part of something meaningful (Source). Audiences want to know you’ve taken the time to create a unique and authentic experience that differs from other similar experiences on your subject. For the majority of a speech, the audience is a passive passenger on a journey a speaker has carefully mapped out. However, as Dr. Morgan asserts, an audience is made up of people–flesh and blood bioelectric engines–audiences are “naturally active. And if you’ve done your job right, they’re ready to give back. More than that, they’re ready to get started implementing your ideas” (Source). To capitalize on this natural tendency to act, Dr. Morgan suggests giving the audience something to do beyond the cliche call to action:
“I’m talking about an actual, physical activity. A modest one, but something real, concrete, and deliberate.
So, it seems that moving beyond words can help your audience not only retain information but can also tap into their natural tendency to act. This is the true power of an activity in a presentation. In Professional Communication and Presentation, I task my students with leading discussion for 5-10 minutes on a core topic for that day’s class. Each group chooses a discussion prompt, conducts research on the prompt, and delivers their perspective to the class. In the past, I gave students the option of developing either a discussion question or an activity to help the class apply the group’s idea to presenting. This month, though, I was curious to see if activity alone would yield different results in terms of audience retention of the concepts being discussed, so I nixed the discussion option, as Alex Rister did with her students. Overall, presentations are stronger, more memorable, and much more engaging.
Creating a strong activity is a subject for a different post, but all in all, the groups have moved their topics much closer to that action center by creating relevant activities that bring their perspectives to life. For instance, one group was tasked with discussing how to conduct strong research and what the difference is between credible information and unreliable information. They wanted us to understand that while the web has become our primary source of information and there is much information on the web that is relevant and worthwhile, much of the information we find on the web has been diluted and distorted from a primary source.
To bring this to life in the audience, they asked us to play the telephone game. One student was given a sentence to whisper into her neighbor’s ear; the neighbor then repeated the idea to the next student. The process was repeated until the last student, who then wrote what he had heard on the board. What the student wrote down contained a few of the elements of the original, but the specifics were lost, altered, or misrepresented. This brief activity helped the class see just how easy it is to get the wrong information on the web, where information is distorted, filtered, and amended the further it is away from the original source.
A well-developed, well-placed, and well-executed activity can be the key to true audience retention, internalization, and action. Consider how you can integrate activity in your next presentation. For a bit of inspiration, check out these 7 moments of audience participation from TED. My favorite is Jane McGonigal’s, whose game can literally give you 10 years of life!