In last week’s post, we discussed why trainers and facilitators might want to switch from presentation mode to conversation mode: to energize or re-engage an audience. This week, let’s consider how to make this switch, using the following seven concrete strategies:
1. Set expectations.Tell the audience exactly what you are going to do: “Instead of taking you through my deck, let’s have a conversation first.” Give them a sense of the type of questions to expect and the type of answers you’re seeking. You could do this at the beginning of your presentation or in the middle, when you realize you want (or the audience wants) to take the program in another direction.
If you choose to make your presentation conversational from the start, give the audience a preview of what to expect. You could say, for example, “I have five points to cover today. After each point, I’ll ask you some questions,” or, “Instead of taking you through what I think you should know, I’m going to ask you to tell me what to explain.”
You may want to build out notes or slides covering more topics and information than you’ll actually need. Show the audience a table of contents or other illustration of the topics you have ready. This will help guide the audience’s questions and ideas and allow them to lead the session in a direction that interests them—and it will also demonstrate that you’re not making conversation because you’re not prepared.
2. Appoint active participants.It may be wise to call on specific individuals, roles, or departments to ask or answer questions. If the audience is large or diverse, consider focusing your questions on the decision makers and attendees for whom the content is most relevant. For example, I’m a communications consultant and often work with L&D or HR leaders, so I often direct questions to those leaders. I may not want new hires or specialized subject matter experts taking the conversation in other directions.
If you know before the presentation that you plan to use a conversational approach, you may want to talk with key players in advance to get permission or raise awareness about what they should expect. Knowing who might speak up or who you can call on during the session will streamline your audience dialogue. For large crowds, you might even assign these key audience members specific seats. This also helps if your session will have a moderator or assistants with portable microphones.
Finally, if you’re able, use names. Acknowledging people by name makes the conversation personal for both the individual and everyone else listening. If you don’t know names, set an expectation that audience members state names before giving questions or answers, or simply ask for names in your responses.
3. Use questions to get the audience talking.Whether during your opening hook or later in your presentation, silent audiences can be prompted to speak. You can use questions in many ways to get the audience talking and ultimately sending questions back your way. Consider these strategies:
- Ask the audience to shout out answers, and then build on their answers to create dialogue.
- Ask the audience to answer questions or generate ideas in pairs or small groups, and then take answers publicly from group spokespeople.
- Call on specific people (for example, decision makers, leaders, contacts, your plant) to answer a question and start the conversation.
- Display questions on the screen or through an interactive app. You might consider polls, ratings, multiple choice, or word clouds. Then, build conversation from those answers.
In Bridgett McGowen’s article “4 Ways You Bore People When You Present,” she suggests:
Present one chunk of information, then ask a targeted question that moves the audience effectively, behaviorally, or cognitively. This means you a) Ask a question that has the audience consider how they now feel about the information/topic. OR b) Ask a question that has the audience change or take new action as a result of the information. OR c) Ask a question that has the audience consider how they will change the way they think about and process the information going forward.
In many presentations, asking questions makes for a great opening. Move beyond a simple question hook. Budget five minutes of your opening segment for a back-and-forth conversation. You could give one person’s answer five minutes of conversation, or take five answers and respond to each for one minute.
Now, move beyond that. Ask your opening question, get an answer, ask another question, collect more answers, and so on. Imagine you never pull out your notes or turn on your PowerPoint.
Congratulations! You’ve now spent 30 minutes dissecting and discussing exactly what the audience wanted to know from your expert and unique point of view.
Or, did you let the non-decision makers or attendees for whom the presentation was less relevant dictate your topics, so that your intended main takeaways never came up? Audience dialogues take focus and control. Whether presenting or conversing, own your presence on stage and the information you’re sharing with the audience.
4. Work with a plant.Not a flower: Plant someone in the audience to ask questions or answer your questions. This could be a trusted colleague, friend, or group. Let them know what you’re planning and how you’re hoping they’ll participate. If you need to shift from a speech to interaction on the spot, you could work this out via text message during a break. For example, you might expect the audience to raise a certain question that never arises. If your plant brings it up, there’s a good chance other audience members will nod in agreement (especially those who may not feel comfortable raising questions publicly themselves).
Plants help focus your conversation with the audience. Asking broad questions might lead to answers that don’t cover the topics you’d intended. For example, to the question, “What is one of your biggest concerns for the next year?” you might expect the answer, “departmental budget” but instead get answers like “client marketing,” “manager expectation,” and “work-from-home issues.” These could be great conversation points and valuable to the audience. Yet, it could be easier to focus your presentation in the direction you expected thanks to your plant answering, “Our budget!”
Narrow questions might be tricky for the audience to answer correctly, too. You might ask, “How much was your department’s budget last year?” You may know the answer is $100,000, but if no one remembers or volunteers that answer, your plant can chime in, “100,000 dollars!”
However, remember to consider your audience’s experience when working with a planted audience member. If other people know your best buddy is asking or answering questions, especially if they are called upon first, other audience members might believe that their organic replies mean little in the exchange.
5. Build on content from the audience.If you ask the audience for answers, advice, or their personal experiences, build on their responses to get to the content you ultimately want to present. For example, imagine you want to present a proposal to send new employees to writing workshops. You know the importance of email structure, language, tone, spell-checking, and using email folders for internal and external communications. Instead of presenting a traditional proposal with your reasons and expected results, you could start a conversation from the stage with a series of questions:
- “How do most employees communicate with each other every day?” There are many potential answers, but you can expect “email” to be one of them. Now you have an opening to expand on email challenges.
- “How do our salespeople usually arrange sales meetings with clients?” Again, you can predict “email” is likely going to be an answer, which gives you a chance to talk about the goals of business writing.
- “What are your email annoyances?” You might hear answers like “getting late replies,” “unclear key messages,” “too much data buried in the text,” or “unprofessional language habits.” You’ve gotten the audience to address the problems (instead of you lecturing them), and you’re ready to help them with the solution (your writing workshop proposal).
6. Leverage storytelling.Storytelling can help you and your audience create ad hoc dialogue. Use your professional experiences plus examples you remember from research. This works well when you need to redirect a question to a more important topic, or when you simply don’t know a specific answer.
Imagine you’ve started a conversation and someone asks you, “Won’t your plan cost more money than what our company has budgeted?” You know they may be right. You could reply, “Two years ago, I was managing a team and we used a plan similar to today’s proposal. It did cost more at the beginning. But because this plan worked out, the team ended up saving money after six months and was under budget for the rest of the year.” With a short example story, you’ve redirected your listeners to the bigger picture.
Someone in your audience probably also has experiences to share. Most people don’t memorize statistics, but they will recall stories. “How much money did your sales team generate in the first quarter of 2023?” might lead to blank stares. Instead, ask for something they worked through, like, “Who was one of your toughest clients to manage in early 2023?” Someone may dive into a personal success story. If you get a one-word answer, ask follow-up questions to build a story piece by piece: “What made that client challenging?” “What did you try that didn’t work?” “What finally worked?” “What did you learn?”
7. Get the audience talking in hypotheticals.“What if” questions to the audience can get people talking and help you gauge what’s important to them: their goals, obstacles, and ideas.
- “What would happen if . . . ”
- “What’s the best that could happen if . . . ”
- “What’s the worst that could happen if . . . ”
You may find yourself losing the audience when presenting a new or complex topic. Switch your focus to their perspective to help them see the connections between your ideas and their situation. Return to your presentation, or at least some of your planned content, when their answers naturally lead in that direction.
Posing hypothetical questions near the end of your presentation or conversation can leave the audience thinking about your ideas even after the meeting is finished. In many cases, you might not ask for answers to these questions. Let the audience think on their own, and you can return to these points during your next engagement.