The magic ingredient: audience interaction

Aug 30, 2018
The ability to engage your audience without making them feel uncomfortable is a skill in itself. It requires confidence, but there are many ways to do it – from mild interaction to active engagement.


The ability to interact with the audience is the presentation’s greatest strength over other forms of communicaton. Yet, it’s a feature that many presenters shun. In a breathless effort to ‘cover’ their material, they shut the audience out. Interaction allows you to meet the audience half-way and understand what they are failing to understand. It also transforms the feeling of the presentation and makes it more engaging.

There is one very important proviso, however. Interaction is not something you can demand; the audience has to be willing to interact. Here are some ways to encourage varying levels of engagement in your next presentation.

Level 1: Full Strength, Active

Ask the audience a question instead of waiting for them to ask you one. Try to have a natural pause after asking a question in case there isn’t an answer straight away. Take a sip of water or turn to the next page of your notes or change the slide. People are often keen to get involved but sometimes need a few seconds to find the nerve to do so.

Level 2: Full Strength, Passive

If you can’t engage the audience, at least make it easy for them to engage you. You don’t have to wait till the end to take questions, seek them at intervals during the talk. And if you don’t get any, one thing you can do is ask yourself a question. This might sound daft, but it’s a nice technique and can be done subtly.

Level 3: Medium Strength, Pre-Planned

When you bring someone from the audience into the discussion, it breaks the barrier between you and the crowd. Ensure beforehand that the person is comfortable with this; then it’s simply a comment like “Grace, you had an experience like this, didn’t you?” to set things in motion.

Another milder way of doing the same thing is to chat with people before the presentation and use these conversations during the talk. You might say, “I was discussing this with some of you beforehand...” Your ideas then become part of a conversation, not a speech.

Level 4: Medium Strength, Deferred

A presentation is a short, transient event and usually part of a longer chain of communication. So, in any way you can, make it easy for the audience to pursue their interest in your talk afterwards – even if they aren’t comfortable doing so right now. Will you be around after the presentation to chat further? Would you be keen to hear people’s experiences on certain topics? If you won’t be sticking around, what is your email address or your website address?

Level 5: Mild Interaction

If you can’t get people to be full-on interactive, at least get them to be active in some way. They are more likely to remember what you say if they’re doing something. Ask for a show of hands; this is a good way to gauge opinion as the audience has voiced a shared viewpoint with which you can engage. And the act of just raising an arm is ever so slightly energising; people have to listen, think, decide and then act.

Level 6: Very Mild Interaction

It’s important to note again that forced interaction does not work. The real essence of interaction is that people are keen to interact, even if they don’t speak. It’s a feeling, not an activity, and you can engender this feeling in subtle ways. For example, you can ask rhetorical questions (“So, how do we do this in practice?”), which show that you are thinking the issue through with the audience and asking the same questions they will be thinking. You can also choose examples that are relevant to the people in the room. The more the presentation is tailored to the audience, the more they will feel that the presenter is talking to them and them alone. This will inspire them to talk back. Even just good eye contact will give the presentation a conversational feel and prompt people to respond.