Today’s audiences demand active engagement

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Hank was puzzled. As CEO, he had been running an annual town hall meeting in January for 12 straight years. In the past, his employees would listen respectfully while he enumerated the past year’s successes and laid out strategic priorities for the coming year. At this month’s town hall, things were different. Half of the 500 people attending had their heads buried in their blackberries. Several other people kept trying to ask questions before Hank even finished his presentation and got to the Q&A portion. Hank felt like he and his head of human resources were fighting to keep things on track. The HR head claimed the problem is that more and more employees are Gen Y and that they just have bad manners. Hank nodded, but secretly wondered whether he should try changing his approach to better communicate with his audience.

If you give presentations or plan strategically important meetings and conferences you have probably noticed a shift in your audience’s expectations and behavior.

Presentation expert and author Olivia Mitchell claims that presentations are evolving. In a recent article, Mitchell maintained that there have been two distinct eras of public speaking and presenting to date: the Era of the Orator and the Era of the Slide. Mitchell asserts that we are now entering what she calls The Era of the Audience. She posits that audiences expect and demand to be more involved and that they prefer the use of methods such as Open Space and open Q&A over the old “orator” style where a speech is a carefully crafted, one-way performance.

Kristin Arnold, author of “Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve, and Inspire Your Audiences to Action,” states that newer generations are indeed influencing meeting design. Arnold writes, “As the younger generation enters the conference room with us, they don’t want to be programmed all day long. They want more time for unstructured networking and interaction. You’ll see more roundtable sessions where the topics are not pre-determined by a committee, but decided by the people in the room.”

Successful presenters of the future will focus on audience engagement rather than just information sharing. Audience engagement goes far beyond using involvement techniques such as call and response or the old “turn to your neighbor and discuss” gimmick. Genuine audience engagement means the audience plays just as much of a role in the program as the presenter. It means the audience helps to design the program. They participate during it. They, not the speaker, are the focus of attention.

If delivering presentations is part of your role, make it a goal in 2011 to increase audience engagement. Try interviewing a sample of your audience members. Work with your audience to create a program that addresses their needs. Make your program about them and interact with them during it. The result is that the presentation, and the entire process of creating it, becomes a conversation.

There may still be some need for presentations that merely inform, or those that entertain. But the greater need — and demand — is for presentations that engage.

Wendy Mack is a Woodland Park-based consultant, speaker, and author who advises leaders on how to mobilize people in order to maximize results. She can be reached at