Speaking out without freaking out: Adding interaction to your presentations

Speaking out without freaking out: Adding interaction to your presentations

Mustering the courage to present confidently in front of others is hard enough, but when it comes to actually engaging an audience and managing their participation, nervous and novice presenters either usually freak out, forget to add interaction, or both.

And there’s another, lesser-known but equally important issue: Audiences can struggle with interactions in presentations, too, feeling uncomfortable participating and not knowing what is expected of them. Why must engaging with your audience be so difficult?

I believe it doesn’t have to be, as long as the presenter effectively invites his or her audience to participate.

Q&A sessions, polls, and other participation opportunities you afford your audience are an abrupt transition from monologue to dialogue, from presentation to facilitation. Making this quick switch to interactivity creates a more equal balance of status and power, which can be a challenge for the audience and speaker alike – but it’s necessary if you want to have engaging and memorable presentations online or in-person.

Your audience needs you to lead them through this transition. They expect you to command the room and help them to participate. You’re the session leader. And there are simple actions you as a presenter can take to navigate smoothly into and through your audience participation activities to get the engagement you want.

These actions can be distilled into three broad categories:

(1) Managing your anxiety prior to speaking, so that you will be calm and confident when it’s time to engage your audience.

(2) Employing presentation best practices, to prepare your audience for interactive participation.

(3) Facilitating the participation while it’s happening, such as how you call for and answer questions.

No matter whether you are presenting in a virtual or in-person environment, your presentations will benefit from audience participation and interaction.

Managing your anxiety

My experience in listening to thousands of presentations as a communication professor and coach has taught me that having an engaged audience often reduces speaking anxiety because you are working with your audience, rather than being judged by them. The best way to foster this environment with your audience is to reframe the speaking situation in your own mind, before you ever set foot on stage.

There are three ways to reduce your nervousness through simple cognitive action. The first involves reframing the physical, emotional, and mental anxiety you experience prior to speaking as typical and natural. After all, these sensations do not show anything beyond your body’s normal response to something that is potentially threating. Avoid giving these natural responses special significance. Or, even better, you can greet these reactions by saying to yourself: “Here are those anxiety feelings again. It makes sense that I feel nervous; I am about to speak in front of people.” This type of acknowledgement is an empowering acceptance that dampens your anxiety, rather than allowing it to make you even more stressed.

Another reframing effort involves seeing a presentation as a conversation, rather than a performance. In performing, you place a tremendous amount of pressure on yourself “to get it right”. But a conversation feels less stressful, and more engaging. How do you reframe presenting as conversational? First, when you practice, don’t stand up and deliver in front of a mirror or camera. Practice by sitting at a coffee table or at a coffee shop with friends or family to talk through your speech. Second, include the word “you” frequently when speaking. “You” provides a direct, verbal connection with your audience and leads to a more conversational tone and approach. You can also use audience members’ names, if you know them, since you connect with people through using their names when you converse.

The final reframing technique changes the relationship you envision having with your audience. You will likely start preparing a presentation by thinking “here’s what I need to tell my audience”, and then proceed to develop and ultimately deliver your thoughts and ideas. A better, more thorough approach to your presentation is to begin by asking the question: “What does my audience need to hear?” This may sound similar to “here’s what I need to tell my audience,” but actually the difference is striking. By embracing an audience-focused approach you will not only engage your audience more, since you’re focused on giving them what they need, but you will also take the spotlight – and stress – off yourself.

Employing presentation best practices

Passivity is the enemy of participation. If you fail to invite audience participation early and often, inertia sets in and your audience will likely be less motivated to engage. To avoid this situation, I strongly recommend using what I call Audience Connecting Techniques (ACTs). ACTs make audience members sit forward in their chairs engaged, rather than passively leaning back. They demand involvement.

One easy ACT is to ask your audience to participate. For example, “With a show of hands, how many of you have…” Requests like this show your audience that they are involved in your presentation. 

Another useful ACT is to ask your audience to visualize a situation or outcome. For example, “Which side of my slide best represents your experience?” When your audience is seeing something in their mind’s eye, rather than just listening to you describe it, they become more engaged, and your point becomes more vivid and lasting for them.

Possibly the most important ACT is to focus on the relevance of your topic for your audience. For example, “This point about customer feedback is especially important for online retailers, because of your starred reviews.” Helping your audience to see the value of your topic to them is critical to engaging them. Be sure to spend time detailing the specific links between your topic and your audience’s lives. Relevancy is the best antidote for apathy, and it brings with it a high level of participation.

A final ACT good for in-person presentations is to use Think-Pair-Share.  Ask your audience to take a moment to think of an answer to a question you pose or to come up with a potential alternative. Next, encourage them to discuss their response with someone near them. After this brief discussion, solicit their input.  Think-Pair-Share is a powerful participation tool because it not only bolsters the audience’s confidence in responding, since they have collaborated on their response, but also typically produces better ideas as a result of multiple brains working together.

When you use Audience Connecting Techniques throughout your presentation, you reap benefits beyond serving notice to your audience that they are expected to be involved and participate:

(a) Your audience feels more connected to your content,

(b) they see themselves as your partner in the presentation, and

(c) you will feel less anxious because you and your audience are actively working together.

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