7 easy ways to get audience participation in meetings, keynotes and seminars

Updated to Business, Speaking on January 23, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

There you are – yapping away about leadership, time management, social media taking over the world, or next year’s marketing plan. You’re on stage delivering a keynote, leading a seminar, or maybe facilitating a planning session.

You know this stuff is pure gold, but are you really making an impact?

And making an impact starts with connection. “The biggest challenge for any public speaker” says public speaking expert Jesse Scinto in Fast Company, “is connecting with the people in the room.”

The reality of audiences is you can’t create change if people are tuned out. And they’ll tune out because either they’re distracted, bored, worried, uncomfortable or just plain tired.

When you see “Arms folded with a scowl on our face and skepticism on our minds” says Seth Godin, “we get what we deserve.” The worse thing (usually) is to keep tossing out more bait, hoping they bite.

You job, dear reader, is to get them involved in the process.

Over the years I’ve field tested dozens of team-building games, creative thinking exercises, small group breakouts and group process exercises.

Some bombed because they were silly, took too long, or were overly complicated. Eventually, I arrived at a short list of tried and true favourites (I’ll save team-building games for a separate post).

The basic ingredients for a great audience exercise are:

  • standing and movement (new research proves that standing in meetings increases creativity and attention).
  • relevance – sure, it’s okay to have a (very) short exercise that’s simply for networking or fun, but the more relevant the exercise the better the results.
  • direction – every participation exercise should move you closer to your goal. Even an exercise like “What I most want” (below) gets helps focus participants on what they need to achieve in the meeting.]

Here are my 7 go-to exercises to get any audience participating, leaning in, and learning together:

  1. dyad – have them stand, find a new partner. Next I give specific instructions, like: ‘discuss how this lesson relates to your work’, or ‘discuss one challenge you’ve had in this area’, or ‘share with your partner how you would introduce this lesson to your staff/team.’ Finally, tell them how much time they have (keep it short – they can cover a lot of ground with even 90 seconds each), and say “Go!”.
  2. small group break out – same instructions as a dyad except they form a group of 4-6 people. After, invite a volunteer to report on their conclusions.
  3. two-column list – super fast way to dissect a problem: the columns could be Pro’s and Con’s or what worked (like in their last campaign)/what needs to improve, etc. This can be done with the whole group, individually, or in small group break outs.
  4. dyad + coach – like a dyad, except a third person volunteers to observe and then give feedback to their small group. This is great for practicing coaching or conflict resolution skills. Try to rotate each person through each role (leader, subordinate, coach).
  5. peer-to-peer coaching – super easy to set up: tell them who’ll be ‘coach’ first (like: person with shortest hair, person with birthday closest to today, etc.), tell them how much time they have and instruct the ‘coach’ to not give advice – only ask open-ended questions.
  6. “What I most want” exercise – one of my favourite ways to start a seminar is after I present the objectives (usually a list on the screen) I ask everyone to complete the sentence “What I most want to leave with (or ‘learn’) today is…..” I typically bring 3×5 index cards for this exercise. Next, I have them stand up, find someone they haven’t talked with yet, read their card, their partner reads their card, they switch cards and then repeat this routine two more times, each time with a new person. Now, they’ve networked, learned other people’s wants and, if I have time, I can call on people to share what they want and there’s no resistance because it’s no longer their card.
  7. ‘Art gallery tour’ – this only works if you love flip charts: as you create each flip chart, tape them around the room, going clock-wise. When you return from a break, form groups of 3-6 people and position each group at a flip chart. Next, give them 3 minutes to review the flip chart they’re in front of before asking them to move to the next one (hat tip to Harv Eker).

I talked more about these techniques in the post “7 Deadly Mistakes to Avoid When Designing Your Next Seminar” and “How to get powerful audience participation every time” and “How to Keep Your Audience Leaning In”

The trick with all of these is to weigh impact and effect against time cost. Some, like dyad and peer-to-peer coaching, can be done in under 2 minutes (it’s a good idea to practice your instructions so you only have to explain the exercise once and not have to waste time confusing the audience by repeating yourself or giving two versions of instructions).

Whatever you choose, done right, a short exercise will set you apart (at most conferences I speak at, I’m the only one getting the audience involved) help your audience internalize and process the lesson and make the whole experience more memorable.

And that’s what you want right?