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

Updated to Business, Speaking on January 23, 2023.

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?