How to get powerful audience participation every time

Updated to Business, Speaking on January 23, 2023.

I’m a sucker for audience participation – the more they respond the happier I am.

The trick is how to get it.

Maybe you lead staff meetings, present to customer prospects, lead seminars or present from the main stage – it doesn’t matter – audience involvement is always a plus.

When your audience is involved in the learning process they learn better, remember more and give you all “5’s” in the evaluation. And if you’re in the speaking business, like me, they refer more business your way. Nice.

In this post I’ll show you my fail-safe way to get any audience involved (I’ve used this with prison guards, nurses, CEO’s and even garbage collectors) – first let’s look at what happens if you don’t.

Why you need audience participation

Your audience’s attention span is no greater than a Goldfish

Unless you juggle chainsaws, your audience will drift off – they can’t help it. One recent (and slightly disturbing) study, conducted by Microsoft, discovered Canadians’ attention span has dropped in the last 16 years from about 12 seconds to that of a Goldfish (9 seconds).

Add that we have notoriously terrible memories and you, the teacher, speaker, team leader, boss, have an uphill battle.

It was out of desperation I first dabbled into the world of “experiential learning.”

I started with elaborate games that involved bits of string, elastic bands, index cards and marshmallows and a vague hope that a lesson would emerge.

If you’ve ever been in a room of full-grown adults getting down-right giddy about their marshmallow being higher than some other team’s, then you know why team games are so popular.

Don’t get me wrong – these are brilliant games and, if you’re a skilled facilitator, you can pull valuable insights from your audience. But it takes time.

As I transitioned from workshops to keynote speaking I didn’t have time for games. I needed quick and dirty ways to get my audience diving into my lessons.

That’s when I worked out a quick formula for dyads.

Enter the Dyad

A dyad is any exercise with 2 people, triad is 3, quad is 4, awkward is 17 (but, I digress).

The beauty of a dyad is they’re fast, they get 100% participation, and (if done right), everyone likes them.

Instructions for my fail-safe, damn-the-torpedoes dyad sounds like this:

“In a minute I’m going to ask you to turn to the person next to you.”

“Some of you might find you’re in a group of three – that’s OK, but try to form a group of two (note: in small venues, I will quickly help them form groups of two – some adults have trouble with math).”

“Share with your partner ‘When are times at work you get distracted’ (or whatever).”

“Okay, you have 90 seconds, Go!”

The set-up order is important:

  1. get organized – people hate to be left out so help them form their dyad (it doesn’t matter if there are a couple groups of 3, but don’t leave anyone sitting alone wondering where all their friends went.)
  2. give instructions
  3. set a deadline
  4. add urgency and energy

Hint: have them stand while in their dyad and the energy in the room shoots up another notch.

In a 60 minute speech I’ll have three dyads, plus, after my summary, one peer-to-peer coaching dyad. Time after time I’m the only speaker in a multi-day event getting audience participation – that stands out.

What if you’ve never done this before

When I encourage speakers to include audience participation in their presentation I often get push-back. I get it – in some ways it’s riskier to get the audience involved: what if they don’t participate?

Even though it might be completely new to you – it doesn’t take very long before you’ll love seeing your audience digging into the lesson and sharing ideas with their partner.

You’ll be hooked.

I suggest you start small – next time you lead a meeting, throw in a dyad. Or at the end of your next keynote set up a dyad so partners can coach each other on their next steps. It won’t eat up much time and you’ll experience an immediate change in energy.

I detail the dyad and 2 more of my favourite audience interactions in the post “Ban Boring” – read this, it’ll serve you well.