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How to Deliver an Effective Speech Through Audience Engagement

To prepare for delivering an effective speech, here are five tips for successful audience involvement from Jesse Scinto, Lecturer in Professional Studies, and Associate Director for Curriculum and Development for Columbia’s Strategic Communication master’s program.

1. Choose your technique.

Audience participation encompasses a broad range of activities–from a simple show of hands, to requests for brief personal input, to role playing and games, to small group exercises. Each has its merits:

  • The show of hands is good for polling the audience and gaining real-time feedback. It lets audience members know where they stand with respect to the group.
  • Brief personal input reveals the diversity of experience in the room.
  • Role playing and games are excellent for practicing sales situations and interpersonal responses.
  • Group exercises allow participants to learn from each other.
  • Choose a technique that fits your objective and the allotted time.

2. Plan ahead.

Before asking for audience participation, think about the types of responses you might get. You want audience input to be meaningful and to help you make your point.

Be clear about your purpose and consider how audience participation will help build your case. Most importantly, think about what you’ll say if you don’t get the responses you expect. Audience participation should add value.

3. Use inclusive framing.

That is, ask your questions in such a way that most audience members would be able to respond. “Tell me about your most recent shopping experience” is something that all can respond to.

Don’t put people on the spot. Instead, make them feel competent to contribute. Along those lines, try to avoid superlative phrasings. A prompt like “Tell us about the best meal you ever had” may be harder to answer than “Tell us about a good meal.”

Inclusive questions are great for building a shared identity among the crowd.

4. Allow time for response.

Be clear about whether your question is rhetorical or real. Audiences are often unsure, so it helps to use phrases like “Who here” or “Who in this room” to elicit real responses.

Even if the question is rhetorical–meaning you don’t expect a verbal response–still leave time for participants to consider the question and how they would answer. It can be just a brief pause, but it’s important to let them digest your point. You can signal a rhetorical question with a simple phrase like “Think for a moment . . .”

5. Acknowledge contributions.

Always recognize an audience member’s contribution before moving on to the next point or participant, even if just to say “Good” or “Thank you.”

As you become more comfortable with audience participation, you can frame the responses to fit your point and refer back to participants’ contributions later in your presentation. Ask follow-up questions or invite others to react. Again, make the audience feel competent.

This article has been adapted from Scinto’s Fast Company article, “5 Tips for Powerful Audience Participation.”