How to increase audience engagement? 

This is a question that I get asked fairly often because people will attend one of my keynotes either virtual or in-person and have the experience of like, “Wow, that was so interactive.That was so engaging. How do I do that?” Having spoken to groups of over 8,000 having done hundreds and hundreds of keynotes for some of the top universities and organizations and conferences on the planet, I am going to share 3 stories that will help you make your own presentations more interactive and engaging. 

Blog Note: The following is an adapted and edited transcript of one of our daily YouTube tutorials. We know sometimes it is easier to scroll through written content which is why we are publishing here. Because of that, there may be typos or phrases that seem out of context. You’ll definitely be able to get the main idea. To get the full context, visit our YouTube channel here. And if you want to watch the video on this topic specifically, you can scroll down to the bottom of this post to access it as well.

The first story. Let’s just start off with a failure because I do think that mistakes are the portals of discovery. This was uh toward the beginning of covid pandemic. I was doing a giant virtual keynote um for Arizona State University for the orientation so a bunch of new students coming into college for the first time. It was actually set the keynote was set to be in this giant baseball stadium in Arizona. It got moved to a virtual context.  

Now, I have done and do a whole ton of virtual interactive, virtual connection labs, workshops, keynotes. I have an immense amount of trust usually in participants. The way that I use that trust is by inviting them to contribute and engage rather than creating a one-way stage on the stage dynamic. I’ll invite them to use the chat, I’ll invite them to participate. If I’m in person, I will regularly ask people questions that are not rhetorical that I’ll ask for responses from. I’ll pick out people hear what they have to say, echo it back through the mic, and then riff off of that for a little bit. And so, every presentation really does feel fit and tailored to that group.

First Story

Now, in this particular case, while I’m giving this virtual presentation, asking people to participate holding up We! Connect Cards, inviting them to answer questions uh in the chat to kind of keep this conversation going. I thought it was brilliant. Unbeknownst to me, there was somebody or a group of people that had planned to show up to this keynote and completely hijack the experience and redirect people to an Instagram live where they were hosting their own orientation keynote. I share that story first, a painful story first because when you go to increase audience engagement, do know that you are opening yourself up to the unknown. Now, I had a mentor wants to just define the word adventure for me by embarking and doing something that you have never done before that where the outcome is uncertain. When you ask for audience engagement, it does make it an adventure because you don’t know exactly what people are going to say.

Just know that there is that risk that opens up. Now, that said where the vast majority of people in that virtual keynote, engage and present and listening and participating and meeting other people that they were about to spend the next 4 years of college with? Yes. The flip side to my own failure there is to remember that your one critic or curmudgeon in a group does not define everybody else’s. And yet, most presenters and speakers have a tendency, myself included, had especially a tendency to focus on that one person who was like, “I don’t like this.” And recognizing that they’re… If you’re doing a good job, they’re an outlier. Right? It’s the most people are probably really listening and absorbing and gaining value from what you’re saying. 

Second Story

Story number 2 comes from working with North Dakota State University. I was working with a group of student leaders helping them train them to make virtual engagement really easy. One of the students came back to me after a couple months of working together a number  of sessions, came back to me with a brilliant idea that he had created all by himself. He called it billboards. That’s the name we’ll give it. This technique is to invite your group to create a billboard. This works especially well if you’re in a virtual context or if you are at tables and chairs and you can actually have like a flip chart paper in the middle. To experientially show you, I’m actually just going to walk you through what he did. He went into Google. And this is a little secret or a tip in Google that many people don’t know about. If you don’t use Google suite, you can use another whiteboard tool. 

But in Google, when you go to create a new document, most people are familiar with Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Forms, etc. But if you hold over more, there are all these other options. One of them is Google Jamboard. And it’s one of my favorite and most simple online whiteboard tools. Because you can create multiple panels or billboards. I can draw something here and then scroll over to the next frame. In Zoom, what this student leader did which was absolutely brilliant was dividing people up into breakouts on Zoom and he said, “Whatever number breakout room  you’re in, go to that number billboard.” He had… Let’s say, I don’t know exactly how many. Let’s say they had 10 breakouts. There were 10 billboards there. The group’s goal was to create a billboard a collage of things their interests hobbies challenges. He had a series of prompts that he invited people to contribute. At the end of 10 minutes, the group had created this visualization of what their team represented. This is really great depending on your context. A really great idea to take this billboard idea and make use of it in your own context. Ideally, it would be content specific. If you’re doing a presentation on astrophysics, not sure why you’re watching this video. But if you’re doing a presentation on astrophysics, having people create billboards about the concept of astrophysics that you’re talking about in that  particular moment could be a really useful strategy to make your content your meeting  come alive and increase that audience engagement. To create a little bit of a billboard.

Third Story

It comes from an engagement I was working with Crayola, some leaders in Crayola to make their presentations more engaging. One of the things they did… (I’ll keep anonymous who and where) but the leader that I was working with sent over to me a whole bunch of slides that they had created. It was like 47 slides,I think. And very text-heavy, very technical detailed information. Yet, we were meeting to try to increase audience engagement. Here’s the tip that I gave to them that you can  take and steal and adapt to your own context.  

All I did, before I actually even looked at any of the content, just in thumbnail view on Powerpoint, I said, “I actually know what I can do right now to increase the participation and engagement in your presentation as you go through this.” What I did is every 7 slides, I inserted a blank slide into that presentation. I said, “I don’t know what the content is before and after this. But right about there, you need to do something to invite people’s contribution rather than promote their consumption.” That concept was really useful or a useful framework for us because then we dove in and we looked at, “Okay, what’s the slide right before the one that this is on?” Okay, cool. Can we turn that into a question? Or better yet what we decided was that for some slides.

The technique was I’m going to show you 3 slides and I’m not going to say anything. I’m going to leave total silence for 10 seconds each. I want you to just digest and try to take away the main ideas or come up with any questions that you have. Here we go. 30 seconds go by. And at the end of that, they just asked… What struck you about what you noticed? Or what stuck out to you? Or what was the main takeaway? Or what questions do you have about this material? And do you see how… You know, I think if we’re ever using slides, we forget sometimes that people are  literate and they can read them. Sometimes, it’s really useful to mix up the pace to promote audience engagement to just have people quietly read. When you leave silence in a presentation,  it is remarkably brain shifting because we’re so used to that silence being filled by somebody talking.

I hope these 3 ideas were really useful to you coming from a failure from Arizona State. A really brilliant idea from a student leader at north Dakota State University. And a clever idea that we collaboratively came up with at Crayola. Take them, use them. If you have questions, obviously, there are 150 other techniques on how to improve and enhance audience engagement.This is one of the things that I do for a living is work with people who want to ramp up their audience engagement. I’ve created a number of tools so like that quote that I held up earlier, it comes from a deck of cards that I created called We! Engage Cards. That’s a super useful  tool to increase engagement. You can hand out and there’s a whole bunch of ways to use those cards tailored to your content and your material.


No time for a workshop?

Use this FREE “Getting Started" Kit.

You’ll get a downloadable PDF that has:

  21engaging questions that build trust

  12 creative uses for the questions

  A link to video tutorials for group activities

  ✓ A 10-page excerpt of Ask Powerful Questions: Create Conversations that Matter by Will and Chad

You have successfully joined the movement of people around the globe filling their communities and organizations with conversations that matter! After you confirm your subscription, you'll receive a PDF with 12 powerful questions and some ideas on how to use them. #askpowerfully