Thursday, August 21, 2008

engage your audience with new media

Last week, I spoke to the Washington chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators about social networking, blogging and other so-called "new" media tools for communicators. From the start, this speaking engagement posed a number of challenges. It was the dreaded after-dinner talk, meaning I needed to be super-engaging. The crowd was due to number close to 100, ensuring extra work to keep that size crowd engaged. The venue didn't allow for Internet access, eliminating the chance for live demonstrations of any of my examples. So my biggest challenge would be using old-fashioned tools--slides, a mic and my live speaking skills--to describe a new frontier of communications.

The premise for the talk--that professional communicators lag behind audiences in use of new media tools, and need to catch up--prompted me to rethink my own approach as a speaker, and to interject some new-media tools into the actual presentation. The idea that communicators should follow the audience led me to these changes in what I'd normally do as a speaker--changes I recommend you try in your next speech:

  • Open with the audience's questions. I did this for two reasons. First, I wanted to underscore the point of my speech, which recommended looking to the audience for direction when choosing new-media tools -- and it struck me that I needed to walk-the-talk on that score. Today's audiences are used to voting on the outcomes of reality shows and publishing their comments on blogs, so it's safe to assume they have things they want to share and say. The second reason was far more practical: In a crowd of professional communicators, with some participants just starting to use social networking and blogs and others well advanced, it's nearly impossible to gauge the level of detail needed. The organization elicited questions from registrants in advance, and I noted those, but opened it to any other inputs before I began. By the time we went around the room, I was able to get a sense of the room--and to let questioners know which of their topics would be addressed in my presentation.

  • Create an electronic handout: The group's administrator asked whether I had a handout or wanted my slides reproduced for the participants as a takeaway. And I said no, because I planned to craft a blog post that would serve as an electronic "handout." Much of the presentation included examples of websites where blogging and social networking were used for corporate and organizational communications--so what better way to share links than a blog? Because I let the group know about it in advance, they included a link to the "handout" when they emailed participants to get their evaluations. I also announced it at the talk, and offered to send the link to anyone who gave me a business card. (Lesson one in using new-media tools for communicators: You have to promote them as you would any other communications tool.) It works for my business, too, driving interested traffic to my blog.

How did it work for the speaker? I admit this technique--giving over your talk, at least initially, to the audience--won't sound appealing to the faint of heart. But I'd still recommend it. It ensures you get firsthand information about what the audience wants to hear, energizes the listeners and demonstrates that their views will be heard. No need to wonder what they want to hear: By the time I started the "real" talk, I knew my presentation would cover topics the audience preferred. Reviews, official and unconventional (see below) were excellent.

This is one situation where it pays to keep your own remarks brief, to allow for more questions; you'll also need to stop the questions after a reasonable amount of time to start your own talk. Did I also close with questions and answers? Absolutely, knowing that my topic would kick up more questions than I could possibly answer. I also used some tools I'd use in any talk, moving into the audience during both question time and my own presentation, which helped to keep the large audience visually and personally engaged. And, having read up on my attendees in advance, I asked one attendee to elaborate on my example concerning his employer, acknowledging and gaining his firsthand experience all at once.

For the audience? Well, in keeping with the night's topic, I gained several new Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts and Twitter followers from the audience, ensuring that we can continue to network. A few also chose to post comments on the don't get caught news & info blog on related posts, here and here. The evaluations gave the approach high marks, and my web traffic, followup emails and other contacts from the audience tell me they're still engaged. I also think it's hard to beat the hands-on nature of what we did--people got so enthused that they helped shoot the video and used the camera to pose extra questions. I had a crowd of commenters and questioners gathered around me at the end of the talk, and a pile of their business cards, with several from new potential clients. (Photo of one of my questioners captured from the Flip video camera footage, a neat additional feature of the camera.)