Thursday, October 12, 2017

Getting your audience physically involved in a speech or presentation

Back when the U.S. launched its war with Iraq, I was working for a nonprofit whose conference was coming up. Our board president needed to address a huge group of members, and wanted--without being too political--to somehow acknowledge the conflict, which had just begun and was much on people's minds. So I suggested a simple exercise: She could ask audience members to rise if they had different connections to the conflict: If they had served in the armed forces...had a relative who had served, or one serving now...worked for a company supplying the armed services...and so on.

It was a quiet and effective way to reflect what was already in the room and to acknowledge a contribution members were making in their personal lives, and really hit the mark. Because she asked them to stand and remain standing, by the end of the series, a majority of the room was on its feet, showing everyone the scope of how the war affected the group. And standing was a more visible acknowledgement than asking for a show of hands, and more involving.

I wish more speakers would do things to involve the audience physically in their talks. For starters, it keeps their attention focused. But there's another secret advantage to this tactic: Human brains are wired for synchronicity, and for imitating others' movements. So your audience is pre-disposed to cooperate when you ask them to participate as a group in this way.

Here are some performances and a commercial that might give you some ideas for what you can do to get an audience physically involved. Remember, these are *group* actions. You don't want to single people out, but get the whole room participating.
  1. Play the audience like an instrument: Musician Bobby McFerrin, at the World Science Festival, demonstrates how to make music using just the voices in the crowd, managing to conduct them and singing the topline melody himself. As he points out in the panel discussion following, it works all over the world, with every kind of audience. There's a link at the end to a longer discussion of what this has to do with science.
  2. Conduct the audience in singing and dancing--in their seats:  Tutu's "public waltz" gets the audience started with swaying, then arm movements that get larger and larger, then singing. It's a fantastic mix of movement and music that gets the whole audience involved (and here, you get the stage view, which includes some people moving asynchronously, but hey). A fun exercise that must have energized this crowd.
  3. Use the movement to show the crowd what it has in common: Just as my board president did, you can use physical movement to bring the crowd together in surprising ways. A great example is a commercial from TV2 Denmark on "All that we share," in which people are asked to group themselves by how they most commonly describe themselves, then asked to move into new groups based on different criteria, qualities they have in common. This wouldn't be too difficult to recreate, particularly if you are addressing a membership group or your entire organization.

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