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How to make your presentation interactive



Presenters, are you wondering how to make your presentation more interactive? Get some back-and-forth going between yourself and the audience? Go beyond a lecture and provide an experience?


My years of experience as a speaker and performer have taught me that the best presentations are a matter of talking “with” your audience, not talking “to” them. It should be a conversation because audience engagement builds interest and makes your message more memorable.


Before we dive in, here’s a qualifier: Not every presentation lends itself toward audience participation. If you’re imparting dry facts and data, then audience participation is probably not expected. Those are the times when you just have something to tell them. It’s not a discussion. Not up for debate. In fact, in these situations, I often recommend skipping the presentation and opting for an email or other methods to deliver the information.


Aside from those types of presentations, IMHO you should always seek to make your presentation as interactive as possible. Those are the presentations people remember.


That’s what this post is about: how to make your presentation interactive. When you’re done reading this blog, you should have actionable ideas you can use in your next presentation.


Ready? Let’s go.


Will interactivity take you out of your “flow”?


When talking with clients about building in more interaction, it’s not uncommon to get some pushback. One of the most common I hear is that some people don’t like the idea of people interacting or interrupting them during their presentation because they’re concerned it will break their “flow.”


I encourage my speakers to have the mindset that the presentation they are giving is for their audience first, themselves second. When we take on this approach, nothing is an interruption because we are focused on the connection and engagement with our audience. From a practical perspective, we have speaker notes to keep us on track no matter where the conversation may lead.


Secondly, it’s not an either/or proposition. You can be presenting “in the flow” and allow the audience to have their own “flow” (of thought, of engagement, etc.). It will be a shared flow. Both you and the audience will be absorbed in the message. It’s synergistic and questions from the audience fit into that synergy.



Start by letting your audience know you want interaction


The best way to initiate interaction with your audience is by telling them at the outset that this is an interactive session. Tell them that you hope your topic will spur lots of question in their mind and that they should feel free to raise their hand at any time during your presentation with a question or comment. (BTW, raise your hand when demonstrating asking a question – your body language will help reinforce your desire for interaction).


We live in a passive observing culture. Think about it: We ‘watch’ movies, television, speeches, concerts, TikTok videos. We go to school and listen to our professors as they lecture at us. As humans, we tend to take the safe road and that usually involves more passive behavior. Your audience is no different. They can’t read your mind – and unless you tell them differently, they will assume they are there to just listen (and not engage with you).


Make it clear that you want and encourage people interrupting, questioning, probing, and “kicking the tires” of your presentation. If there are lots of questions, then the chances are that your listeners are going to gain greater perspective and insight from your presentation.



Ask for questions throughout your presentation


If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I am a stickler for making sure speakers don’t wait until the end of their presentation to ask for questions. Instead, at several points during the talk, ask the audience, “What do you think of that? Does that make sense to you?” or “I’d love to hear your comments about this. What’s been your experience?”


When asking for questions, be specific. For example, you can ask, “What questions do you have about the [new employee engagement survey, approach, etc.] that I just described?”


This approach encourages questions that relate to the content you are sharing, rather than random ones that can pull you off course.


Language is important here. Asking “What questions do you have,” is more likely to solicit responses by implying you assume they have questions and you want to talk about them. Alternatively, “Do you have any questions?” tends to shut down a conversation by implying “I hope not. I just want to move on.”



Don’t rush – give them time


So many people just rush through their presentation—probably because they’re just trying to get the ordeal over! Some presenters are afraid that a pause may indicate that you’ve forgotten something or are fumbling for your next point. The opposite is actually the case: Silence helps create a space for questions.


Don’t be afraid of silence. In all my years in theatre—as an actor and a director—we call this a “pregnant pause” or “taking a beat.” It is very powerful for both the speaker and the audience as it creates tension and expectation. It can draw attention to the point you are making often more than speech.


When you ask for questions during your presentation, pause and wait for them. Count to ten in your head. Look around at the faces and see if you can find someone who looks like they have a question. People who are ready to speak usually show strong eye contact, and sometimes lean forward a bit.


Don’t answer questions right away…give it some thought


Another way to encourage interaction is to resist the urge to immediately answer a question from the audience. Think about what they’re asking and make certain you understand it before diving in. (Once again, a moment of silence is not bad here!) As a presenter, I regularly repeat the question and/or ask them for clarification: “So what you’re asking me is [X]. Did I hear that correctly?”


Pausing before you respond can also demonstrate to the questioner—and the entire audience—that you meant it when you said you wanted people to ask questions. It shows that you are taking the time to consider the question, which shows respect.


More importantly, pausing before answering a question can keep you from formulaic responses—"canned” answers. Answers that sound more like a dead end instead of an open invitation to a deeper conversation. Really think about the question and then answer thoughtfully.


Don’t move on until you’re sure the question is answered


Has this ever happened to you? You ask a question of a speaker or presenter and the answer they give you isn’t actually the answer to your question. It’s really frustrating! This can happen when a presenter misunderstands the question or perhaps the question was complex. And it is never a good experience for the audience member.


Here’s the remedy. When you as a presenter answer a question from your audience, always, always, always circle back and ask, “Did that answer your question?” or “Did I answer your question fully?” Your answer may have been good, but more insight might be needed. Most of the time, you’ll hear, “Yep, that’s good!” But if they are still confused, you have the opportunity to gain tremendous emotional connection with them by taking the time to ensure you are satisfying their request.


In fact, you can even go further, and ask everyone, “Did my answer makes sense to the rest of you?” This is a great way to spur more interaction and ensure it is clear.



What if you don’t know the answer to a question?


Simple. Admit it. There is great power in the words, “I don’t know.”


Don’t worry. No one assumes you know all. They know you’re just a human like the rest of us. Imperfect. Tell them you don’t know the answer to the question but promise you’ll get back to them with an answer.


Or (before you do that)—see if someone else in the audience has an answer to the question. “What about the rest of you? How would you answer this question? I know there’s a lot of knowledge in this room! Let’s open it up.” Once again, this can spur more interactivity.


Whatever you do, don’t bluff your way out of the predicament. People will see right through that pretense, and you will lose the audience. They will tune you out.


But what if no matter what you do, no one interacts?


It happens. You invite interaction and instead you hear crickets. Many people are shy about speaking up in large groups. Some of this may be cultural (in fact, for those of you who present to international audiences, please do your homework to determine cultural norms). Maybe there is a language, age, or educational barrier.


Don’t despair.


Here are some more ideas on how to gain more audience participation:

  • Solicit questions in advance

  • Allow audience members to write their questions down during the presentation and submit them throughout the session

  • Accept anonymous questions

  • Use participation tools (polls, word clouds, or online surveys)

  • Allow for small groups or “turn to your neighbor” time so audience members can discuss in smaller venues

  • Move physically closer to them and ditch the lectern (your body language speaks volumes so create a safe, personal environment)

  • And my favorite: “Prime the pump” by offering some sample questions, something like “Here’s a common question people ask me…”


How to make your presentation interactive


The best presentations are conversations—not monologues. They solicit engagement and gain credibility by interacting with the audience. Vibrant audience participation will take your presentation from “ho-hum, just another talk” to “Wow, that was really great!” Following the tips in this blog post will help your audience to stay focused, help you learn more about your audience and in turn allow you to deliver an effective, engaging presentation with real impact.


What questions do you have?


Did you like this post? You might like Going from ME to WE when giving a presentation.


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Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and skills to clients around the world. You can contact her at Marie@NobleEdgeConsulting.com.

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