I was at a sustainability award ceremony once, and going towards the end of the whole thing, the 5 or so winners along with the host of the award were on stage. Then the host was told there were still 5 minutes left before the start of the next part of the program. Until now everything went fine, I think the host did a decent job, everyone was talkative. But what came after that was just weird.
The spontaneity gone disastrous
The host spontaneously had to think up something and so he said: “You know this word ‘sustainability’ it’s been used so often, it has received such inflation that people don’t know what to think of it anymore. Let’s all find a word that might be good to replace this ‘blurry’ word called ‘sustainability’.” Then he pointed at one of the award winners – need I remind you, they were on stage while several hundred people from business and politics were watching: “You, what do you think? What can be a good replacement for the word sustainability?” The host put the winner on the spot and everyone was a bit shocked at this behavior. How should someone think of something within a few seconds without preparation in front of an audience of several hundred when you can ponder for several hours over this thing? I would call this the worst case scenario for including participants. The award winner froze and I would think he was slightly embarrassed. So how do you include participants in a presentation?
Start small and increase with time
If you ask a medium or hard question in the beginning, people might still feel a bit hesitant to answer. E.g. a question like: “Would you like to tell us how the economy has affected your business?” There IS a small chance someone might say something, but you shouldn’t risk it – it’s more likely the audience isn’t “warmed up” yet. In the beginning it might be easier to start with something “light”. Something where the people only need to raise their hands. So to rephrase the question: “Whose business here was affected by the bad economy?” And you will see some people raise their hands.
Seeing raised hands, the audience member will also notice he or she is in the same boat as many other participants – this will not only increase the trust towards you, but it will increase the trust towards the other participants and he or she will be more likely to open up when a more difficult question is asked later in the presentation. So as a small pointer, try to ask a simple question in the beginning and a question where you anticipate about at least half the people to raise their hands.
Assessing the audience
You can also use the questions towards another goal: To assess your audience. Sometimes when doing a sustainability workshop I would sort of know who the audience is and what they know already regarding the area of sustainability (usually the host would tell me beforehand so I can prepare my presentation/workshop accordingly). But every now and then there IS a slip-up and asking questions at the beginning is like “insurance”. Because the content of the workshop will of course change depending on the audience. It wouldn’t make sense to talk about “what is global warming” to environmental scientists or to talk about the chemical composition of air emissions and its effects on the atmosphere to a group of students that are not sure who Al Gore is. So ask a simple question to make sure you’re speaking to the right audience. In my case, I could ask: “Has anyone seen ‘An Inconvenient Truth’?” or “Has anyone read ‘The Limits to Growth’?” Don’t just ask the questions because you HAVE to – ask questions where you are interested to know the answer.
So next time you prepare a presentation, plan in to throw in some questions to the audience.