Turning up the heat: Top tips for audience debate and discussion

Gary Morrison says get interactive and impart joy into training and your audience will leave with more than the intended learning outcomes, they’ll leave energised and passionate!

From Brexit, to Trump versus Clinton, we Brits love a good debate and discussion! Amplified by the explosion of smart technology and new social media networks, 24/7 news and opinion via digital television and the internet, sharing your opinion with the world has never been easier. So why is it, when many of us come to prepare a presentation or training session, we revert to the comfort of teacher and pupil, standing at the front and talking ‘at’ our audience as opposed to getting them involved?

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The art of conversation

Avoiding the ‘tumbleweed moment’ requires the ‘Human Connection’ – we must build a relationship with our audience when speaking publicly or the only knowledge we risk imparting is the colour of the walls and the ticking of the clock.

The most important tip I can give you is to always think of your presentation as a dialogue and not a monologue. It should be an interactive experience and not a one-way communication with you doing all the talking.

Here are some of why top tips for engaging your audience and imparting a little joy along the way!

Get personal

In the glare of the spotlight it’s often easy to lose sight of this simple fact: your audience are human beings. They eat similar breakfast foods to you, watch some of the same TV programmes and likely share many of life’s passions with you and your peers. Whether it’s the current news agenda, political debate, football score of even winner of I’m a Celebrity, working in discussion around like-minded content, even if just for your ice-breaker can really bring a group together. Just make sure you do some research on the group ahead of training so as not to throw in too many curve balls!

Engaging your audience and achieving learning does not always mean you must stick to the core topic content either. Here’s a great example of a session held with workers in the oil and gas industry whereby their trainer has been tasked with identifying how risk averse they are. Now, many of these people work in high hazard environments every day, so asking them about the risks involved in gas leaks or fire containment pretty much mirrors most of the training they’ll likely have had and runs the risk of switching them off. A clever trainer I’ve witnessed took a different approach and it got the entire group talking and working together, which was ultimately the desired outcome when teaching people about risk assessment.  The presenter took his audience out of the work zone and focused on risk-taking in everyday life, asking the audience to rate how risky they believe it is to swim a certain distance out to sea, or cross a busy road without looking, for example. With the approach, the trainer could gather rich data about how risk averse people were in their home lives and use these non-threatening scenarios to teach about assessing risks. The group left the room talking excitedly about the content and the awareness of how to assess a risk in life and work had been imparted. Just an example, but a good one!

Energise with real-time polling

Want to know what your group is really thinking? Investing in a good audience response system (cue the Who Wants to be a Millionaire dramatic lights down moment!) will enable you to run live Q&As at the touch of a button, whether you’ve prepared for them or want to run one on the spot. This technology really can be your wingman; if you feel you’re losing the attention of your audience, or simply want to check in on their learnings throughout your session. You can use apps downloaded onto individual smartphones which relies on the audience remembering to bring them in, or you can purchase a complete system which includes bespoke handsets.

Polling a group with an audience response system enables you to keep respondents’ answers and opinions anonymous which typically achieves greater engagement than using a simple show of hands. Asking people to vote anonymously on a contentious or personal issue gives great scope for discussion and debate without singling out individuals in the room.

Change tactic

Science says the maximum most humans can concentrate for is about 15 to 20 minutes, and as most presentations and training sessions are likely to last an hour or more, it is vital that you use different techniques to shake things up and keep them engaged. Also called ‘pattern interrupts’, you could use any of the following: live Q&A, change speakers (if you have the resource luxury), share some audiovisual e.g. short movie, or incorporate some form of physical activity. 

Survey as you go

Every good presenter will have an objective and learning outcome in mind when pulling together a training session. Even if your group is meticulous with filling out your feedback forms, it’s often difficult to ascertain the level of understanding they have of your topic. Using some of the latest technologies you can pause at any point in your session and pose a question or survey the audience to check that they understand your training. Whilst to the rest of the group, responses are anonymous, you as the trainer have access to every person’s responses, so if an individual is recurrently answering your questions incorrectly, you could make a note to follow up with them later. This is also a great tool for reinforced learning should many of your group get the answer wrong.

The last tip which sums up all the above, is this: Always remember: your audience are human – they want to chat, interact and challenge you – remember that it’s all about them and your presentation skills will improve instantaneously.





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