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Interacting with the audience: Get engaged!

June 20, 2014

Beaumont-Hamel_lightbox[1]One of my standard ways of opening a meeting is to berate the audience for not replying to my ‘good evening’ with a ‘good evening, Mr President’!  Why do I do that?  Well, it’s one way of interacting with the audience, of engaging with the audience, right from the off.   Does it work?  Can’t say, it may irritate some, but it does wake and warm them up!

The most common form of audience interaction is to ask questions.  It is the device of the teacher, the lecturer.  They know that if they don’t keep asking questions the class will fall asleep.  Questions keep the students alert and engaged.

Here are three common types of questions: the hands-up, the Q&A and the loaded.  Most common is the hands-up: who here likes kissing? Then there’s the Q&A: what makes for a good kiss?  Finally, there is my favourite, the loaded question: Who here agrees that lovers kiss better than spouses?!!

Asking questions is the most basic level of audience interaction.  More advanced is when you get the audience to do things which are more active: to stand up, or talk to the person sitting next to them, or write down their thoughts.  This can be very powerful.  Suppose if I were to give each member of the audience a number, as follows: 1234, 1234…

Then I tell them that this year is the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War.  This is an event which on occasions still overwhelms me with grief.  No, I didn’t fight in it, thank you!  But my grandfather did and he was severely and ultimately mortally wounded in it.  What I can never get to terms with is the sheer catastrophic enormity of the loss of life – and all for no meaningful purpose, none whatsoever.

Six years or so ago, I took my son to see the battlefield sites in Picardy, which are humbling and immensely moving. Most moving of all is the Canadian memorial and museum at Beaumont Hamel in honour of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.  There they have kept many of the trenches in good condition and you can get a genuine feel for the conditions experienced by the soldiers – especially chilling when we were there as the ground was covered in snow.  The trenches are extraordinarily close to each other – barely a hundred yards away – that’s under ten seconds to the likes of Usain and me!

Now I ask the audience to stand up. I tell them that at 7:30am on the 1st of July 1914, the 1st day of the battle of the Somme, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment went over the top of their trenches and charged the enemy lines.  I then ask all those with the numbers 1, 2 and 3 to please be seated.  The Royal Newfoundland Regiment lost 75% of its men that day.  In half an hour.  Only one in four was left standing. Those who remained standing did so not because they were braver, tougher or smarter than those who fell.  On the day they were just luckier.

I ask all to sit down. Interaction can be a highly effective way of engaging an audience – and indeed forcefully making a point.


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