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Avoiding the Pitfalls of Group Exercises for Speakers


By Claudia W. Brogan

Recently a budding speaker asked me to attend a speech she was delivering and provide feedback for her, with suggestions for improvement. Maggie opened her speech with an intriguing quotation, captured the attention of the audience and proceeded to deliver three excellent learning tips.

Midway through the presentation, though, I watched as Maggie asked—without much instruction or introduction—that her audience members move into groups of four to complete a worksheet of questions. What I saw happen in the room was a bit of a chill: audience members shifted from comfortable, supportive postures into uncomfortable awkwardness. The spell was broken: the atmosphere of mutual support changed into participants’ looking around from side to side to try to figure out where to move and how to quickly form small groups. Without much clarification from the presenter, there was confusion, then moving around of chairs and of coffee cups and belongings. Inevitably, the math of “groups of four” did not fit precisely and a pair of participants moved from one side of the room to join someone who was solitary. It took nearly two minutes of wasted time and self-conscious readjustments until the small groups began to discuss the worksheets. What had been a collegial spirit in the room transformed into audience members doing the best they could with unclear instructions and an exercise that was neither well-introduced nor well-guided.

The dazzling prospect of including “some kind of exercise” into one’s presentation is lauded in articles and resource guides, yet doing so without careful planning and graceful execution can actually do more harm than good for a speaker.

Simply asking for audience responses to open-ended questions or telling participants to move into small groups will not establish positive interactions. How, then, to provide these opportunities and invite good participation in audience activities?

The following three suggestions will help you implement well, the next time that you have a good idea about involving your audience members.

First of all, I recommend to you (and I recommended to Maggie) that you make you sure to invite your audience to participate, not instruct them to do so. Your word choices, when giving instructions, will make quite a difference in setting a tone of respect. Any time you invite people to join in an exercise, make sure to provide a “graceful out” to those individuals who feel awkward and prefer not to join in. Members who wish not to participate may simply move to a side area of the room and observe, until the close of the exercise.

Secondly, I suggest that speakers keep in mind that up to half of their audience members are likely to be introverts. In your audience, some people will enthusiastically agree to relocating chairs and supplies over to different parts of the room and to pairing up with a stranger whom they have not yet met. But keep in mind that for many people, this is distressing and involves taking a sizable risk. With that in mind, it is best to provide simple structure for the group discussions, such as a list of prompting questions on a worksheet, or a handy guide for them to examine together.

One refreshing idea to keep in mind is that the word itself, “facilitator,” means to make something simple. So, as a presenter, create simple straightforward instructions and a clear purpose for this upcoming exercise in your presentation. Consider the experience from the perspective of your most introverted participants, and do everything you can to make this simple for them.

Finally, once you see that groups are formed and early discussion begins, step back and let the process unfold. Resist temptation to try to deliver additional instructions or comments, once the groups conversations are underway. Interrupting their discussion is likely to break the flow and create another uncomfortable quiet: a speaker trying to “talk over the group noises” will interrupt the interactions, and will discourage participants from resuming their discussions. After the group discussions have begun, the facilitator’s job is to watch carefully, to listen, and observe. Collect examples of group participation, watch for patterns, and note successes: these specific examples will be quite useful when you as facilitator provide a focused, effective wrap-up to the group exercise by debriefing with summary and opening the floor to members’ remarks.

Give careful thought and preparation to the way that an audience activity may be a good idea to include in your next presentation: conducting the activity with grace and clarity will help your audience members feel the ideas of your presentation come to life.

For further reading, these two excellent articles provide techniques to help you prepare, the next time you decide to include group activities in your presentation:



Claudia Brogan is a speaker, trainer and facilitator who helps organizations by coaching presenters, leading collaborative meetings and problem-solving with groups and teams. Reach out to see how she can help you. Contact Claudia via email at claudiabrogan @ gmail.com, through LinkedIn, or by phone at 404-849-5182.