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Use With Care: Audience Quick-Engagement Activities That Can Go Wrong


By Claudia W. Brogan

“Raise your hand if…” or “Turn to your neighbor and tell them….” These are the kind of words that can strike fear in the hearts of some audience members, while speakers may think they’re the most normal, invitational words in the world.

Cautionary tales show up as groans come from audience members when a speaker says these words. Activities or brief involvement questions can be very potent tools when used well; activities done without careful thought or intention can deflate the balloon of a good presentation in no time.

Just like any tool or technique, the use of audience quick-engagement tools can enhance the way that a speaker connects with his or her listeners and can give a good, quick read of audience members experiences, opinions or background. And just like any tool or technique, quick-engagement tools can help refresh audience members’ interest levels and reconnect them to the topic at hand.

But I have seen these tools used so frequently by speakers that these activities stop being effective, and instead start building hesitant responses or, even worse, resistance by audience members.

One specific suggestion that I make to speakers when they mention that they plan to start with the phrase “Raise your hand if….” is to use this technique quite sparingly, and to use this tool with intention. Resist temptation to over-use this strategy just because you believe it will “wake people up” and help them pay attention. When not done well, using these quick-engagement tools can do more harm than good.

Think of it as each audience member starting with a supply of “goodwill” toward you as a speaker. Each time that you ask audience members to take an action, or to participate in an icebreaker, you are increasing the level of risk. Each request takes out a cup or more of the allotment of “goodwill.” Keep in mind that each audience contains a combination of Introverts and Extraverts. Often this is a 50/50 balance among participants. Though extraverts may bring energy to spare and will happily serve as volunteers or hand-raisers, a skilled speaker will demonstrate sincere respect for the introverts that are present in the audience as well. For introverts, a request for them to raise their hands or to turn to their neighbor will “cost them some energy” from their finite bucket of goodwill that they bring. Most are willing to be good sports and will oblige the first few times when asked, but a good speaker knows to not ask that indulgence too many times.

How should speakers handle these “voluntary audience engagement requests” without losing momentum, or depleting goodwill from audience members? 

One specific recommendation I have is for the speaker to carefully observe the physical and facial responses from audience members. At the first sign of embarrassed looks, or of holding back from the action that’s requested, a speaker should curtail further requests, at least until later during the speech. Once audience members resist an action-request, it is best not to ask further examples of “Let’s see a show of hands: how many of you…..[hail from the Midwest?] or [have children?] or [are attending your first conference?].”  As soon as this technique fails to yield a response, or the number of raised hands decreases, the technique is no longer serving its purpose.

What are the culprits that should be used with such care?

Frequent examples, in addition to the ones listed above, are:

“Please stand if you are a first time visitor.”

“Form a group of three or four members in your row, and introduce yourselves.”

“Take 3 or 4 minutes to write your responses right on the handout.”

I invite you now to pause for a moment and stop to consider the value that could be provided by these invitations, when done well and handled with care. Each of these examples is likely to be based on good intentions, wanting to demonstrate hospitality or to have a participant stop to reflect about their own lessons learned.  But when just “tossed out there” because they sound like a good idea, these requests can fall flat like a pancake.

How can we use these techniques more effectively? 

The more closely that you watch excellent speakers and facilitators, you will start to notice that they rarely just announce instructions for an audience-activity without a respectful statement that leads up to it. For instance, a speaker might say, “In a moment, I’ll ask you to take just 2 or 3 minutes to write about an example of one of your most effective supervisors” or “I invite you to turn to one person next to you to explain a specific goal you have for attending this conference.”

In each example here, you will notice my suggestions for handling quick audience-engagement activities like a pro:

  • Give simple, clear, concise instructions
  • Only ask audience members to do engagement-activities which relate directly to your topic
  • Make a point to invite your audience to participate, demonstrating respect for all in the room, gauging especially the hesitation you may note from introverts

Used well, these tools and techniques can add spark and engagement; when over-used, quick audience-engagement activities can do more harm than good.

As ever, consider your audience and that will inform each step of the way toward being your best Speaker-Self.


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.