4 Ways to Actively Engage Your Audience

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Let’s begin this post off with a little story. Once upon a time, I was a thespian in high school. My biggest roles, tied, were:

  1. Lucy in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” (And oh — my brother played Linus too.)
  2. Sister Sarah in “Guys and Dolls.”

(Side note: I could act and sing — but could NOT dance.) Also, I got paid a whole $750 to act in a series of after school like video series too. Best 2 days off from high school and easiest money of my life.

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But, aside from dancing like Elaine from Seinfeld, it was otherwise FUN to take the stage and screen! It also got me over my speaking in public fright as a high introvert. It was also liberating in yet another way too, because having another role or character freed me from playing my own personal ‘role.’ (This might only make sense to my fellow Geminis out there — but I digress.)

I shared this story today with one of the students on rotation with me this year…in pharmacy (not theatre — ha!) In our chat this morning, we were discussing audience engagement after one of our meetings this weekend that she pitched in on and helped out with…we were discussing it from the “edutainment” and learner engagement perspective.

The LAST thing I personally ever want to see is the audience falling asleep on me WHILE I’m speaking. (And yes, that has happened to me. Teaching pharmacy law for 2–3 hour clips at a time can only be so exciting.) I’d almost prefer to have an obstreperous or loud audience than the talk I’m giving be better than a benzodiazepine in sleep induction!

I described other acting concepts to the rotation student this morning. The ideas of “call time” — or the time you’re supposed to report to the stage to rehearse or get ready for a performance. It’s supposed to give you time to get into character. Also, there’s an idea in theatre of not “breaking the curtain” — meaning, once you go into call time — that means you don’t come out again until you’re officially taking your role on stage, and you don’t talk to the real world until after the last bow of the play or musical and you re-enter the real world again as yourself.

But, while these techniques work for really HUGE crowds — like keynotes with 1,000 or more people, I don’t think they’re great for giving talks to smaller crowds. If your crowd is under 200 people, I think it’s actually good to break the curtain and try to mix it up with your audience BEFORE you speak. That way, you can understand who they are, why they came to your talk, and find out what they want to get from it.

Here are a few techniques I’ve tried in the past and continue to try for better participant engagement:

How to Actively Engage Your Audience, Anti-Acting Style:

  1. Pre-talk test or self assessment: I had everyone this weekend at a talk I had on burnout take a quiz at the beginning of the talk to see how burned out they are. While I didn’t solicit scores (people may not want to share in a group setting this information), it was important for people to benchmark and see where they are personally in the topic of your talk. Another talk I attended this spring gave a “Should I be an entrepreneur?” quiz during their talk. The more you can get people to personalize the meaning of your content to themselves as individuals as a prep point, the better.
  2. Ask questions: Just get the audience to blurt out answers and ask a ton of questions during your talk! While this can be a double-edged sword if you have someone in the audience who occupies too much airspace, there are ways to manage that, and I still think that’s better than stone cold silence and sleep. Again, rather have too much airtime by one than a lot of them in dreamland/nap time.
  3. Pass out something for people to think about before your talk to assimilate DURING the talk: I saw at another meeting this past weekend a technique used was for every attendee at a session to receive a post it note during the session. They had to individually write three items on the post it: 1. What they would START using the info at the meeting, 2. What they would STOP doing after hearing the info at the meeting, and 3. What they would KEEP doing, if anything around habits or skills around the meeting topic. Then, audience members were encouraged then to post the notes in the room. It helped share ideas from not just one person (the speaker), but EVERYONE in the room. Dig!
  4. Give a freemium out in follow up after your talk: I’ll refer to a product, book or spreadsheet that I’ve created in a talk if relevant, then ask the audience to hit me up with their email address or business card at the end if they want me to send them a copy of the item mentioned. This not only engages the audience in post-talk conversation, but it actually EXTENDS the conversation and audience engagement, which could lead to other talks, ideas shared, and services provided. You never know. But, the point is that the “talk time” isn’t the ONLY time to engage with your audience. You can engage with them before, during AND AFTER if you so choose as a champion of ongoing active learning. This is one of many reasons why I loved Priya Parker’s book. Her point here was that a great gathering isn’t just the actual gathering. It’s anticipation of the gathering leading up to it, the live gathering AND the follow up after. Dig.

There you go, current and future stars of stage and scene. Go ahead and break the curtain if your meeting is smaller — it will help get your audience in the learning zone! (And keep you out of the ZZZs zone…😎, not 😴.)


Erin L. Albert never went to acting/theatre/dance schools. But she is a pharmacist/lawyer/speaker/entrepreneur and author, in addition to being a director of education for a pharmacy association. Opinions here are her own.

Pharmacist, author, lawyer, entrepreneur and The Edutainer Podcast Producer. Opining is my own. www.erinalbert.com

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