A business event revolves around its speakers — and speakers thrive when there’s event audience engagement. Audience participation in presentations might seem like something that happens in the moment, but there are techniques and technologies you can employ ahead of time to encourage it. To ensure your speakers aren’t faced with a sea of blank stares and the sound of crickets, create a strategy to maximize audience engagement.

With the growth in online participation, crafting engaging virtual events has become even more important. Many businesses are still conducting their meetings virtually, and attendees are feeling Zoom fatigued, so finding ways to stimulate them is crucial. You also have to rise above any distractions that might be present on the attendee’s end.

Read on for tips to move your audience participation from awkward to impactful, whether your event is live and in-person or virtual.

1. Train speakers to engage the audience

Even experienced speakers get nervous about public speaking sometimes. Unfortunately, those nerves can translate into audience avoidance. Even speakers who don’t get stage fright can neglect to connect with the audience. Instead, they treat their time on stage as a type of performance, aiming to entertain instead of engage.

These issues can be magnified in a virtual event, where the audience is already physically removed from the speaker. To bridge the distance between the speaker and the audience, it helps to make your speaker as comfortable as possible. Be sure they have water or other refreshments, and if you are incorporating an online or virtual element, ensure that your speaker is familiar with the tools and technology that will be used to record them. Even better, do a quick run-through before the event — which can double as a check of your tech equipment, too.

Hybrid events with online and in-person attendees are becoming more common. A gentle reminder can encourage your speaker to engage virtually as well as with your live attendees.

2. Use icebreakers to make the audience more comfortable sharing

When thinking about how to engage the audience in an event, there are a variety of tried-and-true methods to break the ice.

  • The show of hands: Have your speakers prepare a question or two to ask right off the bat. This is a classic for drawing in the audience.
  • The voluntary share: Ask for volunteers to share why they’re here and what they hope to get out of the talk.
  • The group exercise: Depending on the size of the crowd and how much time a speaker has, a quick group exercise is another great way to get people involved. Ice breakers such as speed networking warm people up quickly.

Virtual formats have their own techniques for connecting speakers with the audience. Consider incorporating custom polls, the Zoom “hand raise,” and breakout rooms — but be careful these don’t interrupt the flow of the speaker’s presentation.

3. Get participants in their bodies

The traditional format for presentations — a 45-minute speech in front of a projected slide deck — is also the most boring for attendees. Never does a mind wander so far as when trying to focus on a monologue.

Encourage your speakers to ditch the PowerPoint and curate a hands-on session to get participants out of their heads and into their bodies. Ellen DeGeneres does a great job of physical audience participation with “spontaneous” dances at the start of her show. Copy her style or come up with another way to physically engage your audience, even with just a quick stretch break.

Because virtual speeches are more susceptible to distractions than live presentations, keeping an audience focused can be even more challenging. For this audience, brevity is often key — keep each section or breakout brief, and keep things moving along. Your audience will feel the difference.

4. Use tech tools to create conversations

Technology is one way to include audience members who are shy about raising their hands to speak up. It can also create new layers of engagement aside from verbal conversation.

Certain apps allow presenters to conduct live polling of your audience. Presenters ask a question, and participants answer via their mobile devices or through a streaming service, such as Zoom, if your event includes a virtual component. You then display the results in real-time on a screen (on stage or virtually). Or curate Q&As where the audience members type in their questions. Speakers choose the best ones to answer live — a digital equivalent to a “fireside chat.” It might be a good idea to prepare some Q’s for your Q&A beforehand, so if the audience is shy, you are ready to get the session going right away.

With dedicated hashtags specific to your event, you can also take advantage of how most people interact these days: on social media. A social media display can highlight real-time Twitter posts by your attendees to encourage social interaction live from your event.

5. Come up with prompts that inspire audience participation

Looking directly at a random audience member and asking her a direct question might backfire. Ask questions people want to answer, without making them feel like they’re on the spot. Ask questions that spark stories, like “Has anyone had a bad experience with social media they’d like to share?”

Sometimes, a question can be so general that it’s actually rhetorical: “Who remembers their first day of junior high?” Even if you don’t expect a response, questions like this get the audience to reflect, which draws them in. Or reward participants with freebies like t-shirts or coffee gift cards and watch the questions pour in. Consider giving your audience prompts prior to the event to allow them to process their response — when it’s time for questions, they’ll be primed to share.

6. Plan for all possible responses

When you create audience response events, there’s always a risk you’ll hear answers you didn’t count on. Or, worse, no one will volunteer to raise their hand or share.

Coach your speakers to react quickly when they don’t get the response they expected. Having a ready answer for questions that might stump the audience can be effective. Likewise, a simple, self-effacing quip works wonders, relaxing the audience and revealing an appealing self-confidence at the same time.

7. Consider the ambiance

Believe it or not, the environment of your venue plays a part in how much audience members are willing to participate. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs describes the elements necessary for human health and happiness, starting with the basics: food, water, and warmth.

It might seem silly, but researchers have proven that people perform better when these basic needs are appropriately met. Make sure the room is warm (but not so warm people fall asleep), and that snacks and water are readily available. Once they’re comfortable, people are more likely to relax and open up.

Of course, for virtual events, the concerns have less to do with the physical ambiance but have a lot to do with the online environment. It’s a good idea to alert virtual attendees that the event will include audience interaction and that cameras will be turned on — you don’t want to broadcast someone who isn’t ready for it! If your audience has been muted for the entire presentation, then they will be less likely to want to engage. While it is impractical to include all audience members in a visual, online presentation, it does emphasize how important it can be to engage your virtual audience as much as possible, since the format inherently create some distance.

8. Get their feedback

Real-time polling apps have another purpose: to get speaker feedback while it’s still fresh in people’s minds. You can also use an email survey app like SurveyMonkey to ask participants for feedback shortly after your event concludes.

With a combination of strategic planning and in-the-moment action, you can avoid monologues and inspire audience participation.

Download our pre-event checklist to reduce stress and better prepare your presenters. And make your event virtual — including an online element has become a routine part of event engagement strategy.