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8 Ways to Increase Audience Participation

How you can grab their attention without having to resort to fire-eaters or dancing horses.

Planning a successful event is hard enough without having to worry about how presenters are going to consistently sustain interest and buzz for large and often diverse audiences over extended timeframes. Thankfully, you don’t have to schedule 87 networking breaks, provide each registered guest a custom coffee IV drip, or hire fire-eaters and dancing horses to keep attention and conversation levels consistently high.

Here are eight ways you can drive more audience interest, enthusiasm, and participation at your events.

1. Invite advance contributions. Long before delivering live programs, invite your audience to participate via online channels by submitting questions, suggestions, comments, and feedback. Use their submissions to decide which trending topics to feature in your program, and send their input to your experts to incorporate into their presentations. You also can include video reels filled with testimonials, and insights and real-world frontline commentary, in your supporting materials. These are great ways to heighten empathy, boost audience engagement, and give attendees the opportunity to be heard.

2. Request creative input. Want to better gain organization-wide support for your initiatives and programs? Ask participants to submit photos, slideshows, video commentary—all of which you can easily post to your event’s website, social networks, and online communities to raise audience interest and involvement. Crowdsourcing (read: requesting creative contributions from your community) can also be a powerful way to invite attendee participation, bolster internal resources, and heighten contributors’ emotional investment and takeaways. Consider this: “Submit your best designs for our new fundraising campaign’s logo: Winners will be featured in our national ad spot!” Not only can such techniques improve contribution rates, they also can ensure that messages resonate better and hit closer to home, since they come straight from your audience’s peers.

3. Crunch the numbers. Partner with your speakers and/or sponsors to conduct surveys, polls, and studies, or provide audience questionnaires, both prior to and during your event—not just after presentations are delivered. Use that research and input to craft more insightful programs, and incorporate it into call-and-response segments. You can even use the findings as unique value-adds: “All who attend will receive a copy of our 2018 industry awareness survey!” Data collected prior to, at, or following your event can further be used as part of press releases, white papers, and other novel takeaways—all built by and for attendees.

4. Surprise and engage. Since when in the connected age does conversation work one way? Rather than delivering canned 60-minute speeches, consider stopping at regular, preset intervals during presentations to invite audience questions, conduct informal polls, or source offstage input—all techniques that can help re-ignite interest and discussion. Reaching out to known experts in attendance (“I see marketing VP Jane Smith is here today: Jane, what challenges do you see this trend presenting?”) also can help heighten a sense of dynamism and engagement. Talking with an audience, not simply at it, makes for more must-see sessions, and helps enhance participation, engagement, and retention rates.

5. Add guest appearances. Want to really shake things up? Use videoconferencing services, such as Google+’s excellent Hangouts feature, to source live input from surprise guests wherever high-speed Internet connections are available. Top authorities, including notable community members and organizational leadership, can pay unexpected visits that keep your audience members on the edge of their seats. You also can beam in thoughts, opinions, and live updates from events occurring simultaneously in other parts of the world. The next time international sales, marketing, or management teams convene at distant locations, consider using these platforms to bring them all closer together—and illustrate your organization’s global impact.

6. Promote running commentary. Courtesy of online connectivity, every smartphone-, tablet-, and laptop-wielding audience member is now a potential broadcast announcer or program participant. Consider projecting running streams of questions and feedback on screens for speakers and audience members to see throughout events, courtesy of Twitter and other services, to help guide ongoing discussion. You also can give attendees tools, links, and access to share live blog streams, chats, and event highlights on their own websites or social channels, helping them to promote and drive conversation around presentations as they unfold—and allowing your efforts to reach a wider target audience. Invite sharing, streaming, and ongoing online discussion, and you instantly boost interactivity and impact.

7. Better leverage speakers. With so many hard-to-pin-down experts on site and available for audiences to engage with, why limit their exchanges to cookie-cutter keynotes? Question-and-answer sessions, meet-and-greets, book signings, breakout sessions, and panel appearances can all help attendees enjoy further access to these luminaries. Have a smartphone or spare audio recorder handy as well? You know what they say about free press—make a point of creating and archiving film or podcast clips to share online to boot. Consider asking speakers to share each of these assets, and additional insights, with their own audiences too. You will increase your reach, add value for viewers no matter which channel they discover you through, and potentially generate more publicity opportunities for your event and organization.

8. Create unique takeaways. Everyone loves seeing his/her name in lights. A video camera that lets you capture and record onsite learning and audience insights or reactions can be an event planner’s best friend—always keep one handy. Make a point of interviewing attendees to get their thoughts on programs or key takeaways, and set aside space where they can share stories or expert tips, hints, and advice on primary event topics. You can then edit the material into standalone segments or short packages (“5 Reasons Great Customer Service Matters”) for sharing during or after the gathering via YouTube, DVD, and video learning archives. You also can transcribe the contributions for use in newsletters, ebooks, and blog posts that help highlight your community all year long.

Professional speaker Scott Steinberg is a trends expert and futurist, and the bestselling author of Make Change Work for You: 10 Ways to Future-Proof Yourself, Fearlessly Innovate, and Succeed Despite Uncertainty, The Business Etiquette Bible and Millennial Marketing: Bridging the Generation Gap. The founder of travel + hospitality trends magazine SELECT: Your City’s Secrets Unlocked™, and host of "Next Up on NewsWatch," his website is www.AKeynoteSpeaker.com.

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