The dos and don’ts of audience engagement

By Stephanie Bradshaw

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

I recently gave up two precious hours on a Sunday afternoon to attend a personal-development course in the city.

As I arrived, I saw that 12 chairs had been carefully positioned in a wide circle at the centre of the training room.

I took my seat among the other nervous participants who seemed, like me, to understand that the seating arrangement could only mean one thing: we would be expected to engage with each other.

We all sat expectant and a little fidgety, waiting for the session to start.

What exactly did our teacher have in mind?

As someone who works on lots of events, I understand (in theory) that speaking ‘at’ people is an old-fashioned approach to education. To instill maximum retention and understanding, they say, it’s much better to involve your audience in the process.

But sitting on the other side of the fence for a change, I experienced the deep feeling of trepidation that must come with knowing you’re going to be called on to contribute… and I wasn’t sure I liked it.

The teacher finally kicked things off by asking one of us – a shy, very embarrassed young man – to sit in the centre of the ‘circle’, where he soon became the subject of an elaborate demonstration.

The immediate result was that everyone in the room took an emotional step back.

It wasn’t a great way to begin, and the negative impact of this strangely uncomfortable and nerve-wracking approach resonated for the rest of the session.

Engaging an audience, whether in the corporate, education or entertainment world, has to be done right, with sensitivity to the participants’ comfort levels.

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