Audience Interaction in your Conference Talks
Bring the audience into your conference talk...if you dare.
Somewhere on the web is the advice to make your talk “interactive” and get the audience involved. And maybe to take questions too.
Asking questions and taking questions can be good feedback…as long as you do it right.
Note: This applies to technical conference talks, mostly, since that’s the kind that I attend; YMMV.
Polling the Audience
Here’s a tip for any audience interaction: if the talk were recorded, does it still work? With just audio, how does it sound? How does it look on video?
I was at a talk once that felt like a one-way survey: Who’s heard of this brand? Who likes this product? Who’s used this API? And then who’s used that in combination with this other thing? After question five, people stopped putting their hands up.
In moderation, polling the audience is OK. Here’s how you do it:
Ask the question. “Who here has been on a llama ride in the desert?”
Raise your own hand. Pause for people to raise their hands too.
Look around and do a quick count
Give the report. “OK, thank you. Around ten people, which is average for a group this size…”
See what I did there? Ask a clear question. Wait. Tell the audience the results.
This looks good on video and also makes sense in an audio-only recording.
Why raise your own hand? If you’re asking an even slightly embarrassing question (“who hasn’t heard of latest technology X?”), raising your hand—even if that’s not your actual answer—makes people less shy.
And remember, your audience is interested in results too; you’re the one at the front of the room who can see all the hands! They’re counting on you to report the numbers.
Questions Done Right
I’ll be honest: I usually hate questions at the end of talks.
Most of the time, it becomes a conversation about some arcane specific thing between the speaker and some random audience member. It’s like being forced to sit and listen quietly to a private conversation between two people. The audience starts dozing off or checking Twitter.
I’d rather say, “I’d love to chat with you outside if you have questions for me, or I’ll be here for the rest of the conference. I’m very friendly, so please come and say hello and we can talk!”
You’ll wrap up a bit early and the audience will appreciate the time to go to the bathroom, get some coffee, check email; the next speaker can start getting set up; those who really have a pressing question will rush to the front to ask you. Everyone wins!
If you must have questions for whatever reason — the conference requires it, you’re really short on material — say something like this:
“Are there any questions that would be interesting for the entire group?”
Right there, those magic words will make your audience filter their set of questions. “No,” they’ll think, “this question is in fact not interesting to a wide audience. I will not ask it and make everyone in this room hear about this.”
If someone still starts out like, “in my app Foo, I have a class
Bar where I sometimes use its convenience initializer, and then in low-memory conditions when it calls my private API, it…” — oh my goodness, please stop them there. Then you say: “that sounds like an interesting case specific to your app; how about we step outside and chat for a few minutes about it after this session? Yes? Good. Any other questions that would be interesting for the entire group?”
Answers Done Right
Aim to answer the question in 30 seconds. That’s a pretty long time — if you don’t believe me, set a timer for 30 seconds and read some documentation out loud.
When you’re up on stage and under pressure to answer, it’s easy to ramble. If you practice 30-second answers and get a feel for how much content fits within that time, it’ll help you keep your answers to-the-point and concise even if you take a bit longer to answer.
If you find you have a ton to say based on a single question, make a note and then turn that into another talk or blog post. More content!
OK, here’s what you do to answer a question:
Repeat the question so everyone can hear and it makes it onto the recording. You can rephrase the question slightly too, to make it clearer.
Answer the question. If you don’t know the answer, just say you don’t know and move on.
When you stop talking, take a moment and think about the original question. Do you even remember the question? Did you answer it? If not, get clarification if required and answer it in ten seconds, then immediately shut up.
Nothing is worse than being in the audience and hearing an answer without having heard the question first. Please please please, don’t forget to repeat the question. The audience and conference organizers will love you for it.
As for step 3: think of politicians who have answers in mind and will make talking-point statements when asked a question. Don’t do this—keep focused on the question and make sure you’ve answered it.
Ultimately, technical talks aren’t theatre and breaking the fourth wall isn’t some shocking thing. Go ahead and bring the audience into your talk.
Just remember: content is king! People chose to come to your talk; the best audience interaction you could hope for is to prepare some amazing content, blow their minds, and let them tweet up a storm to make their followers jealous they weren’t there to experience your brilliance first-hand. 💥