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Audience Engagement: The Real Story

Are polls really what event organizers actually want?

7
minute read
Published on
April 8, 2024
Information Source: AAE Speakers | Speakers Industry Benchmark Report

We’ve heard it so many times before. 

That one loaded word that often comes up in video conferences with event planners or meetings with speakers bureaus.

“We’re looking for a really engaging opening keynote speaker.” 

Or…

“Our biggest goal is for this year’s event to be more engaging and more memorable than our events in the past.” 

Maybe you immediately start thinking about new ways to make your keynote more engaging. Or you might already have a few tricks up your sleeve for incredible audience interaction. 

But what does “engagement” really mean?

You’ve lived it yourself, and the statistics confirm this common request. 

Event organizers want one thing more than anything when they’re searching for a keynote speaker—audience engagement. 

According to the 2024 Speaking Industry Benchmark Report, event organizers value this even more than providing an educational presentation, and more than an affordable speaker fee.

Over 300 event organizers were surveyed about their top priorities when looking for the right speaker for their event. Things like providing return on investment to stakeholders, audience retention, and shaping brand image ranked low. 

And session ratings and positive reviews? Turns out less than 25% of event planners consider those a big priority. 

The majority of event planners, 67% of them according to this survey, value audience engagement most when deciding on what speaker to choose for their event. 

Event planners crave audience engagement. 

But, as speakers, we haven’t defined what audience engagement actually means. 

But what exactly is “engagement”?

Some speakers might see those statistics about audience engagement and think they need to add more audience interaction to their speech. They’ll add a polling tool, ask more questions, throw in some props, and try to somehow connect more with their audience. 

And while these ideas might work for audience interaction, most of the time they won’t work for true audience engagement. And they probably won’t turn you into an event-organizer favorite. 

You see, audience engagement is a loaded term. It can mean different things to different people. It doesn’t necessarily mean audience “interaction.” To make sure you and the event planner have the same understanding of engagement, here’s the definition: 

Engagement means to occupy, attract, or involve someone's attention or interest.

When event organizers say they want a speaker who can engage their audience, they are talking about someone who can capture their attention, involve them in the speech, and occupy their mind with new ideas and concepts. 

Their idea of “audience engagement” is a speaker who keeps their audience on the edge of their seats—for their entire presentation. 

This is a much more passive type of engagement. Most of the time, the audience isn’t actually directly interacting with the speaker. 

Speakers who master this type of passive engagement can capture their audience’s attention and hold it for their entire speech. And they do it without asking their audience to raise their hands, write down their thoughts, or participate in a group discussion. 

Interaction vs. Engagement

You see, audience interaction and audience engagement are two different things. 

Audience interaction is when you inspire your audience to participate in some aspect of your performance—it can be an action as small as raising a hand or repeating a phrase or as big as volunteering to come on stage. 

Most speakers think this is what event organizers want. And there are even many event planners who mistakenly ask for these types of interactions. 

They confuse active engagement with activity and participation. 

The result? Speakers who change their entire presentation to include (and overuse) polling technology and other audience interaction techniques. Audiences quickly get bored with the same old breakout rooms, juvenile participation activities, and “innovative” presentation technology. 

Activity doesn’t necessarily equal engagement. Many audience members can participate in polls and comment in breakout rooms while at the same time be mentally checked out and uninterested.

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engage your audience with a transformational experience.
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Audience engagement is when you connect with, entertain, and inspire your audience to feel, think, and act differently because of the transformational experience you create for them. 

It takes much more preparation than just adding a poll question to your speech, throwing in a few props, or creating a funny Kahoot. 

The type of engagement we’re talking about might seem passive—your audience isn’t moving or interacting with each other or with you—but they are actively listening and actively engaged with your performance and your message. 

This is what event organizers rave about. This is what your audience will remember. This is what will make your speech referable and earn you new gigs every time you give it. 

How to truly engage your audience

This type of audience engagement only happens when you carefully plan, rehearse, and deliver hundreds of entertaining, enlightening, and contrasting moments throughout your performance. 

To keep your audience truly engaged for the full length of your presentation, there are three important elements you can add to your performance.  

First, a signature bit. 

If there’s one thing that catapults you from being a good speaker to becoming an engaging, sought-after performer, it’s your signature bit. 

A signature bit is a theatrical yet educational piece of content that drives your core message home. It’s theatrical, memorable, and repeatable. And it’s uniquely yours. 

What makes a signature bit so powerful and so engaging is that it shows your audience your big idea in an unforgettable way. Often, what you tell your audience just doesn’t stick. The solution is showing them. And a signature bit can show your audience better than almost anything else. 

It can be a story only you can perform, a combination of music, art, or dance that connects with your message, or even an audience interaction bit you’ve mastered. 

Take Bobby McFerrin for example. The 10-time Grammy Award winner shows his audience the power of the pentatonic scale by jumping on imaginary piano keys while the audience sings the notes. 

It’s unforgettable… actively engaging… and it’s uniquely his. 

When you add a unique signature bit to your performance, it captures your audience’s attention, piques their interest, and leaves a lasting impression in their minds. 

Second, a contextual model.

To attract your audience’s interest, you need to show them your core message in an easy-to-understand way. In a way that makes them want to remember it and share it. 

You can do all that (and more) with a contextual model. 

A contextual model is a simplified description of an idea or concept designed to clarify something complicated. It can be a chart, a diagram, or even a drawing. 

Keynote speaker and partner at HEROIC, Andrew Davis excels at creating powerful, simple, and engaging contextual models. 

He created this one to show that the more famous the speaker, the fewer words they need for their introduction. 

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Andrew Davis’s Intro Script Paradox Conceptual Model

When you show your audience your contextual model, they whip out their phones to take a picture, quickly copy it into their notebooks, and later share it on social media.  

Your contextual model engages your audience because it changes the way they see the world. It’s easy to understand yet communicates a nuanced, complex idea. It’s thought-provoking and attention-grabbing. 

Third, a theatrical experience.

To truly occupy your audience’s interest for the duration of your speech, you need to craft, rehearse, and deliver hundreds of theatrical moments. 

Your speech can’t be just a speech, it needs to be a captivating performance. Now, that doesn’t mean putting on clown shoes or bursting into song on stage (although both of those things could work in different situations). 

A theatrical performance is a combination of dynamic and contrasting moments that focus on making the audience feel a certain way. 

When you can consistently and reliably make your audience feel what you want them to feel because of your actions on stage, you’ve mastered audience engagement. 

Now, crafting a theatrical performance doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hours and hours of rehearsal (and lots of iteration). It takes courage, and it takes consistent effort. But when you know how to give a theatrical experience, you’ll be able to truly, authentically, and masterfully engage any and every audience. 

Craft a truly engaging performance.  

When you add these three essential elements to your performance, you’ll be able to avoid the typical juvenile, gimmicky, and overused audience interaction techniques. You’ll be able to show your audience the power of your message and inspire them to feel, think, and act differently. You’ll keep them entertained and engaged for every second of your speech. 

Now, there’s no one-size-fits-all for this type of transformative audience engagement. What works for one speech might not work for another. 

But there are reliable and repeatable steps you can take to craft a truly engaging performance. When you put them into practice, you’ll be able to attract your audience’s interest and occupy their attention for your entire performance. 

So next time you’re talking with an event organizer and they mention audience engagement, remember that they’re not talking about polls, Q&A sessions, or interactive activities. 

Most of the time, you don’t need to add new active engagement ideas to your speech to please them. When you focus on refining your performance and mastering the art of passive engagement, you’ll be able to capture and hold your audience’s attention for your entire presentation. 

And your event organizers will jump for joy because your speech has inspired truly authentic audience engagement… which is exactly what they want. 

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Audience engagement is when you connect with, entertain, and inspire your audience to feel, think, and act differently because of the transformational experience you create for them. 

It takes much more preparation than just adding a poll question to your speech, throwing in a few props, or creating a funny Kahoot. 

The type of engagement we’re talking about might seem passive—your audience isn’t moving or interacting with each other or with you—but they are actively listening and actively engaged with your performance and your message. 

This is what event organizers rave about. This is what your audience will remember. This is what will make your speech referable and earn you new gigs every time you give it. 

How to truly engage your audience

This type of audience engagement only happens when you carefully plan, rehearse, and deliver hundreds of entertaining, enlightening, and contrasting moments throughout your performance. 

To keep your audience truly engaged for the full length of your presentation, there are three important elements you can add to your performance.  

First, a signature bit. 

If there’s one thing that catapults you from being a good speaker to becoming an engaging, sought-after performer, it’s your signature bit. 

A signature bit is a theatrical yet educational piece of content that drives your core message home. It’s theatrical, memorable, and repeatable. And it’s uniquely yours. 

What makes a signature bit so powerful and so engaging is that it shows your audience your big idea in an unforgettable way. Often, what you tell your audience just doesn’t stick. The solution is showing them. And a signature bit can show your audience better than almost anything else. 

It can be a story only you can perform, a combination of music, art, or dance that connects with your message, or even an audience interaction bit you’ve mastered. 

Take Bobby McFerrin for example. The 10-time Grammy Award winner shows his audience the power of the pentatonic scale by jumping on imaginary piano keys while the audience sings the notes. 

It’s unforgettable… actively engaging… and it’s uniquely his. 

When you add a unique signature bit to your performance, it captures your audience’s attention, piques their interest, and leaves a lasting impression in their minds. 

Second, a contextual model.

To attract your audience’s interest, you need to show them your core message in an easy-to-understand way. In a way that makes them want to remember it and share it. 

You can do all that (and more) with a contextual model. 

A contextual model is a simplified description of an idea or concept designed to clarify something complicated. It can be a chart, a diagram, or even a drawing. 

Keynote speaker and partner at HEROIC, Andrew Davis excels at creating powerful, simple, and engaging contextual models. 

He created this one to show that the more famous the speaker, the fewer words they need for their introduction. 

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When you show your audience your contextual model, they whip out their phones to take a picture, quickly copy it into their notebooks, and later share it on social media.  

Your contextual model engages your audience because it changes the way they see the world. It’s easy to understand yet communicates a nuanced, complex idea. It’s thought-provoking and attention-grabbing. 

Third, a theatrical experience.

To truly occupy your audience’s interest for the duration of your speech, you need to craft, rehearse, and deliver hundreds of theatrical moments. 

Your speech can’t be just a speech, it needs to be a captivating performance. Now, that doesn’t mean putting on clown shoes or bursting into song on stage (although both of those things could work in different situations). 

A theatrical performance is a combination of dynamic and contrasting moments that focus on making the audience feel a certain way. 

When you can consistently and reliably make your audience feel what you want them to feel because of your actions on stage, you’ve mastered audience engagement. 

Now, crafting a theatrical performance doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hours and hours of rehearsal (and lots of iteration). It takes courage, and it takes consistent effort. But when you know how to give a theatrical experience, you’ll be able to truly, authentically, and masterfully engage any and every audience. 

Craft a truly engaging performance.  

When you add these three essential elements to your performance, you’ll be able to avoid the typical juvenile, gimmicky, and overused audience interaction techniques. You’ll be able to show your audience the power of your message and inspire them to feel, think, and act differently. You’ll keep them entertained and engaged for every second of your speech. 

Now, there’s no one-size-fits-all for this type of transformative audience engagement. What works for one speech might not work for another. 

But there are reliable and repeatable steps you can take to craft a truly engaging performance. When you put them into practice, you’ll be able to attract your audience’s interest and occupy their attention for your entire performance. 

So next time you’re talking with an event organizer and they mention audience engagement, remember that they’re not talking about polls, Q&A sessions, or interactive activities. 

Most of the time, you don’t need to add new active engagement ideas to your speech to please them. When you focus on refining your performance and mastering the art of passive engagement, you’ll be able to capture and hold your audience’s attention for your entire presentation. 

And your event organizers will jump for joy because your speech has inspired truly authentic audience engagement… which is exactly what they want. 

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