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by Shimon Avish | May 13, 2014

We hear a lot about audience engagement being so important these days, since meeting attendees expect more from their speakers than the standard brain dump of days gone by. Audiences want to acquire knowledge to help them solve their day-to-day problems. That’s why they take time away from the office and spend a considerable amount to attend a meeting.

I have been brain dumping on my audiences about strategic meetings management for the past 14 years, but after reading so much about audience engagement, I decided to try something very different during my 2014 Pharma Forum speaking engagement this past March. Rather than droning on for 45 minutes about the criticality of managing the risks associated with corporate meetings and events, I decided to adopt a facilitator vs. presenter perspective. In practice, this meant I created a session framework that would allow my audience to educate themselves about these risks and mitigation strategies, with only gentle nudging from me.

To be clear: Presenters present, but facilitators facilitate. So as I began to noodle around the differences between the two, I had my first aha moment -- no formal presentation, no five-by-five bullet points, no laser pointers. Instead, it would be just me and my magnetic personality up there keeping the audience in the throes of delight with just my wisdom. What I needed to do to be successful was to let my audience discover the same knowledge I had over a period of years, but in a few short minutes.

The Socratic Method to the Rescue!

The Socratic Method is a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. -- Wikipedia

Through the asking and answering of questions, I needed the audience to arrive at their own conclusions about risk and mitigation strategies for meetings. But how could I possibly cover all the material of this complex subject in 45 minutes using the labor-intensive Socratic Method? I took another page out of the engagement handbook: I told stories. By telling stories crafted to highlight particular risks, I was able to tease out the risks I wanted to focus on.

But I was still worried that we might not get to all the material if our discussion went down a rat hole, and I didn’t want to cheat the audience out of everything they came to learn, so I used one last trick. At the beginning of the session I presented a very high-level framework of risk that I used to frame the rest of the discussion. That way the audience knew how much material remained to be covered, and it kept the discussions moving.

Bringing It All Together

So how did this work in practice?

First I explained the rules of the game, including the fact that I had not prepared a completed presentation because we were going to build it together.

Then I shared a story with them.

Next they identified what category of risk it was, based on the framework I provided.

Then they decided if there were any other similar risks types in the overall risk category.

Then we brainstormed risk-mitigation strategies.

All the risks and mitigation strategies were then captured in the document.

The completed presentation was provided to all audience members.

How the Audience Responded

What did the audience members think of this different approach to an educational session? Audience participation was very high during the session, with at least 75 percent of the attendees participating in the discussion. After the session I was able to speak to approximately 10 audience members, and uniformly they liked the way the session went. They felt they had learned a lot and appreciated the discovery process, vs. being spoon-fed by me.

And how did I feel about it? Even though I didn’t have to prepare a full presentation, I ultimately had to work much harder for this session than I ever did before. My preparation had to be impeccable, because I couldn’t rely on my slides to remind me what to say next. I also had to make sure that I conveyed all the information I had planned to, while relying on the audience to provide the content. This means that during the discussions I was very busy making sure that the audience gave me all the bullet points I needed, as if I had developed them myself. This required constant nudging through leading questions, and checking against the checklist in my mind to make sure we covered everything.

In summary, I would say I was very gratified that the audience liked the approach, I was mentally exhausted from the effort, and I committed to myself as I sat quietly recovering after the session that all my speaking engagements in the future would be run this way.

Shimon Avish is a Strategic Meetings Management consultant, who specializing in helping companies assess, design, and implement their meetings programs to gain control over spend and the risks associated with corporate meetings and events.  He can be reached at shimon@smmconsulting.com, and more of his articles can be found at smmconsulting.com.